Background Texts: James 2.14-25 & Matthew 5.13-20
Last Sunday, as I’m hoping you will recall, we thought about the topic of racial justice in general terms. We sketched out some of the history of empires, which tend to collapse under the weight of exploitation. This week, at the start of Fairtrade Fortnight, I want to focus on one way in which we can, together, do at least something about the racial and economic injustice in the world.
You’ll know, I’m sure, that I have strong connections to Africa, as a Canon to two Cathedrals in Ghana, (as well as Portsmouth Cathedral). I’ve also spent some time in Uganda, studying the work of missionaries from the Church Mission Society. As a result, I (and sometimes Clare too) have had the amazing experience of spending time in the wild African places. I’ve had the privilege of seeking out the elusive Shoebill on the banks of the Ugandan Nile. I’ve sat near a waterfall in Ghana, and listened to choruses of birds whose names I could only guess. I’ve watched crocodiles sun-bathing, and hippos mud-bathing. And I’ve watched bustling wildebeest jostle each other, and smaller creatures at the water-hole.
So much of this beauty is under threat, at the present time. But it is not just the wild places of earth which are in danger. It’s also the lives of workers and farmers in places like Africa, as well as South America, and the entire Indian sub-continent. And that’s because the wildebeest of the industrial countries have a tendency to jostle at the metaphorical water-holes of the world. The biggest, strongest, fattest companies tend to push all the little ones aside, to get to the good stuff. They step on the little farmer. They push aside the small trader. They buy up vast swathes of land, tear down ecological diversity, displace indigenous peoples, and fill the land with mono-culture plantations.
One of hardest facts to absorb is that these farmers and workers who teeter on the edge of destruction are so often the ones who have, in fact, contributed least to the climate emergency which is affecting them. Many indigenous farmers know their lands: their techniques are often deeply eco-aware. In Uganda, I witnessed a farming project, led by those CMS missionaries, which taught people how to rotate their crops, and manure their soil, to maintain long-term practices of eco-farming, in balance with nature.
But somehow, our economic system forces people, across the world, to ignore indigenous knowledge in pursuit of profits for multi-national corporations. Such corporations are able to scale up the task of farming to such an extent that their products can be sold so much more cheaply than indigenously-produced food. But, they do it by ploughing up forests, planting mono-culture fields, which quickly become unproductive. So more forest has to be cut down, more land ploughed, and ever more environmental catastrophe created. Indigenous farmers can’t sell their more expensive, well-produced, sustainable food…and so they go out of business. In desperation to feed their families, they take jobs with the multi-nationals, and the spiral of decay continues.
But what can we do about this? Us, here and now. In this church. Today. One of the very few ways then that we have at our disposal is to address these wrongs is to choose Fairtrade. That is how, in the short term at any rate, we can work to improve the livelihoods of farmer and producers. We also know also that buying Fairtrade can assist farmers in their environmental adaptation. Fairtrade tries to provide farmers with a decent standard of living - enough to cover all their farming costs and enough to cover their basic human rights, like a nutritious diet, children’s education and healthcare.
Now, I know what some of you will say. I’ve said it myself. We say ‘but Fairtrade food tastes different’! I know of an organisation, not too far from here, which has a Fairtrade coffee tin. But it’s only the tin. They actually buy commercially-produced coffee to put in it. Their coffee drinkers think they are supporting Fairtrade…but actually they are just drinking the same old commercially-produced, cheaper stuff! When I challenged that organisation on their practice, I was told ‘but no-one likes the taste of that Fairtrade stuff’.
Taste is, of course, acquired. Over the first 30 years of our marriage, Clare always took sugar in her tea. But one day, about five years ago, she decided to give it up. Now, she couldn’t even sip a cup of tea with sugar in it. Blurgh! We can teach ourselves to accept new tastes, different textures – if we are convinced enough of the good reasons for doing it.
Something else we say is ‘but Fairtrade food is so expensive’? Really? Expensive compared to what? How does the extra few quid here and there on Fairtrade food compare to what we spend on our Costa Coffee (for a single cup) our holidays, kitchen refurbishments, new cars, or gardening products? Too expensive? Really?
In the reading from the letter of James we heard just now, James reminds us that ‘faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead’. There are many ways of working out our faith through good deeds. But surely, one of the easiest ways is to make some kind choices when we walk along the supermarket shelves.
Perhaps those Fairtrade bananas are a pound or two more than the other ones. Make the sacrifice. Perhaps the jar of Fairtrade coffee, or the packet of Fairtrade chocolate won’t taste the same as your normal choice. Make the sacrifice. Know that as you do, you’ve helped to change a life. You’ve helped to keep a farmer going, and her fields sustainable. You’ve helped to dig a well for her village, or provide a school for her children.
So, when you depart from here today, and when you charge over to Waitrose for your Sunday Shopping(!) please be kind. We often talk about how the wealthiest of the world should pay a little more to help the poorest. You and I are among the wealthiest people of the world. Let’s be kind. Let’s put our faith into action. Let’s ‘do justly and love mercy’ (as the prophet says). Let’s not be the wildebeest who trample on others to get to the trough. Let’s choose Fairtrade.