Not quite two months ago, in the capital city of Bangladesh, an eight-story building collapsed killing over 1,100 people, and injuring an additional 2,500. The building housed a garment factory, one of many in Bangladesh which pays some of the lowest wages in the world. According to reports by the Center for American Progress and the Workers Rights Consortium, garment factory workers in Bangladesh earn about $136 per month and labor in “buildings largely unpoliced by local officials, many of whom themselves own stakes in the factories.” So, even though cracks had appeared in the building and the owners had been warned to evacuate the factory, the labor force had been ordered to report for work on the morning the building collapsed. It was the deadliest garment-factory accident in history, and the cost of clothing manufactured cheaply in Bangladesh cannot be correctly counted if it does not include the cost of those lives.
About a year and a half ago the New York Times ran a series of reports on the “iEconomy,” by which it was referring to the economy that has grown up surrounding high-tech industries. Their reporting highlighted the harsh working conditions and frequent injuries in manufacturing plants that produce products for Apple, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, I.B.M., Motorola, Sony, Toshiba and others. In one case “137 workers at an Apple supplier in eastern China were injured after they were ordered to use a poisonous chemical to clean iPhone screens.” Reports of underage workers, excessive overtime, and hazardous waste continue to haunt the high-tech manufacturing sector. The cost of the smooth, shiny, miracle devices so many of us — myself included — have come to love cannot be correctly counted if it does not include the cost paid by the workers and even the environment.
For the purposes of sermonizing, the “iEconomy” couldn’t have been better named. It’s not just high-tech devices and cheap clothing that come with unbearable costs. We all know that. We’ve seen the documentaries, we’ve even screened some of them here at St. Luke’s, about the costs of an unsustainable food-subsidy policy, of fracking for natural gas, of cheap oil. Here in the United States, and throughout much of the northern hemisphere, we reap the benefits of the “I-Economy,” an economy that caters to the wealthy at the expense of the poor.
We don’t like to think of ourselves as wealthy in the United States, we like to think we’re all in the middle. We’re all middle class. But, objectively speaking that’s just not true. We are living in an era in which the gap between the rich and the poor has been expanding faster than at any time in recent history, not just here in the United States, but globally. The Bangladeshi factory worker earning $136 each month does not buy the clothing she makes. The Chinese factory worker cannot afford the iPad he polishes. The undocumented farm laborer in the United States could never shop at a Whole Foods or a Mariano’s.
The “I-Economy” exists to serve those with money and power, to give us what we want at the price we want to pay, and there’s nothing new about it.
In this morning’s story from First Kings, we return once again to King Ahab and his wife Jezebel. The king spies a vineyard in the fertile Jezreel valley, next to his palace. He wants it, regardless of the fact that it belongs to someone else, so he offers to buy it from its owner, Naboth. This may sound fair to us, but in the context of the story something affronting has already begun to take place. During these times, the land was understood to be more than a commodity, more than real estate. Land was the source of a family’s income and security, but even more, it was understood to be a God-given gift. It was a birthright passed from generation to generation.
The connection between land and lineage is symbolized in the story by the crops each owner would grow. Naboth has established a vineyard on his land, and as anyone who loves wine and knows how it is made can attest, vines are precious and require cultivation over generations. When immigrants came to the United States from the wine countries of the Mediterranean they would sometimes bring cuttings from the vines of the old country to plant in the new world as a sign of continuity with their ancestors. By contrast, King Ahab wants the land for a vegetable garden, the kind of crop you plant again and again at the start of each new season. Ahab proposes to destroy a lineage and an inheritance for the sake of a fast crop, a quick profit.
In Bolivia, where quinoa has been cultivated for over 4,000 years — so, literally, since the time of Ahab — the global demand for this cash crop has actually begun to destroy traditional agricultural practices as farmers take cash incentives from the government to abandon other crops in order to keep up with the demand in American health food markets. As a result, farmers have stopped rotating crops, and the land is quickly becoming depleted. This has devastating local impact in this nation, where one in five children suffers from chronic malnutrition. The cost of quinoa cannot be correctly counted if it does not include the cost paid by the families whose own children are not being fed.
But the king wants what he wants when he wants it. When Naboth rejects his offer, Ahab takes to his bed in an almost comical tantrum. He didn’t get what he wanted, and so he feels like he is the aggrieved party. Isn’t this how the “I-Economy” works? It so distorts our sense of what is fair, that we can actually imagine that we are the injured party when gasoline prices rise, or food prices rise, or manufacturing prices rise. We punish our legislators with angry phone calls and the threat of being ousted if they touch our crop subsidies. We look the other way when troops are sent to protect oil, knowing the bottom line lines our pockets as well.
There is, however, another economy in the world.
We catch sight of it in the gospel story from Luke, in which a woman comes to the place where Jesus is sharing dinner with Simon the Pharisee. This woman is known to be a sinner, what kind of sinner the scriptures don’t say, but whatever her debts are, Jesus has forgiven them. Her jubilee tears are the signs of joy you might experience when a crushing load is lifted, an unimaginable debt is forgiven, an incurable illness is healed. She spends her tears on his feet and she pours precious and costly oil over his skin to anoint him.
Simon is confused by Jesus’ interaction with this woman, his transaction in this economy of gratitude and grace. It did not fit within the accepted business practices of the day. Simon was a Pharisee, the woman was a sinner. We don’t even know her name. She could have been one of the women crushed in Bangladesh. She might have been a factory worker in China. She may have picked the quinoa served for dinner that night. But to Jesus, she was a person who mattered. Her suffering in the I-Economy was seen by God, and challenged by Christ, and this nameless woman was grateful, so grateful, to be seen and loved by such a good and gracious God, that she poured herself out at Jesus’ feet.
Sisters and brothers, we live in the tension between two economies as well. We all know this. Our cupboards and our closets are filled with signs of one economy. Our church is filled with signs of another. We are so tightly entangled in systems of production and consumption that distance us from one another, that benefit some while punishing others, that we barely know how to begin to extricate ourselves. But we must begin, we must continue, to try. Because the woman who stitches our clothes, the man who polishes the glass on our smart phones, the children who pick our crops do have names, and they belong to God, which makes them members of our family.
When we baptized Zoey Charlotte White this morning we washed her with water and anointed her with oil, just like the nameless woman who touched Jesus’ feet. Like that woman in Simon the Pharisee’s house, we too are sinners. We too have been caught in systems of suffering and oppression that have lured us away from our birthright, our baptisms, our utter belonging to God. But today, in this baptism, in this naming, we see how good God is. We see that before we ever chose God, God chose us. We see that no one is nameless before God — not the workers in the factories and the fields, not the woman at Jesus’ feet, not Mary, called Magdalene, or Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, or Susanna, or Zoey or me or you.
In our baptisms we were called out of the “I-Economy” and into the economy of grace. That means it matters what we eat, and what we wear, and what we buy because somewhere, another child of God just as beautiful and precious as Zoey has labored to bring these things to you and me. May we learn to love those whose names we do not know as deeply as God has loved us.