From the ripped fishnet tights of a young neo-punk, to the flowing robes of a Supreme Court justice, our clothing helps to communicate our identity. As a recent college graduate, I am preoccupied with questions about my own identity and its expression: What are my values? How will my lifestyle reflect my faith?
As a young person, I am prone to idealism. As an idealist, I am prone to disappointment, discomfort and frustration when the world I observe does not match the world as I believe it should be. I am starting to feel uncomfortable in my clothes. My favorite, perfectly broken-in jeans may fit my body, but I’m not so sure they fit my beliefs. I am finding it harder to accept that those pants are the garment Jesus spoke of in Mathew 22. At the end of my life, will I find myself “without the proper garment,” without clothing unstained by the suffering of workers? I know too much to plead ignorance, as some other characters in Matthew do. Lord, when did I see you chained to a sewing machine?
It used to be easy for me to ignore how the things I purchase were produced. This was convenient. It meant I did not have to change; the Gospel had no claim on my economic life. I could preach about how the federal budget is a moral document, how this present budget lacks key “moral values.” I could do this, and I did not need to think about the morality of my own budget.
However, this did not last; I started to get uncomfortable. I knew I could do something more: but what? This is a question for the progressive faith community. How do we challenge each other to live a more consistent economic ethic without descending into self-righteous moralizing? There is a tendency in contemporary politics to place the blame on government, big corporations, society in general or on the shoulders of individuals, depending on your ideology. However, corporate responsibility and personal responsibility are not mutually exclusive; they depend on each other.
With community support, it’s easier to live an ethical lifestyle. For example, I decided to stop buying meat. For me, it was a moral decision; the meat industry is one of the worst labor-law abusers. It is a small gesture, and I choose this step precisely because it was small and simple. There are plenty of vegetarians around; so I don’t stand out as “weird”; meatless products are easy to find; and I don’t have to conduct intensive research simply to avoid the deli section of the supermarket.
Clothing is another story. It’s messy; I can’t just avoid buying clothes (moving to a nudist colony is not an option). I could buy secondhand, but then I’m just pushing the burden onto someone else’s guilty conscience. Who is promoting socially responsible companies? Do they even exist?
It is almost impossible not to feel overwhelmed by the prospect of ethical purchasing. Without a practical alternative, most individuals, like me, will simply do what’s easiest. Without the commitment of individuals, movements for change will fail. The faith community embodies the fusion of personal and communal commitment; who better to lead this struggle? Our members can provide the desire for change, and our communities can, and should, provide the opportunity.
The explosion of the religious niche market in recent years demonstrates that people of faith will spend money to display their commitment. Imagine what would happen to our culture if a “religious bookstore” wasn’t just a place to pick up a copy of The Purpose Driven Life or a “Jesus fish” bumper sticker, but also a place to purchase goods that were produced and distributed according to the principles of human dignity and justice.
I am optimistic even though every day I am aware of my own fiscal sins and of those of my church. The same faith that tells me economic injustice is one of the greatest evils in our world today also tells me I can move a mountain, and that we can move it faster. Spade by spade, we can reshape the economic landscape of our world.
The faith community will be properly dressed when we’re not afraid to get our church clothes dirty, truly engage this messy issue and find creative solutions. Shoulder to shoulder, spade by spade.
Elizabeth Dahlman graduated in 2005 from the College of St Benedict in St. Joseph, Mimnnesota, where she majored in theology. She works as a Lobby Associate for NETWORK-A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby.