Jordan, Marbury, and the Global Retail Industry

JordansMy daughter was recently gifted her first, and probably her last, pair of Jordans. Though I would have preferred her to opt for something different, you know like Adidas or K Swiss, my fashion forward five year old persisted: “Mommy, these are purple, though.” So we went with the purple Jordans because to a five year old girl, purple really matters.

But trust when I say that my anxiety rose a little bit as we purchased them. Ok, my anxiety rose a lot. While Jordans may simply be an expensive shoe to some people, for blacks they have long been a much coveted after status symbol. And like many other status symbols, such as the once popular Starter Jackets, they have been coveted to the point of violence.

Had it been 1995 instead of 2015 and we lived in my old hood in Milwaukee instead of in Roseville, I would have made a different choice and exercised my parental muscles a little more. I would have made a different choice because I would not have wanted my daughter to be targeted just because of the kind of shoes she wore on her feet. Spanning decades, countless numbers of men, women, and children have lost their lives because of this shoe – countless, because I don’t think anyone is tracking. In any case, growing up in the hood, you didn’t need a statistic to tell you what you already knew to be true – that we were losing our lives and taking that of others over temporal, material things. I still remember the Family Matters episode that tried to raise awareness over this issue.

Knowing this, I very much appreciate NBA legend and current Chinese Basketball Association star Stephon Marbury calling out former NBA star Michael Jordan for his role in all of this. In a series of tweets sent over the weekend, Marbury criticized Jordan for robbing the hood of people and money over the years. However, as Marbury won me over in one tweet, he lost me in the next, as he claimed that Jordan’s shoes cost the same to make as his own – $5 apparently – and yet, Jordan is charging $200 and he is only charging $15. Before we rush to canonize Marbury over his seemingly sainthood, hold on just a second: both of the shoes are being made in China.

Now isn’t that ironic – ‘cue Alanis Morissette!’ Or at least a little hypocritical. While Marbury condemns Jordan for exploiting the hood, is he not doing the same thing to workers in China? The global retail industry is notorious for giving workers very little pay, forcing them to work long hours, and under deplorable working conditions. In China itself, conditions in some factories are so horrid that workers are exposed to toxic chemicals that can cause severe neurological damage. I sure hope Marbury’s shoes are not being made in factories like these but chances are great that they are. Global retail factories, due to an insatiable demand in developed nations, are forced to bid low and produce high, which quickly reduces the prospect of having a safe work environment. Indeed, when profit is the bottom line, safety is not even on the table as an issue to be considered.

Just because Marbury chooses to only charge $15 for his shoes instead of $200 doesn’t exonerate him from his own participation in global labor exploitation. But we ourselves are also culpable here. The success of big retailers such as WalMart and Amazon prove that a core American value is buying as much as you can for as cheaply as you can. Shopping days like Black Friday and Cyber Monday thrive because getting a deal is more important to us as than the turkey and dressing we just ate. Much of the merchandise that fills our carts and that now clutters our homes – clothes, shoes, and electronics alike – are made in similar factories as Marbury’s wonderful shoes. Truth be told, it is our collective spending habits that create a global system that perpetuates injustice.

Many of us know this, but when we talk about justice we simply do not want to go there fearing the affect change in this area would like have on our wallets – and our lifestyles for that matter. Too many of us benefit from an oppressive retail industry and that alone inhibits us from taking to the streets in protest and advocating for policy change. But the reality is, we won’t have justice, in the hood or anywhere else, until we connect the dots and understand how these systems of oppression are not only related but feed on one another in order to make a profit. Global capitalism is destroying and killing communities all over the world; none of us will be free from its grip until we think comprehensively about its reach.

I’m sure Marbury has good intentions. We all do. But it takes more than good intentions and cheap shoes to make a meaningful impact.

Wisdom, Wealth and Eternity: Valuing What Truly Matters

s-RICH-PEOPLE-MEETING-largeI can probably count on one hand the number of sermons I have heard from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. Many preachers, I suspect, do not find the book as relevant or God-inspired as the others because it reflects a time in King Solomon’s life – the accredited author of the book – when he was at his lowest. Though Solomon started off his reign having a close relationship with God, his wealth and fame caused his heart to turn away from the one whom he went out of his way to build a house of worship.

Solomon amassed great riches and power as a result of the wisdom that he possessed. He was a shrewd king who worked his people crazily – so much so that when he died, the people requested that his son Rehoboam ease up on the workload that was put in place by his father! But he also made many strategic political alliances with foreign nations through marriage – the Bible states that he had at least 700 wives and 300 concubines representing various nations and people groups. As a result of his craftiness, he is known as being one of the richest people in the world. Says 2 Kings:

“Solomon received twenty-five tons of gold in tribute annually. This was above and beyond the taxes and profit on trade with merchants and assorted kings and governors.

King Solomon crafted two hundred body-length shields of hammered gold—seven and a half pounds of gold to each shield—and three hundred smaller shields about half that size. He stored the shields in the House of the Forest of Lebanon.

The king built a massive throne of ivory accented with a veneer of gold. The throne had six steps leading up to it, its back shaped like an arch. The armrests on each side were flanked by lions. Lions, twelve of them, were placed at either end of the six steps. There was no throne like it in any of the surrounding kingdoms.

King Solomon’s chalices and tankards were made of gold and all the dinnerware and serving utensils in the House of the Forest of Lebanon were pure gold—nothing was made of silver; silver was considered common and cheap.

The king had a fleet of ocean-going ships at sea with Hiram’s ships. Every three years the fleet would bring in a cargo of gold, silver, and ivory, and apes and peacocks (2 Kings 10.14-22, the Message).”

There was nothing that the King could not afford! Everything and anything he wanted he had unlimited access to. For all intents and purposes, he should have been a very content and happy man. Yet, Ecclesiastes tells us what 2 Kings does not and allows us to get a sneak peak into Solomon’s heart as he evaluates all of his wealth:

“I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure. So enjoy yourself.” And behold, it too was futility. I said of laughter, “It is madness,” and of pleasure, “What does it accomplish?” I explored with my mind how to stimulate my body with wine while my mind was guiding me wisely, and how to take hold of folly, until I could see what good there is for the sons of men to do under heaven the few years of their lives. I enlarged my works: I built houses for myself, I planted vineyards for myself; I made gardens and parks for myself and I planted in them all kinds of fruit trees; I made ponds of water for myself from which to irrigate a forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves and I had homeborn slaves. Also I possessed flocks and herds larger than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. Also, I collected for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I provided for myself male and female singers and the pleasures of men—many concubines.

Then I became great and increased more than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. My wisdom also stood by me. All that my eyes desired I did not refuse them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, for my heart was pleased because of all my labor and this was my reward for all my labor. Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after wind and there was no profit under the sun (Ecclesiastes 2.1 – 11, NASB).”

Meaningless. This is what Solomon concludes of the wealth, of the stuff that he has accumulated in life. Not only is the wealth meaningless; the striving that Solomon put forth to get that wealth was also pointless – no doubt something that probably cost the most vulnerable in his society the most! But why, after living a lifetime in fortune and fame did Solomon draw this conclusion? Because as he neared the end of his days, he realized that: (1) wealth was unable to deliver on the promise of happiness and (2) of all of the possessions he gained, none of them could be taken into eternity with him.

While Solomon may not be in the same place spiritually as he was when he first started his reign, the wisdom and insight that he possesses should not be negated. In fact, the analysis that he provides of his experience deserves much more attention than what most preachers and religious scholars typically provide. Perhaps if we heed Solomon’s advice, we could put forth a better theology that will also have implications on the way that we order society!

We live in a culture, in a nation that places a high priority on the bottom line. Like Solomon, we are willing to do anything and everything to be wealthy, even if it costs others. Indeed, built into our nation’s very economic structure is the oppression of Native Americans and African Americans – it is the land and labor of each that has made this country the fiscal powerhouse that it is. With increased globalization, however, our country is adamant about staying on top and so, we turn corporations into people so that they can continue making big profits, we ramp our already unjust international trade policies, and we continue to police people of color for the most ridiculous things including spitting, lurking, and consuming alcohol in public making them pay for simply being black and brown.

American theology, unfortunately, supports many if not all of these things. Our theology reflects an orientation towards blessing and prosperity and leaves little room for evaluating just how that prosperity is secured. In fact, in many Christian circles, people believe that material blessing is the mark of God’s approval on one’s life. Never for a moment do we ever stop to consider Solomon’s words, let alone any other biblical writer as it pertains to wealth and material possessions. Remember, Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell everything he owned to follow after Him and He met that quite literally!

Meaningless. Wealth is utter meaninglessness. Oppressing people in order to get it is pointless, hoarding it is stranger still. But then what in life actually, truly matters?

Solomon provides us with perspective once again. He advises us to live simply – eat, drink and enjoy our labor! To me, Solomon’s sage advice means that there is value in providing for the needs of self, family and the community. Working so that you can provide clothing, shelter, food and transportation for your loved ones makes sense and is even spiritual stuff. However, building bigger and better simply for the sake of having more not only is meaningless but it robs other people of their capacity to provide for their basic necessities. Contrary to popular thinking, it is not about narrowing the gap between the winners and the losers; it is about eliminating that gap altogether.

But Solomon also encourages us to set our minds on eternal things, which means that whatever lapse he has taken spiritually has not altered his ability to see the big picture. God matters and spending eternity with him is pretty important stuff. Anything that detracts from that, including wealth, is simply not worth pursuing.

The Irrational Politics of Law

cropped-Law2

How does it feel to be a problem? This is the question that W.E.B. du Bois asked reflecting on the black experience in America. Or rather, how does it feel to be intentionally targeted and controlled by the rule of law? How does it feel to know that the laws that are being erected and passed off as just, moral codes, are only there to entrap, ensnare, and essentially eliminate you?

In truth, many people in our society have never harbored such feelings. In fact most, I suspect, go about feeling that the law is here to protect the wellbeing of America’s residents which in and of itself is a noble and very necessary goal. However, there are segments of our population who deeply understand the ways in which the rule of law has only been used to justify their perpetual maltreatment. While this can be said for many communities of color, today I want to focus on the reality of black men, women, and children in our society today.

As cities like Baltimore and Ferguson boil over continued police brutality against black bodies, misinformed talking heads dominate the air waves suggesting what black people need to do to ensure that they are not the latest victim: pull up your pants. Don’t run. Don’t carry anything that remotely resembles a weapon. Dress a certain way. Don’t go here or there. Get an education. Be a law-abiding citizen. Don’t resist, don’t question, don’t raise a fuss. Respectability politics all over the place without understanding that it has never really been about the law as much as it has been about the person that the law is targeting.

If we were step back in time, say several centuries, we would realize that this way of constructing laws isn’t new. Many empires throughout the history of our world have approached the law-making process with the aim of horrifying their subjects into submission, silencing them, or obliterating them altogether. Sometimes the targeting is toward a specific people group or nationality; sometimes it is toward an individual whose presence disrupts the stronghold of power.

Let’s look at two specific examples of this irrational law-making taking place in the Old Testament books of Daniel and Esther. In Daniel, we see a law targeting one individual, namely Daniel himself. Daniel, while in exile, rose to prominence in King Darius’ regime. The Bible tells us that Daniel’s extraordinary spirit caused him to stand out and above the rest of those who were governing affairs in the kingdom, so that King Darius planned to place him in the highest decision making seat in the land. But the commissioners and satraps who also governed alongside Daniel weren’t having it. There was no way they were going to allow a foreigner rule over them! And so they started looking for dirt on Daniel, in hopes of finding something that would tarnish him in King Darius’ eyes.

In spite of their attempts, the commissioners and satraps could not find anything on Daniel. He had that squeaky, clean image that most people love to hate. And so, they came up with a law that would surely trap Daniel, a law against his God. They approached King Darius and petitioned him to pass a law forbidding anyone to pray to any deity or person besides himself for 30 days. The punishment for breaking the law was death by a hungry pit of lions. King Darius, apparently the self-absorbed type, signed off on the law and the fate of Daniel was sealed.

Yet, Daniel refused to be frightened into submission. He maintained his posture before God even though he knew it might cost him his life. Just as he did every day before the law was passed, ‘he entered his house (now in his roof chamber he had windows open toward Jerusalem); and he continued kneeling on his knees three times a day, praying and giving thanks before his God, as he had been doing previously (Daniel 6.10b).’ And of course Daniel’s enemies watched closely by, anxiously waiting to report their findings back to the king who had no other choice but to throw him into the lion’s den.

Now let’s turn to the book of Esther, which is chronologically situated after Daniel. In the reign of King Xerxes (King Darius’ son and successor to the throne), a decree was issued to kill all of the Jewish people in the land. Their crime? Their religion forbid worship of anyone but God, and Haman the Agagite, who was recently elevated in prominence in the Xerxes’ kingdom, was offended by this. After Xerxes promoted him, he passed a law which demanded that everyone else bow and pay homage to him, which violated the Jewish law. Day after day, Mordecai, a Jew, refused to bow to Haman. And when Haman learned of this, and learned the reason behind Mordecai’s refusal to pay him homage, he not only committed to killing Mordecai but the entire Jewish people as well.

For all intents and purposes, Daniel and Mordecai were law breakers. They were not outstanding citizens who obeyed the commands of the state; they were violators of those commands. But let us remember, these laws were designed in such a way that they would automatically be discriminated against. In the case of Daniel, we come across a law that was intentionally designed to kill him. It did not matter what Daniel did, said, wore, or ate, the commissioners and satraps were going to find a way to get rid of him. That was their aim!

In the case of Mordecai, we find a law that unintentionally targeted the Jewish people. I say unintentionally because while it was not specifically designed with the Jewish people in mind, it was still discriminatory because the Jews naturally fell victim to it which is called disparate impact. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, ‘disparate impact refers to policies, practices, rules, or other systems that appear to be neutral, but result in a disproportionate impact on protected groups.’ And while the initial law was unintentional, the subsequent one which would exterminate them for breaking it, was completely intentional. The punishment for breaking ‘the law’ was extreme, irrational, and unjustified.

In Daniel and Mordecai, we see how the law can be used to inhibit a people whose existence threatens the state. The law, in instances as such, is nothing more than a tool to ensure that the interests of the powerful remain intact. The law, therefore, is not a just, moral document. Instead, it can be a representation of pure evil, something to be fought against rather than obeyed.

As police brutality, mass incarceration, and racial profiling continue to rob our communities of our black men, women, and children, for wearing hoodies, asking for help, running away when sensing danger, selling cigarettes, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, fighting for one’s rights, it is clear that the laws of the land are designed similarly to the ones of the Persian empire. The laws that are being erected are there, not to ensure moral behavior, but to severely inhibit black people so that we are either behind bars, dead, or so extremely poor and disillusioned that our existence does not disrupt the power structure of the state.

As the other ruling authorities felt threatened by Daniel and Haman felt threatened by the Jewish people, our mere existence – daring to breathe, daring to think, daring to imagine a different reality – threatens capitalism which only thrives if we are perpetually oppressed. Laws are passed to ensure this structure stays intact. This being said, it does not matter who is in the oval office, or who the attorney general is; the law of the land continues to function as it has always functioned, because in fact, this is the only way that our economy will continue to thrive and that the state will continue to exist.

Again, I ask, how does it feel to be a problem? How does it feel to know that no matter what you do or don’t do for that matter, that you will be treated like a criminal by the state that you inhabit? How does it feel to know that laws of the land are designed to ensure your criminality at every turn? How does it feel to know that your very existence is under constant monitoring, constant evaluation, constant measuring as those in power pass devise new ways to pass judgment against you simply to make a profit.

It doesn’t feel good. No, it doesn’t feel good at all. But these are the irrational politics of law.

Sidenote: Daniel didn’t get eaten by the lions – God held their mouths closed when he was thrown into their den. And the Jewish people were not exterminated by Haman – God used Esther to turn the heart of the King towards her people. This tells me that in spite of what the empire aims through the use of the law, God has the final say. Because God has the final say, there is always hope!

There Shall Be No Poor Among You: Maybe Capitalism Doesn’t Work Afterall

poor handsOne of my New Year’s resolutions is to study the book of Deuteronomy. If I break all of the other things that I have on my list (which exists in my mind, not on paper by the way) I really want to see this one through. As I have grown in my social justice awareness, if you will, Deuteronomy has increasingly become one of the most important texts that I lean on and come back to. In this book I find a prescription of what a community, or nation, is supposed to look like. It outlines how people are to be treated, and how those who have little resources are to be looked after and provided for.

In this community, in fact, there are not supposed to be any poor. Poverty does not exist because people are not being exploited, manipulated or oppressed. Debts are cancelled. Land that could have been sold off to pay for debts is returned to the original owner. Slaves are released and not only are they released but they are given abundant resources for making a fresh start so that they do not end back up in servitude.

The needs of orphan, the widow and the immigrant – or to those whom life happened – were also met. According to Peter Vogt, an OT professor at Bethel Seminary, they were not to be considered poor but rather people who due to their circumstances should be provided for differently. This wasn’t welfare or charity but rather the normal means by which the needs of vulnerable people were met.

The parameters of economics and justice that Moses proposes are quite radical. It is an economic vision where the premise is oriented toward both serving and blessing others. Growth is not mentioned in this vision. The national GDP is not a thought in this vision. Surely financial blessings are a part of this vision but even then Deuteronomy makes clear that the blessings that flow into this community are to naturally flow out to others. What’s more, the blessings that come are not as a result of exploiting others.

Yet, from the time that the Israelites entered into the Promised Land in Joshua 6 until they were taken into exile, they failed to live up to this standard of justice that God had prescribed. They were not the least bit concerned about the poor. In fact, in many cases those in power regularly usurped resources from those with little to add to their heaps of growing wealth and prosperity.

Understanding that God’s vision was not carried out in the Old Testament, and surely has not been fulfilled to date, I believe that we should consider how our society is supposed to make sense of this text in our present reality. Clearly it has aims that are quite ambitious, perhaps even nonsensical. Still, there is something strangely compelling about this economic system that God has in mind especially when we compare it to how our economy is driven today.

Today the economy in the United States is market driven. It is thrives on capitalism, in fact, this is the only way that it functions. A handful of people at the top, economically speaking, control and hold most of the wealth in this nation and this is okay (so the argument goes) because these are the people who are stimulating the economy, buying goods, and creating jobs for the remainder of the population. Since growth is the nation’s guiding principle, it is perfectly legit to do whatever it takes to get that growth even if it means exploiting others.

Capitalism has created a permanent underclass for the sake of the people at the top. Since the nation’s inception, that class has largely been determined by race meaning that if you were a person of color, you were more than likely to be poor and underresourced. However, the recession has pulled the blinders off of the middle class myth, showing us the unsustainability of propping up a lifestyle built on credit, so that we see more white people a part of this class as well. 5 years after the start of the recession, we still have high levels of unemployment, foreclosure, homelessness, food insecurity and so much more. Even so, food assistance programs have taken a deep cut and extended unemployment benefits have expired. Ironically, or perhaps not so much, the nation’s defense budget is just as large and powerful as it ever was and top level executives and CEOs are still making bank.

Where is the room for justice? Where is the room for the economic vision that God outlined for the people of Israel which surely have implications for us today? Because capitalism is the nation’s god, the fact of the matter is that there is no room. Economic justice and caring for vulnerable populations in the way that God envisioned is simply not feasible in a nation that cares more about the bottom line than anything else.

If Deuteronomy is the standard, and God is serious when He says that ‘There shall be no poor among you,’ then we are way off the mark. Capitalism and economic growth cannot be our aim when God has made it perfectly clear that He is most concerned about the way we treat one another and provide for each other’s needs.  While we might never see the totality of what God has in mind on this side of eternity, we should be growing into this vision as we become more and more like our savior and put to death the sin nature. The sin nature is obsessed with wealth and money; frankly these aspirations have no business being present in the life of a believer.

In truth, we may not be able to change the way the society functions. We may not be able to challenge the country’s economic system and prescribe a whole new way of doing things based off of what Deuteronomy outlines mostly because this is not nation that is oriented towards the ways of the Lord. However, as believers, we can change the way that we operate in it. Understanding that capitalism is not the way, we can denounce it and instead operate in such a way that our lives are oriented toward serving and loving others. We can cast off our own obsession with the American Dream and instead adopt a new dream, a Deuteronomic dream that looks toward a day where there truly are no poor among us.