Who Is My Neighbor? (Community & Economics Edition)


We watched the penultimate teaching from The Truth Project this evening at church. It dealt with labor.

I found it a good teaching, showing that work can be a joy because God Himself took joy in His work. Best of all, the teaching touched on the need for Christians to support the arts and those skilled in various kinds of work.

If you’ve read here any length of time, you know I talk at great length about the intersection of Christianity and work, and definitely NOT in the traditional evangelical vein of seeing that intersection as little more than working hard to please God and starting a workplace Bible study. I try to tackle tougher issues, like economic justice issues and their impact on community.

After we convened in the café to discuss the teaching, I told my wife I would keep quiet, even though I have a great deal to say on this subject. 😉 I was facing a work-related issue even as I sat there, so I knew it would be difficult.

Twenty minutes went by.

I don’t remember exactly what triggered my silence failure, but I raised my hand to ask if I could demonstrate what I was going to say. The discussion leader looked at me and nodded.

I walked over to the wall of the café where there was a “painting” and asked folks  to imagine that I was the painter who had painted that artwork with my God-ordained gift, using the art supplies and tools I’d purchased, and devoting the cost of my labor to its creation. The pricetag was $200. Now, I also asked them to imagine that some factory in China was spewing out “art” that closely resembled mine for a cost of $20. My question: Which fellow brother and sister in Christ would buy my artwork for $200, thus supporting my God-given talent, while also keeping money within the community (and not only the local community, but the community of saints)?

One of the major points in the teaching was that people are finding less satisfaction in their work. I believe what I illustrated explains why—and much more.

Imagine that you come home to your house, which was built by the man down the street. Something your neighbor raised?You open the front door, which was fashioned by the local carpenter. You hang up the coat your mother made, then sit down at the table your next-door neighbor crafted. The plates you take out of the pantry—made by the couple around the corner—will be filled with the vegetables your farmer neighbor grew.

I look at my own home and it is filled with cheap stuff made in China that ultimately has no connection to anyone I know. It possesses no genuine community, no memories of its creator, no ties to people I see every day. And for this reason, my local community is robbed of connection.

Worse, though I claim to be a Christian who honors artisans using their God-given talents within their holy work, when was the last time I relied on someone from my church for…well, anything? Is there even one item I own that has some connection to a Christian I know?

If we want to explain why so many people feel their work lacks meaning, what better explanation than the things we produce have no connection to us or to the people who buy them? In our race to the cost bottom, have we forgotten that buying goods and services our neighbors create/raise/grow fosters community?

If the food I buy in the grocery store comes from Vietnam, and my dying to save a couple bucks puts my farmer neighbor out of business, what then is the cost to me and to my community now that he’s now without a job? Was anything gained? Or was everything lost?

To say that I was floored when folks tried to argue “well, that’s just the way it is” is an understatement. As if not one single thing we can do as Christians can fight that trend! How impotent have we become? I even heard justification for consumerism as a way to get the Gospel out to foreign lands. (Needless to say, I did not ask if getting the Gospel out to the world was worth excusing the slave trade, but then again, I’m not fond of being stoned to death by my fellows.)

How can we truly call ourselves the countercultural example to worldliness if we just shrug on this issue and claim there’s nothing we can do? How in the heck can we say with a straight face that we’re concerned about our neighbor if we refuse to buy his goods and services? How can I say that the Gospel went out because I bought some piece of crap from China, while ignoring the quality item my neighbor sold before he ended up in the breadline? What does my neighbor think of such a “gospel” when his house gets swallowed in foreclosure?

I’m not immune, either. I fail like everyone on this. I don’t always know where all my stuff comes from. But honestly, the question nags at me. (And not just because run a small farm, either.) I think at least some of the mess we’re in economically is because of our failure to deal with this very question. And I also know that the life-robbing disconnection that so many of us feel is due, in part, because the things we buy have little or nothing to do with our neighbor. Nothing in our work ties us together in mutual enterprise.

Later that evening I came home to talk with a friend about a work issue. In the process of conversation, I found out that her company farms out its document proofreading and editing to India. I laughed, especially considering my impassioned plea at church just minutes before. But trust me, that guffaw wasn’t a hearty one.

28 thoughts on “Who Is My Neighbor? (Community & Economics Edition)

  1. My younger brother gave me a cheap “Jesus Saves” coinbank a couple of Christmas seasons ago. I keep it atop my bookcase with the other religious toys he gives me. It is a ridiculous piece of “art,” but I keep it partly because the co-owner of the shop, her husband, and her two children were murdered after the turn of the New Year: tied up in their basement, throats slit, the house set on fire above them.

    • Man, Michael, what happened to those people is simply awful. I guess even a piece of kitsch is redeemable if it carries such a powerful story with it. As a device for remembering, how could it be exceeded?

  2. Incidentally, Dan, that “painting” on the wall may very well have cost $200. The original painting, painted by the perhaps now-famous artist, may be worth thousands upon thousands more.

    When a job can be outsourced to India for $3000 a year, which can command a middle-class lifestyle there, compared to paying a local $19,000 a year, which hardly makes ends meet, how can the local compete? Really? Is the work really worth another $16,000 per year?

    I found an article online about “Mechanical Turks.” You can hire people to do piecework for you. I checked it out. Twenty minutes of work for a penny. Two hours of work for five cents. The highest-paying job: $3.00 for four hours of work. It would be laughable if these people were not utterly serious. But I am sure I could go to a freelancing site and find outrageously high bids on simple tasks by delusional work-at-home fantasists.

    • Michael,

      The “India = Cheaper” thing is ironic because I just happened to price myself out against the India pool and I was 40 percent cheaper for the same work! (“Hey, big companies, are you listening?”)

      • So tell your friend to get her company to renegotiate their India contract with you. Seriously! One problem I have found with local, small, mom-and-pop operations…and I have griped about this before here…is how poorly run they are. You can’t find them, for one thing. You can’t get them on the phone, etc. I assume, esp. from reading your blog, that you run a tight shop. You should get some of that Indian contract work! Hey…maybe if you fronted yourself as an Indian company…I know, that sounds hilarious. But that just might work.

        • Michael,

          The India shop is not actually contracted; it’s part of the company. The company set it up there specifically to handle this kind of work. Fortunately, the company has some leeway on certain jobs to go outside. We’ll see.

          As for finding me, here are my listings:
          * The largest of the online Yellow pages (of which there seems to be a bazillion variations anymore as the printed versions begin to die)
          * Several online business directories
          * Google (first page, too, for most key keywords)
          * Google Business
          * Google Local
          * Google Maps
          * Most other major search engines
          * This blog
          * My business Web site
          * Several blog catalogs, both for Cerulean Sanctum and Ethereal Pen
          * Pipl
          * Facebook
          * LinkedIn
          * Spock
          * 43 Things
          * And on and on

          If someone can’t locate me (either by my name, business name, or profession), they ain’t tryin’!

    • Delusional, work-at-home, freelance fantasists?

      That sounds a little too much like the blog author! I can’t say that I’ve ever bid outrageously high on something, but I have a pretty good idea what my work is worth.

      Still, I had to stop reading through freelance writing/editing bid sites online because too many of the bidders appear to be widowed English teachers long out of academia who are looking to get a little extra dough to feed their burgeoning population of housecats. One woman bid $99 to write a 300-page technical project that required extensive research and mandated that the writer do all the layout work. No way I can compete against that. That kind of work should go for about 60 times that bid, if not 100.

  3. Good to think about. As a entrepreneur doll maker I understand some of your ideas and thoughts. I am not from a third world country but from one of the poorest counties in the US. Not a problem I can do what I do. The online community has seen and valued my work. I turn around and spend here in our town and our county.
    We farmed this land in earlier years and made it a point to always by local even if it was higher priced. Keeping the money in the community kept the community.

    • Jan,

      Online can be great, but it doesn’t foster the same kind of connections. I have not met many of my clients face-to-face. In fact, I have more out-of-state clients now than in-state (as Ohio is a war zone right now, economically). But my relationship to them does differ because they are not my neighbors, nor are they a part of my local church so that I see them all the time.

      Anyway, I think its a concept we need to think about more.

  4. Candy

    We bought a cabin a couple of years ago and expanded it into a house. A neighbor (who is an excellent carpenter) did the structural things, my husband (an HVAC mechanic) did the heating–with provision for future A/C, a former employee of ours did the plumbing, a local couple did the painting, a cousin of our son-in-law did our custom kitchen, and a brother-in-law of our daughter-in-law made the bookcases. We have a beautiful one-of-a-kind house. I don’t know that we thought about the process in the way you described above–if we had we might have sought out even more local home-building products–but after reading, I am even more glad and thankful, that we were able to use local talent!

  5. David

    When you shop at Wal-Mart, your chances of building a relationship with someone who works in the store is slim. The staff rotates constantly, and there are so many checkout stands that being able to build a relationship with your checker from week to week is doubtful.

    Back in the day…as they say… the stores were smaller and closer to home, and the staff was the same, week in and week out. It was likely they were your neighbor, you maybe even went to church with them.

    We have a far more productive work-force in the US today than 50 years ago. But at what price? We are able to buy more junk than we could, perhaps we drive better cars, live in bigger houses, eat more food.

    Studies abound showing that this society we live in is lonelier, more stressed, anxious, sleepless, and obese than ever before. Way to go productivity! For the sake of higher productivity we have sacrificed our families, neighbors, health, and souls.

    Back in the 70’s Arab oil wealth was driving up the cost of real estate all over the country. I had a Realtor friend in California who would literally be handed suitcases of cash to buy homes. He had to give it back, explaining that that was not how it was done.

    Today Chinese professionals are taking home-buying tours of the US, paying cash for $400 and $500k homes for their college age kids, or as second homes for their business trips to the US. That money came from all the stuff we buy.

    It’s ironic, actually. We buy something on credit, the money is sent to China, they send it right back by buying our debt. And we teach them to live the same soulless existence we live, day in and day out.

    • David,

      I did not have time to argue the point one of the people made last night that China was benefiting from our consumerism because it was enabling further penetration of the Gospel into that country. Actually, the big rise in Christianity in China began a decade or so BEFORE the huge influx of American consumer cash flooded that country. The rise of both coincided, so it looks as if the two are linked. I would contend they have little to do with each other, and that consumerism is actually hurting the Church in China.

      I’ve heard missionaries to China tell me that the one of the greatest threats to the revival going on there is the factory system. It forces people to work seven days a week and burns everyone out. If you get sick, you get replaced. End of story. This is making people workaholics who have no time for spiritual things.

      • David

        And now, as the factories in China fold like houses of straw, those factory workers are being forced back to their birthplaces, often into the homes of their grandparents who they abandoned years before. Used and tossed aside like rags, they are now questioning the fate they have been handed.

        Like the US, China is in for some soul searching.

  6. Ben

    Unfortunately it’s quite impossible to avoid buying goods made in China. At this point, our economies are so intertwined, that to try to prise them apart would result in both our economies crashing to the ground.

    Interestingly, the Chinese middle class, by and large, place great value on goods made in America. Those goods are viewed as being of higher quality and craftsmanship. Generally speaking, Chinese middle class prefer Fords and Buicks over Hondas and Toyotas.

    Regardless, you make a great point Dan. Keep it up bro.

    (on a side note, as I’m writing this comment I see two options to “subscribe to comments”. There is one option above the comment box and then it seems to be duplicated below the comment box as well.)

  7. Very strange economic times, that’s for sure.

    Thanks be to God that we do not put our trust in these things that will fail us in the end, anyway.

    Lent is a good time to remember that all this is vanity, anyway.

    That said, we still must live and do the best we can.

    In short…I have no answer, but trust in God to the best of our ability and know that when we screw up…we are forgiven.

  8. Thomas

    If I understand the thrust of your posting, my response would be that
    1) we like to accumulate Stuff and
    2) cheaper Stuff means we get to accumulate more for the same $$$

    Therefore we are willing to obtain cheap (quality and price) things from people we have no connection with.

    If I were to only obtain things from local or regional businesses, I would have to pay more, so I would get fewer things. And I’d want them to last and be repairable at prices less than throwing them out and getting new ones.

    And because of the money invested, I might be tempted to idolize them as coveted possessions.

  9. Amber

    Something I’m more increasingly interested in is buying directly from people who make and create their goods. Such as products from etsy.com, more than likely there is a Christian community on the site, but in general it feels really amazing to have a personal connection to the goods you purchase. You can communicate with the person who is making what you buy, and even customize it to your liking. It’s not always cheap, but you know that when you are buying you’re putting money directly into the hands of a possible new friend.

  10. I ran into a documentary the other day called “What Would Jesus Buy?” It takes a closer look at our consumerist culture, and how it’s effecting people overseas as well as us, particularly during Christmas. It also follows the story of the humorous musical show called “Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping.” Regardless that I think Rev. Billy’s show isn’t very effective because it’s extraordinarily goofy (He goes into a walt disney store once and starts declaring Mickey Mouse the Anti-Christ) I admire that he is, in a sense serious. Serious enough to get himself thrown out of shopping malls, stores, and disneyland itself to passively spread his message that excess shopping is killing Americans in a far too real way.

  11. I personally believe that any business model that begins to rely on charity or idealism is a doomed business model. People by and large may hate what Wal-Mart stands for, but when times get bad, more people shop at Wal-Mart. “Shop at us because we’re local!” or “Shop at us to keep our doors open!” may work for a little while, but it isn’t a sustainable business practice, in my opinion. If you can’t compete in a way in which a large customer base cares about, then you’ll fail. You need low prices, great customer service, a good location, and/or other factors that people like. Just being local and/or Christian isn’t going to cut it if you fail to perform on too many other levels.

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