Hobby Lobby, Chinese Human Rights Abuses, Southern Slavery, and the Supreme Court
Over the last couple of days there has been much discussion over an article that Jonathan Merritt wrote stating that Hobby Lobby could not lay claim to calling themselves a Christian business before the Supreme Court because they involved themselves in exploitive labor practices in China where most of their goods are made.
Russell Moore, president of the ERLC, rebutted with a strong commentary that essentially stated that American trade with China has the effect of opening up the country and in helping the poor overall. He made excellent points and I agreed with much of what he said.
Bart Barber, pastor of Farmersville Baptist Church in Farmersville, TX and long time friend writes of his own family's business and dealings in China and how they have helped the poor there and how doors have been opened for the gospel through his father's business and through church planting. Bart also makes great points about how a Christian business might try to engage in China (and elsewhere) the right way.
I think that all three perspectives are valid and have merit when seen together. The question as to whether or not a business can actually be Christian and if so, does it then have unique responsibilities in the marketplace because of that claim, is an important one. Merritt goes beyond Hobby Lobby's objection that is now before the Supreme Court to being forced to provide for abortificent coverage under the Affordable Care Act to asking about their larger business practices and how their Christian claims mesh with doing business in China, a nation well-known for its forced abortions and human rights abuses. Can you be "Christian" in one sense and act unethically in another (Merritt did not prove that Hobby Lobby was acting unethically, by the way - he questioned how they can do business in China in an ethical way considering the situation there)? Moore says that the marketplace is what it is and that Christians do not make it better by withdrawing from it, nor are we required to. Rather, we should engage to bring positive change. Barber says that we can actually benefit the workers by sharing Christ with them and he gives an example of such a practice.
But, here is one problem that is worth exploring. The argument that Christian businesses do good by engaging in China, despite the human rights abuses there, is one that has its own shortfalls. Here is how the argument goes:
1. Christian businesses employing cheap labor in China or in other parts of the world with developing economies help raise the standard of living there, so they are doing a good thing, even though they pay rock-bottom wages and the working conditions can often be quite bad.
2. The gospel can be shared with people who have not heard through the factories and churches can be planted.
3. There is no other way to do business than to take advantage of cheap labor overseas because that is the world that we live in.
These are good arguments. Add to them Russell Moore's argument that our engagement in China opens the door for reform through economic participation, and one can see the merit in it. However, these arguments are eerily similar to the arguments that Christian proponents of slavery used in the Antebellum South.
1. White Christians in the South are helping Black African slaves by civilizing them and raising their standard of living through caring for them in their slavery, so it can be a benevolent practice.
2. The gospel is being preached to the Africans and they would not have heard if they would not have been brought here as slaves, so it is to their benefit.
3. We cannot imagine another way of living in the South if the slaves were freed and they are not ready for freedom at this point anyway.
Furman made other points about the lawlessness of slave rebellions and how those who rule are obviously more fit for the task than those who are enslaved (Aristotle's Natural Slavery argument). He then states that the presence of abuse in some cases is terrible and should be opposed, but it does not undercut the entire practice just as an abusive father or husband does not render null and void the institutions of marriage and family. So, Furman calls for an ethical, just, and compassionate slavery full of Christian virtue and evangelism and says that it is the way of things in the South and has a Biblical mandate.
He makes essentially the same argument that those who support the presence of American businesses in China who employ cheap labor make. I am not saying that Hobby Lobby or Bart Barber's father's business is exploiting workers or engaging in behavior akin to slavery. Not at all! The behavior of these businesses might be quite ethical and they can be in the global marketplace, whereas, the behavior of slaveowners in the Deep South really could not be. What I am saying is that the defense is similar and because of that, it should give us pause and bring us to ask some deeper questions. If we are using a similar defense that slaveowners used, then where are the flaws in our own thinking?
This leads us to the larger problem. What is the responsibility of Christians who engage in global trade and business? How should Christians see the oppressive practices of the countries in which they engage in to make a profit for themselves? What should Christian business owners do to make sure that their presence in a country is one that does not exploit cheap labor, but rather is one that demonstrates the ethics of the Kingdom of God in their labor practices? At what point should Christian businesses lobby against China's forced abortions and human rights violations? And, at what point does our silence become complicity? Our ethicists and theologians need to work through these issues for Christians in the global marketplace.
The global economic system is one that has American business interests and the interests of multinational corporations at the top of a pyramid and has workers in impoverished countries at the bottom. There is often a great deal of injustice and poverty at work in between. The American consumer benefits by having access to cheap consumer goods and the American government and military are used to keep access to markets, labor, and natural resources open to use by American companies. It is the way of things. But, at what point does Christian participation in such an enterprise, even if we are not trying to make things worse, cross over into participation with the abuse of the system?
I am in no way saying that a Christian who owns a business cannot participate in the global marketplace. They should! A Christian who owns a business in China and who employs Chinese workers can do so ethically and prophetically while sharing the gospel all the while if they are thinking through the decisions and practices that they are engaging in and making decisions that are consistent with the person of Christ and not just the profit motive. Engaging in global trade and employing workers in impoverished countries is not the same thing as slavery (which was forced and involuntary at every point) and in this regard, the analogy breaks down. But, if the motivation is to use cheap labor so a cheap product can be made so that the profit margin can be at its highest and there is no concern for the worker or for the practices that surround such a venture, then it can go in the same direction as oppressive systems from the past, such as slavery. The Christian, if he is to act christianly, needs to think through such things and make sure that his witness and practice is consistent with the implications of the gospel. Our trust in bringing change and justice should not be in the open markets and the power of the dollar, but in the power of the gospel and the witness of living Christian and ethical lives in all facets. Then, we can say that we have Christian businesses - or businesses that reflect Christ.
I do not agree with all that Merritt said. And, I agree with much of what Moore and Barber said in response. This is very complicated. But, the response of Christians around the world needs to be one of proclaiming the ethic of God's Kingdom, even in business - even when we are involved in a global marketplace and system that is often decidedly unjust and exploitative. If Jonathan Merritt helped initiate that discussion, then we are better for it. And, I am also thankful for Russell Moore and Bart Barber giving their perspective. It is through conversations like this that we can forge a better path and benefit the weakest and most vulnerable among us.
How can we tell a better story?
[Note: I discuss this issue in more depth in chapter 7 of my book, When Heaven and Earth Collide. I specifically talk about what happened in Haiti when textile workers there asked for a raise from Hanes and Levi-Strauss and how the Obama Administration responded to such a request.]