Last night I finally got around to watching Black Gold, a 2006 documentary about the oppressive coffee market and its effects on coffee farmers in Ethiopia. By now we're familiar with the story: Western, profit-driven, low-regulation, consumer culture creates super-corporations that bully producers in "developing" nations into selling their crops and labor at abusively low rates, then make huge profits at home (and then, as we learned lately with companies like GE, evade paying any taxes by making their "home" in a foreign country). The result is a relatively stable coffee price in the States but declining prices in Africa, such that some communities can't build schools for their kids. This is why the protesters come out at WTO and IMF meetings and decry the evils of globalization. It may be true that a dollar a day is an improvement in the life of a Vietnamese T-shirt manufacturer, even if it's still egregiously low, but that's not what's happening with coffee.
I got interested in the food movement after watching Food, Inc. and listening to a mini-series on CBC Radio's Ideas program on eating meat. A meal is at the heart of Christian worship, and food is near and dear to us all as humans, and food politics touch on just about every part of our common life in Creation: labor rights, nutrition, fair trade, foreign economic and political policy, family life, culture and agriculture, Creation-care and conservation, etc. So, it seems an obvious place for Christians to pay attention and to make conscious choices.
I already believed in fair trade before Black Gold, but, like Food, Inc., it just made me that much more aware of the real people who are affected by my buying practices. This is of course the real value of such films - it takes values, ideas, ideologies, even doctrines, and puts human faces on them, thus emphasizing that the market is not nearly so value-neutral (or value-positive) as Wall Street and its relatives often claim.
But the impetus behind this post comes from the part of me that grew up conservative, pro-business, anti-government, etc., etc. I balked with those who thought PC-language a more or less direct form of ideological political control (and still think it can be, sometimes). I accepted that high taxes and government regulations were bad for business and thus bad for the little guy, i.e., me and my working-class community. However, as a result of my education in a Christian worldview, I've become much more progressive, though much less aligned with any party. For instance, I think it's possible and consistently-Christian to at once agree with Tea Party-ers that our debt is outrageously high and with progressives that we shouldn't fix it on the backs of the poor, disabled, or elderly.
This food movement stuff triggers the old conservative that wants to let the market have its way, that wants to enjoy "the fruits of my labor," and basically doesn't want to listen to all these "tree-huggers" raining on my rather small piece of the American pie (and I purposely mix my metaphors to reflect the confusions and contradictions of my emotions). It doesn't feel right to feel guilty for going to the Jewel for a box of crackers.
But sin isn't about a particular, personal, culturally-conditioned feeling; it's about how close our lives, individual and corporate, approach the Kingdom. Controlling prices so our farmers win and their farmers lose is not how Kingdom-life ought to look, I'm pretty sure. In the big picture I'm acting more like Christ when I spend an extra dollar for a bag of fair trade.
Sometimes, in the short term, that just feels like a bummer - "one more thing to worry about." But in the long term I'm becoming more conscious, making my own choices rather than accepting those offered me by some faceless executives, choosing the markets I'm participating in rather than accepting the empire of "The Market."
And that's why this is a Relief issue. Relief is all about questioning the status quo, often of comfortable, consumer Christianity, a Christianity that has become quite married to the polico-economics of our culture, which is why so many of us have become unsatisfied with it, after all.
Isn't this what it means to have values? To make some choices because they are right, even if they aren't pleasant? Or, better, to reorient what we take pleasure in. Augustine said, "Love God, and do as you please," meaning that we'd "please" to do a different kind of thing if we loved God than if we loved, say, mammon.
Here's the wonderful open secret of the food movement, though: buying local, or organic, or fair trade tastes better. My Metropolis coffee tastes better than anything the store or fast food joint can offer. It's worth the extra 50 cents. Our organic carrots are actually good to eat, our local apples have flavor, and our in-season tomatoes are red all the way through.
Thus, the food movement is not just about justice but beauty, about reorienting ourselves to Creation and being able to say, This is good! And that's not a drag at all.
Brad Fruhauff is Interim Editor-in-Chief of Relief. He has published fiction in The Ankeny Briefcase, poetry in Relief, Salt, and catapult, and reviews in Burnside Writers’ Collective and The Englewood Review of Books. He teaches English at Trinity International University.