This Thing in My Hand


We had to eat lunch out today because of a hurried schedule. Just my son and I, little doubt existed where we’d wind up eating: some fast food joint that stuffs a toy into their kids meal.

My problem comes from knowing how those toys come to be.

At one time, middle-class Americans made those toys. Now they’re made by very young adults (and in most cases, children, as some estimates say up to 250 million children between five and fourteen-years-old slave away) in factories in countries many Americans can’t find on a map. The factory owners house them in barracks where they sleep head to toe. They work twelve to sixteen hour days, seven days a week, 365 days a year, and even on their limited breaks are typically not allowed to venture off the factory property without supervision. In truth, they have nowhere else to go. Worst of all, if we found the kind of coinage lying on the street that those workers make as their hourly rate, we’d think it not worth the risk to bend over.

While some may say that a few cents on the dollar goes a long way in one of those countries, Click image to read more...most of those factory workers have to pay for their food and lodging in the factory barracks. That rent may equal their pay.

They are 21st century indentured servants.

Some of these workers drop dead from overwork. They live in constant fear they may get ill, won’t be able to keep up, and will be replaced. We in the West may talk about failure not being an option, but these poor unfortunates live it.

They have no voice.

They have nowhere to turn.

They have no future.

They have no hope.

I’ve talked to missionaries who say that this kind of factory work may be the one thing that will stymie the revival going on in many of those lands.

Think about that for a second. So my kid and yours can have a toy in their kids meal. A toy they play with for fifteen minutes before it’s buried under a sea of other forgotten toys in an overflowing chest.

And it’s not just kids’ toys. It’s grownups’ “toys,” too.

Anyone out there heard a sermon on this lately? Anyone? Bueller?

I’m not a stupid person. I can do a reasonably good job positioning Ivory Coast, Togo, Sierra Leone, Gambia and the rest of eastern sub-Saharan Africa in their proper positions along the coastline. Singapore and Sri Lanka? Easy.

But I was stumped when I noticed a pair of pants I wore to church said “Made in Macau.” Yeah, I’d heard of it, and could guess it was probably in the Pacific somewhere, but that’s as close as I got.

If I don’t know where Macau is, do I really care to know that some fifteen-year-old girl in a 95 degree sweathouse making fourteen cents an hour during her thirteen-hour day stitched the pants I wore to church to worship God?

You see, our excess costs something. We may never see where the thing in our hands was made or the semi-slave who made it, but God does.

It’s devilishly hard to say no to one more bauble, isn’t it? Large multinational corporations (who play shell games with their headquarters’ addresses to avoid having to answer for the way they treat that 15-year-old Macau girl) pride themselves on the fact that you and I don’t really care where it came from or how, just so long as we can get it cheap. And get it in neverending quantities.

I don’t sleep well at night much anymore. These things trouble me. I think they should trouble all of us. But they don’t. Not really. Out of sight, out of mind.

I won’t go into how all this damages the United States economically in the long run. That’s another post. But I do want us to think about our Christian responsibility to stand for justice. If our rampant materialism creates injustice, then we Christians should be on the forefront of speaking against it.

I look around at all I have and anymore it just sickens me to know that most of it got into my hands in a circuitous route that should have me weeping at who did what to whom and how. I’m going to have to answer for that some day.

This is why I’m trying to live with less. I won’t buy something unless I’m replacing what wore out. And even then, some items I simply won’t replace. I’m going to try to buy American if possible, to keep jobs in a country that still has some labor laws to protect people. If I need to buy two pairs of shoes, I’ll forgo one pair if it means spending a bit more to keep my neighbor from losing his job. Maybe that will send a message to those corporations paying slave wages in some country I can’t place on the map.

As Christians, we need to be more vocal about justice in work. I’ve posted quite a bit about unjust work situations in this country, but it’s even worse overseas. Our materialism makes it worse. For this reason, we can’t keep silent.

Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered.
—Proverbs 21:13

17 thoughts on “This Thing in My Hand

  1. Dan- I think you know my take on this…and you are absolutely right on the mark regarding the Christian approach to exploitation. We should speak out about it, but more than that, we need to be wise consumers and make sure we are not causing exploitation.

    I know people will say that it will happen anyways, but that is no excuse to be lazy over-consumers. How will we answer the dead and dying? If you could walk through a Bangledesh sweatshop, could you still buy those $14.97 pants off the rack at Wal-Mart? 20/20 did a report not too long ago about that very thing. In one segment they asked a woman if she would be willing to pay $1 more in order to pay the women who made a blouse more. She said no. She had expenses too, she was on a tight budget. She needed cheap clothes, and didn’t care how much the people who made it got.

    Christians need to be different.

    • David,

      Being different is hard, though. We’ve all had our wages driven down so that shopping in WalMart is about what we can afford. I can make a few changes in my buying, but I can’t make them all. Until the poisonous business atmosphere in this country changes, what do we do?

      • I believe that open trade improves lives all around the world. but like Naomi noticed “behold unfettered capitalism.” Capitalism is only as good as the practitioners. So again, what we come down to is living a Christ-filled life, where Christ makes your purchasing decisions.

        Most of our consumerism is not the result of rational thought, but rather a response to felt need, don’t you think?

        Maybe we just need to think a little more, ponder in our hearts the actions we take on a daily basis. So many of our decisions are based on the habit of existence. We’re not acting on knowledge.

        So, we live Christ-filled lives, let Him lead, and others will come to know Him through His actions through us. And they will live Christ-filled lives, letting Him lead, and so on and so on. A man living a Christ filled life can’t run a sweatshop. He will desire justice, because God desires justice.

        Besides, since when did income determine the manner of life a Christian led?

        • David,

          I believe that nearly any economic system is viable IF it is moral. The problem is that stripping the morality out of them makes them “twice the child of hell.” I don’t care what anyone says, immoral capitalism is just as bad as immoral communism.

          What set capitalism apart was that it was largely championed by Christians. But now that Christians have either dropped out of the economic conversation OR applied the same robber-baron tactics in a sort of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” mantra, capitalism is shot to hell. I mean, honestly, is there any company out there NOT trying to turn a quick buck at someone else’s expense?

          • Selling for a profit is not evil, it is good stewardship. We, as Christians, do need to grow in what we do for the poor and encourage more social activism against injustices in the third world, which is not far from what our own country experienced nearly a century ago. Hard work, prosperity and caring for the poor or oppressed can go hand in hand.

            • HPJ,

              When my mother was dying of brain cancer, she got put on a once daily pill that cost $225 per pill! I don’t care what anyone says, that’s simply gouging people. And before anyone labels me hateful toward the pharmaceutical industry, my father worked in it for 30+ years.

              Price gouging isn’t good stewardship. Nor is selling out American workers paid at $20/hr. to pay someone in Pakistan one-fortieth that wage (and treat them like cattle at the same time). It’s simply greed.

              This whole idea that workers can be treated like nameless clones is abhorrent. The very name “Human Resources Department” is a slap in my face and yours. Guys like Jack Welch of GE who pioneered laying off lower-level workers while the upper-level guys quintupled their incomes are going to face a cruel judgment day.

  2. Cathy

    The Bible says the love of money is the root of all evil…for me the word “greed” sums up the love of money. Greed is what is driving our economy…and greed is what will destroy us as a nation.

    The corporate mentality is that “more” must be realized this year than last year…even if last year’s profit was astronomical. How much is enough? Rockefeller’s answer was “just a little more”. And that too is where we are as a nation: more, more, more….

    When I was in elementary school I read a statement in a history class that did not make sense at the time…why it stuck in in my mind I do not know. The statement was a comment by a Frenchman named d’Tocqueville (I’m not sure if the spelling is correct…) He said in observation of our system of capitalism, that as long as American was “good” (as in morally good) she would be “great”, but that when she ceased to be “good”, she’d cease to be “great”.

    When I became a Christian many years later, I finally understood what the Frenchman meant…and he was so right.

    We are ceasing to be “great” as a nation because we no longer are “good”…we do not care about others…we are not loving our neighbor as ourself. The Scripture says the law and the prophets hangs on these two: love God and love neighbor as self.

    Granted we cannot solve the problems of every country or situation. But we can take responsibility for our Jerusalem…addressing situations as they arise, speaking out againt wrong, withstanding it, and being part of the solution.

  3. Suzanne

    Have you been in “Christian” bookstore lately? I try to avoid them. Shelves full of cheap trinkets made in some foreign country. Some poor soul in some far away land making Jesus candles or cross encrusted bookmarks or tee shirts with “Jesus is my homeboy” on them just to subsist. What a message that sends!

  4. Perhaps one of the root problems with our (responsible Christians) conflictedness about our consumer-driven lives is that we really can’t go back to the past. We really do live in a non-agrarian, industrialized, technology-driven society. That affects us and everything around us.
    It means that for many young people entering the workforce for the first time, the only jobs available are MacBurgerBell or Wal-Ko-Mart. Impersonal contact with others, no real sense of engagement in “planting-to-harvest”, not even a living wage. Instead, their income is disposable…designed to be spent where it was earned (bit like the old company store, don’t you think?)…so there isn’t much motivation to really save. Nor is there much motivation to serve.
    And that includes only those who are fortunate enough to get a job. For most teenagers, there just aren’t enough jobs available for the inexperienced and uneducated. And manual labor has gone the way of the horse and buggy and steam locomotive.
    Most of our children have no sense of the continuity of life because they live so far from that “planting-to-harvest” cycle. Tell them to consider the ant, and they’ll look for a chemical solution instead of seeing the need to prepare for the future. They are so far removed from their food chain that they have never experienced the wonder of watching a calf being born or chicks hatching.
    Our children and grandchildren are not the only ones who suffer because of our consumer culture.
    No matter what our age, we all want the best medical care available–even at $400 a pill. Yes, that seems an immoral price (but without the profit factor, no drug company will do the R&D to make it available), and we demand the cessation of animal testing (although it does seem immoral to test this stuff on real humans, doesn’t it?). And aren’t we all a bit profit-driven ourselves when it comes to OUR wages and benefits–even though they tend to drive up the cost of the things we produce? And who hasn’t researched the wi-fi hot spots so they can piggyback onto someone else’s technology ride.
    If we could go back to the past, we could do away with those sweat shops and return to cottage industry…and lack of education…and rudimentary sanitary facilities (plague again?)…and inadequate cheap medical care…and…become self-sustaining, respectable Christians.
    But, I fear we can’t go back to that. Who would be the first to give up his laptop and ipod? Who will deny himself medical care for sake of conscience? Who will petition their union to demand fewer wages and benefits so that others can buy American-made products?
    I guess I will just have to live responsibly in each area as I become aware of it.

    • Kat,

      I believe we can go back. Anyone who wants to go back has the opportunity to make a dent. If enough of us make a dent, things WILL change for the better.

      Christians should be supporting local/regional economies. We should be rejecting a dependency culture in which we cannot support ourselves. Whenever I hear hardcore homeschoolers arrogantly trumpeting that they’re giving their kids a biblical education, I respond, “So you’re teaching them animal husbandry and plant propagation?” That usually shuts them up. In truth, if we aren’t teaching our kids those things, then all we’re doing is teaching them to be dependent on a system that will ultimately grind them up. That’s utter foolishness.

  5. Pingback: Harbor Church Hawaii Kai » Blog Archive » The Unhappy Side of a Happy Meal
  6. Joy

    This article is one of the topics we’ve discussed in my Sunday School class over the past several weeks. We’ve been studying “Climbing the Sycamore Tree, A Study on Choice and Simplicity” by Ann Hagmann. It has been causing us to really think about our choices and how those choices affect others in Macau and other countries. Interesting how your blog article is one of the many things dovetailing together to impact many of us at this time. Thank you!

    I agree with you. I think we can choose to live simply. I think that we can choose to be a part of a community that chooses to help one another. We’re going to try.

    baskets of blessings,

  7. Andrew Cairns

    Hi Dan,

    Macau was a former Portugese colony located about 40 miles southwest of Hong Kong. in 1999 it became one of the two Special Administrative Regions of the People’s Republic of China, along with the former British colony of Hong Kong.

    Macau was the oldest European colony in China, dating back to the 16th century, so it has a very long history of exploitation, money-grubbing and intrigue. Nowadays, it is best known for its gambling industry and casinos.

    Having been there, I can tell you that life is cheap and profit is king.

    Your observations are fabulous.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *