Last week my two-year-old daughter came running up to me in the kitchen. She was upset and held in her hands one of her many toys. "My toy broken. Buy new one." Instead, we found some glue and put the part back on.
In a little while the toy was fine, my daughter was happy, but I was distressed. She already has adopted the attitude that so many of us take for granted: there’s always more where that came from; just throw it away, buy a new one.
There is another two-year-old living in a very different situation. Her toy was carved by her father who works abroad and sends money home when he can. Her sister watches her during the day because the girl’s mother works 10 or 12-hour shifts. The mother rides her bike down a sandy road along the coast before the tropical sunrise brings its steaming heat. An hour later she arrives at the textile plant.
There she assembles black fleece fabric that came to Myanmar (once known as Burma) from far away and will leave for the United States when the quota is filled. Then it’s on to the pile of red fleece at her sewing machine.
What do these stories have to do with each other? Look at the Gospel of Matthew 25:14-30, commonly known as the parable of the talents. We can understand "talents" as first-century currency and metaphorically read the word to refer to our God-given abilities. At first reading, the passage is a good reminder to offer our gifts in the service of God. And while this is not necessarily easy, there may be an even more challenging message complementing the first.
We, as members of the university community, live in relative privilege to the rest of the world. It may not seem that way as we eat mac and cheese for the third night running or struggle to pay tuition bills.
But I think most of us have the choice to be here — and the privilege to educate ourselves — without being directly affected by civil war, devastating poverty, hopeless economic conditions, or malnutrition.
With our privilege comes choice, and with that choice comes responsibility. Yet many of us want the first two without the third, myself included. So here’s where the stories connect. You see, I ordered fleece jackets for the Volunteers in Action (VIA) and VISION Leadership Team. I wanted a good jacket, cheap. Who wouldn’t?
We were enthusiastic when they arrived, until we saw the tag inside which read, "Made in Myanmar."
Now, I like to think of myself as socially aware and a good steward of my God-given gifts. But even in the light of recent media accounts of sweatshops in developing countries, I didn’t stop to think.
I made a choice without consideration beyond my own needs, and certainly these fleece jackets are more wants than needs. What I really need is to be more responsible about the way I chose to use my "talents."
My daughter already understands her power of choice. But she is only beginning to understand the responsibility that goes with that privilege. How old must we be to consider the full implications of our choices? How may each of us be attentive servants of the kingdom of God? Whether spending our money Christmas shopping, spending our free time, or spending our life in a chosen career, we need be intentional about our choices and responsible about how we use our "talents."
As we try to live a more intentional life, we have many choices to make. I am not necessarily suggesting a boycott of labor exploitation in developing countries. While I believe boycotts can be an effective tool for social change, I also believe this issue is too complex to suggest that there is one, simple response to the problem. (Witness the struggles of the World Trade Organization policy makers and protesters at the recent Seattle meeting.)
In fact, some multinational corporations are realizing that paying a living wage in a developing country is appropriate for their interests in that country and appropriate as a response to U.S. consumers who are increasingly conscious of the power of their dollar to influence business practices.
Having said this, there are also companies who ruthlessly exploit impoverished people in developing countries for their own profit. In these cases, consumers may be able to influence business practices to effect a positive change.
Many strategies for social change may be employed, including: letter writing campaigns, lobbying for trade legislation or policy changes, educating consumers on the practices of companies that offer a living wage within the context of the developing country’s economy, and supporting organizations that develop cooperatives, trade unions and other efforts that protect workers in developing countries.
My intent is to call readers to be aware of the implications of our choices as people of affluence and power. In our effort to make a positive change in the world, we should look beyond our good intent to the effectiveness of our actions and the very real lives of those we hope to serve by our actions.
Michael Klein ‘90 has a B.A. in theology, a B. A. in studio arts and an M.A. in education (1998), all from St. Thomas. Klein has worked in Campus Ministry since 1992 and is coordinator of volunteer services.