It’s how most of us begin our morning: we put on clothes. We dress for work or school before closet of choices, colors, and labels. What do I have to do today? What will the weather be like? When we know we’ll be engaging others, especially people we don’t know, we are especially conscious of putting on the right kind of clothes. Is it clean? Does it match? Every day this is the “normal” way we put on our clothes.
On April 24, 2013, how we thought about what was “normal” regarding the clothes we wear changed. The collapse of Rana Plaza, an illegally constructed and poorly inspected factory building in Bangladesh, killed 1,129 workers and injured another 2500. Most were women. Then something else was discovered. People working at Rana Plaza were making clothing that hangs in many of our closets. These included brands of Benetton, The Children’s Place, and Walmart. This discovery made it clear: the clothing we wear is connected to those who provide it. Many of these have suffered and died in enabling us to continue living the way we do.
Reflecting on the Rana Plaza tragedy, Pope Francis stated on May 1, 2013: “Living on $50 a month—that was the pay of these people who died. That is called slave labor.” Then, a bit later in his Apostolic Letter, Evangelii Gaudium: he made the connection to their “slave labor” and our own lifestyle of prosperity which continues, in part, because we can buy cheap clothing. He wrote:
Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us. Evangelii Gaudium, #54.
Is Pope Francis right in calling the work of so many people in places like Bangladesh “slave labor?” The International Labor Organization defines forced or compulsory labor as work done under fear of being penalized for leaving or trying to make one’s situation better. So, if their work does seem to fit the definition of “slave labor,” is Pope Francis right in saying that we bear some responsibility for their situation?
There is little doubt that few of us would ever enslave another person for our own gain. We cannot imagine keeping a poorly paid tailor we know locked in a dimly lit basement workshop to make our clothes. Yet we put on clothes produced by a global apparel industry that has thrived on unsafe working conditions, “slave” wages, and, sometimes, the slavery of unpaid, coerced labor whose passports or other necessary documentation are held by factory owners as a way to keep workers tied to their jobs.
Until now we might not have made any connection between the choices we make in our clothing and the few choices people have who make our clothing. We are free; they are not. The problem is not people’s individual shallowness and indifference; the problem is embedded in the way our economy is set up. People have deeper relationships with things than with the people who make them because the way we purchase commodities like clothing hide their connections to the people who make them. Because the production of our clothing has moved from the textile factory nearby to places halfway around the world, this kind of marketplace blinds us from seeing the direct consequences of our consumer choices. As a result, and despite our good will, we have become unwitting perpetrators (or at least participants) of what Pope Francis has called the “globalization of indifference.” Nonetheless, Pope Francis said at Lampedusa (where he went to visit African immigrants trying to find work in Europe): “The globalization of indifference makes us all ‘unnamed’, responsible, yet nameless and faceless.”
Pope Francis has made it clear that our consumption implicates us in these injustices “to the least of our brothers and sisters” who are clothing us, but too often such connections remain hidden to us. We are clothed in webs of relationships we cannot see; this makes it difficult for us to make informed moral choices. Furthermore, we know that we can’t boycott such clothing because virtually all our clothing is made in places like Rana Plaza. Except for a few places where specialty clothing is made, almost all of the new clothes we buy comes from sweatshops of one kind or another. Furthermore, we have been told by the workers that leaving such places is not the answer to the problems they face. They tell us that what they have provides them with more money than they previously had.
The Moral Call to Move from Indifference to Being Clothed in Compassion
The Gospel challenges us to overcome moral blindness and to open our eyes to the needs of others: “Lord, when did we see you naked”? When the Good Samaritan saw the victim lying by the side of the road to Jericho, he did not remain indifferent. “His heart was moved with compassion” and he began to do something about the plight of that person: he committed himself to change the victim’s situation. The Samaritan’s compassion was the exact opposite of indifference.
In today’s globalized world it seems much harder to fulfill the Gospel’s demand for the moral vision that leads to compassion because of the distance that separates us. Now the road to Jericho runs far from our sight, past uncountable factories like Rana Plaza in Bangladesh. But these far winding roads nonetheless still end up in our own neighborhood and at our malls, bringing the clothes we wear and so much of what we consume.
The Catholic moral tradition has long rejected the argument that “ignorance is bliss;” there is “vincible” ignorance what we are morally responsible to overcome. Ignorance doesn’t excuse involvement in immoral actions once we know the truth, even if it is uncomfortable. As market relations dominate ever-more dimensions of life, we are morally bound to remove the scales from our eyes to see the faces of and “be neighbor to” the suffering brothers and sisters who work and sweat for us so we can put on the clothes they are producing for us.
Being “Clothed in Christ” Challenges Us to Clothe Our Neighbor as Ourselves
When we were baptized we “put on Christ.” But Christ also is hidden in the faces and lives of those who make the clothing that we “put on” each morning. We cannot remain indifferent once we become aware of the exploitation of workers around the world in ways that benefit us. This is not simply because of our often unconscious participation in this exploitation; it’s because this dynamic falls short of the fullness of communion that the Trinitarian God offers and calls all of us to share together as members of the human family. As the United States’ bishops point out:
God’s nature is communal and social; therefore our nature, created in his image, is communal and social as well. We are communal and social because of the way we have been created and because of the One who has redeemed us. This is a very solid foundation for our Catholic social tradition-- rooted in God’s community of the Trinity and in our very nature, as created in God’s image. (USCC, Sharing Catholic Social Teaching, 1998, p. 22)
When the Word became flesh, God became clothed in humanity. In this human form God came to make a difference: to save us from our own sin and the “sin of the world.” As baptized members of the body of Christ we are to be “clothed with compassion” (Col. 3:12) in a way that enables those who clothe us to know we care about them. When we Catholics campaign for “clothing with a conscience," we continue Jesus’ mission of bringing “Good News” to the poor and setting free those who are oppressed or enslaved. When we campaign for clothing with a conscience we evidence what Pope Saint John Paul II called the moral virtue of solidarity: “Solidarity helps us to see the ‘other’—whether a person, people or nation-not just as some kind of instrument, with a work capacity and physical strength to be exploited at low cost and then discarded when no longer useful, but as our ‘neighbor,’ a ‘helper’ to be made a sharer, on a par with ourselves, in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God.” (Solicitudo Rei Socialis, 39)
Later Pope Benedict XVI applied the theological virtue of solidarity to our various economic transactions as well. He wrote: “The Church's social doctrine holds that authentically human social relationships of friendship, solidarity and reciprocity can also be conducted within economic activity, and not only outside it or ‘after’ it.” (Caritas in Veritate, 36)
As Catholics, we celebrate our life in the community of the Trinity in the liturgy and sacraments. At our baptism we were clothed in white to show that we “put on” Christ. But this baptismal commitment cannot exclude us from “clothing our neighbor as ourselves.” Also at Eucharist, because we “receive” them in communion as part of the Body of Christ, the best way we can say “Amen” to those who produce our clothing is to work to make their living situation better so that all will know we are Christians in the ways we try to love these neighbors as ourselves. Wouldn’t we want them to do the same if we were in their shoes?
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