“The field of the poor may yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice” (Proverbs 13:23).
Throughout my first decades of life I heard numerous stories about my ultra-adventurous uncle.
Uncle Maynard, one of my father’s older brothers, was known for breaking the mold of typical Konkol family expectations. Because, instead of settling down in central Wisconsin like most of his contemporaries, Maynard was inspired to pursue an alternative path, to travel the world, and in doing so, accompany rural communities in various locations throughout the southern hemisphere.
More specifically, following his graduation from the University of Wisconsin in Platteville, Maynard applied to serve with the United States Peace Corps, and upon his acceptance, was assigned to the city of Maseru, located in the Kingdom of Lesotho in southern Africa. As a result, from 1977-1979 Maynard applied his degrees in soil and crop science to serve alongside the Lesotho Agricultural College, located on the outer edge of the capital.
Now, when Maynard finished his two years of Peace Corp service, he left Lesotho, returned to the United States, and subsequently decided to spend a few months assisting my parents back in central Wisconsin as they built a new home.
The year was 1979, and at that time I was a ten month old baby boy.
Instead of hiring a construction company to work through the various building phases, my father, uncle Maynard, and a few of their friends and extended family worked on nights and weekends, and did so for months. And following each day of work, Maynard rode his bicycle to my Grandmother’s home each and every day – a few miles away – in order to eat and sleep, and would then return the next morning – via bicycle – to the construction site for another day of progress.
And yes, the building process did progress quite well.
However, on September 17, 1979, following another day of hard work on my parent’s future home, what appeared to be a typical day turned into an event that members of my family would never forget.
My Uncle Maynard’s daily evening bicycle commute to my grandmother’s residence was cut short when he was struck by an oncoming vehicle less than a mile from my parent’s new house.
He died that day at the age of twenty-eight.
This past week, on May 9th, would have been his 63rd birthday.
In order to teach us children more about our late ultra-adventurous Uncle, my parents would show various photos of him during our Konkol family slide-shows which took place in the living room of our home, the home that Maynard himself help build years before. During those wonderful family gatherings I loved to hear of Maynard’s amazing travels around the world. Through it all, I remember thinking about the distant places he visited, and how it all seemed like a world away. As a young man growing up in rural central Wisconsin just like he did, I always wondered what it would be like to actually visit some of the same foreign places where he served.
And thankfully, that day would eventually arrive.
When my wife Kristen and I moved to South Africa in January of 2008, I immediately felt the desire to see where my uncle Maynard spent much of the final years of his young life. I wanted to walk the avenues of Maseru, and of course, explore the Lesotho Agricultural College and learn if anyone remembered him, or if there were any new stories to hear. I wanted to absorb the sounds of the streets, the feel of the soil that he studied, the smells of the plants that he may have set into the ground, and close my eyes in order to visualize what it may have been like for him nearly thirty years before. As Maseru was only a six hour drive from my home in Pietermaritzburg, I knew it was only a matter of time before I would be able to make the opportunity a reality.
However, when Kristen and I eventually did make this pilgrimage to Lesotho in order to learn more about my late uncle, what happened is that we experienced an unexpected twist in our path, a vocational and experiential detour of sorts that would turn our lives into a new way of being.
Upon arriving to Lesotho, one of the first things Kristen and I noticed was a manufacturing plant that produced GAP blue jeans. And when we asked a few questions about the plant, such as who owned it and who was employed within it, we learned that the workers who labored were paid next to nothing, while the owners experienced a steady and massive financial windfall. As if the economic inequality were not bad enough, we also noticed the ecological horror, for as we approached the manufacturing plant, we noticed the blue dye running directly from the plant into the nearby river, and then, we observed a few small children playing in the exact river which was being polluted by the dye from the plant.
And as that exact moment in which Kristen and I observed this incredible scene of outrage, the fingers of condemnation that we pointed at the plant owners were turned back at ourselves. For at that exact moment, I had GAP blue jeans in my travel bags, and because of it, deep guilt in my heart.
In summary, I had traveled to Lesotho in order to learn more about my extended family roots, but instead, I was shown how I was a bona-fide contributor to the extended global phenomenon of unjust trade routes. It was an experience that I will never, ever, forget it.
A few moments ago we heard Proverbs 13:23, which reads “The field of the poor may yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice”. And sadly, this is the reality of the world in which we live, “the field of the poor may yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice”, as our current global economic scheme too often fails to deliver sustainable livelihoods and opportunities in the poorest corners of our world . This is evidenced by the billions of people on our planet who, despite working extremely hard and long each and every day, survive on just a few dollars per day.
What I learned on that life-changing pilgrimage to Lesotho years ago, and what I continue to be shown over and over again to this day, is that in our current global economy we have two very different societies. On the one hand, we have the high-tech revolution and breathtaking advances in automation, yet on the other hand, we have those who are eliminated from the economic process as a result, which in turn exacerbates the growing tensions between rich and poor, and further divides nations into two incompatible and increasingly warring camps.
To summarize, what I learned then in Lesotho and what continues to be confirmed now in North America, is the profound reality of our global economic dis-order, in which some people are considered less valuable than others, all of which results from the influence of unfair trade in what could be most accurately called our un-sustainable global un-economy. In other words, as I stood near the GAP manufacturing plant, I was deeply convicted as a contributor to the problem, but by the grace of God made known in Jesus, I was also converted, I believe, in order to help contribute to a solution.
That day I was shown a new way to walk an unfortunately familiar path, because I was reminded that what “is”, is not what “ought”, and the God made known in Jesus affirms that no human being is of any less worth than any other, and our gross global inequality is not inevitable or predestined, but it is the result of unfair trade that massively tilts the scales in our global marketplace. Which therefore leads us to conclude that, because faith in Jesus is personal but by no means private, we are called to follow the prophetic path of Jesus and publicly promote alternative principles of organizing trade in our our communities, so that we can relate to one another as people created in the image and likeness of God, in order to profoundly impact what kind of society God seeks for us all to inhabit.
And so, what does this all mean?
It means that, whether we like it or not, we all live in the universal Household of God, the oikos, and there are rules that govern this household, and the grace of God made known in Jesus moves us to insure that such rules in God’s household are set in communion with the wisdom of the household.
What this all means is that the heart of economics, the oikos-nomos, is the wisdom of God’s household, the oikos-logos, which represents the entirety of all the globe, a community in which all people are fully engaged in co-creating life-giving well-being.
What this all means is that people of faith are called to ensure that there are contemporary implications to their longstanding theological affirmations, in that to embody the Gospel of Jesus is to hold up the daring and radical inclusivity of the household of God, in which all are invited to sit at the family table as equals, as an incarnation of wisdom, and as a witness against the un-wise rules of exclusion.
And perhaps, most of all, what this all means is that disciples of Jesus should never – ever- accept any process by which the purchase of goods and services by some leads to the exploitation of others.
In other words, while the Book of Proverbs rightly claims that the fields and foods of the poor are all too often swept away by injustice, we hear the clear voice of God’s wisdom in response, such as Proverbs, Chapter 31, verse 8-9, which reads, “Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy”.
“Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy”.
And to these words of soul-piercing wisdom, we hear the call of the Gospel, and as Easter people we raise our collective “Amen”.
We hear the call to defend the rights of the poor and who are forced to beg on city streets because they are not paid a living wage…
We hear the call to defend the rights of the poor who can and do speak, but are far too often rarely heard because the privileged few are afraid of what God will reveal through the voices of the marginalized many.
We hear the call to defend the rights of the poor by answering the spiritual and social manifesto of Jesus to “bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom to both the oppressed and the oppressor.”
And so, together, as people of faith we are called to fair trade in this Household of God, so we can hear the voices of the poor, and respond to the grace found in God’s divine economy, by working for the conversion of an unjust economy that runs far too rampant in this world.
And in doing so, we may collectively speak truth to power in the spirit of the prophets, and show that this Earth that God has created, this sphere that spins through space, this globe, the household of God in which humanity lives and seeks meaning, our only home…
This must be a place of grace, where we are not only informed about what and how we trade with others around the world, but we are formed by the Spirit of God to be transformed, in order to produce and consume as an act of solidarity with all others.
So that no person is forced to survive in a system where the consumption of some leads to the destruction of others.
And so, to conclude where we began, as I think back about my Uncle Maynard who died far too young, I am reminded that although his death was indeed unfair, I believe – and I believe he would believe – that it is far more unfair to knowingly and systematically participate in a process that leads to the death of others.
But thanks be to God, Christ has Risen, Christ has Risen indeed!
And because of this earth-shattering and life-freeing reality, each day, by God’s grace, and through the inspiration of countless saints across the generations who have planted seeds of peace in the soil of our souls, we too – at this time and in this place – have opportunities to participate in God’s work of ushering in life over death. Because each and every time we produce and consume in this global household of God, we can hear the call of Jesus to accompany the poor in mutuality, and as a result, have our global connections converted from that of exploitation to those of communion. And in doing so, we affirm that the journey of faith is far more than about life after death, but very much about life after birth. Which in turn moves us, to ensure that the rules of trade that we set and follow, may embody the wisdom that God has so graciously shared, to ensure that all people in all places are able to share their god-given gifts in ways that are fair and just.
And in doing so, allow us all to experience life in its glorious fullness.
For all of this we thank God, and to all of this, we say thanks be to God.
Today. Always. Amen.
The Rev. Brian E. Konkol serves as a Chaplain of the College at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. An ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), he holds degrees from Viterbo University (La Crosse, WI), Luther Seminary (St. Paul, MN), and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa). He blogs at http://briankristenkonkol.blogspot.com and tweets @BrianKonkol
For more information on the Fair Trade Campaign in which the Office of the Chaplains and Gustavus Adolphus College is currently undertaking, please see the following link: http://fairtradecampaigns.org/campaign-type/universities/