What Price Globalization?

By William Carr

This morning’s (1/26/12) New York Times contains a disturbing article on working conditions in Chinese suppliers of Apple components and products. The article mentions other tech product companies, but the salient episode is an explosion at the plant of an Apple supplier; so the focus on Apple is not surprising in view of its recent report of highest-ever profits. The article contains a lot of “A said-B said” and a fair number of those who speak “on condition of anonymity.” Even so, the article raises concerns about more than its own accuracy or fairness.

There are considerable forces at work, which urge “us” to think globally in terms of opportunity. I wonder, though, where is an appropriate force, which will urge us to think globally also in terms of responsibility? In other words, we cannot reduce questions about global thinking to the question “technology—yes or no?” There is, rather, a complex web of questions concerning technology, availability of jobs, workplace safety, health, and others.

Nor are these simply economic or, in an election year, political questions. For a Christian, at least, they are also theological questions. Here are some of the questions that have occurred to me:

  • “Where does the church (and its theological institutions) fit in?”
  • “What kind of theology is needed to respond to the concerns of “levels of community” (global, national, state, “local”)?”
  • “What is involved in constructing and teaching “theologies” of technology and of the workplace (including safety, health, and working conditions)?”

Apple’s announced “iBooks 2 e-textbooks” program has produced a lot of excitement. It certainly sounds like it will offer significant opportunities to educators and textbook writers, including theological educators and writers. How does one assess, however, what seems to be a serious human cost in manufacturing the necessary equipment?

The last line of the article, a quote from an Apple exec, says a lot about “us”: “… right now, customers care more about a new iPhone than working conditions in China.”

How ought we to think about that?

The Old Testament reading for Epiphany 5 (2/5/12) will be Isaiah 40:21-31. Verse 26 describes a creator who is global: he “brings out the host [of heaven and earth] in number.” And yet he is eminently “local”: he “calls them all by name . . . and not one is missing.” God can handle the complexities of global and local scale. We, I think, need to be considerably more circumspect about just how global we can be and not miss the local.






12 responses to “What Price Globalization?”

  1. William Carr Avatar
    William Carr

    Thanks for being the first responder to my first post, Ted! This afternoon our “Friday Faculty Free-for-All” will begin to talk about our range of responsibility. Once we know that there are certain negative ramifications–whether singular or recurring–of our use of something, can we (continue to) regard our use (with ramifications) as a sin of omission, or must we divest ourselves of that something? Or, since the use is not wrong in itself, are there other actions we can take, short of divestiture? And I’ve used “sin of omission” and “divestiture” intentionally, because for me they evoke the Joe Paterno firing and, longer ago, the matter of investment in apartheid-era South African companies. I don’t expect any easy answers. Where do you think the conversation should begin? Where should it head?

    1. Mark Opheim Avatar

      Thank you Prof. Carr for this question; it is what I say in terms of the use of fiat currency by Christians. Why do we use something that is harmful to the community?

  2. David Oberdieck Avatar

    Is one more righteous if he buys a kindle more than an iPad? Wow, could this open up new possibilities for the world to manipulate the church.

    Should pastors consider taking their parishioners to task for buying an Apple product?

    Unsafe working conditions should certainly be addressed especially by unions and government, but safety is always a concern with any type of manufacturing.

    If a church body or congregation should take up the plight of Chinese Apple supplier workers at what point does social activism replace the Gospel?

    1. William Carr Avatar
      William Carr

      Christians live in both spheres of God’s rule. Is faith in the Gospel insulated from concern for the neighbor, even if he lives half a world away? Is the church’s (or church body’s or congregation’s) concern only for the “soul”?

      The question is not “at what point does social activism replace the Gospel,” but whether there is something that Christians should notice and, in some yet unidentified way, do, when we learn that the manufacture of some of the technological instruments, whose use we enjoy, turns out to put other people at risk.

  3. David Oberdieck Avatar

    You wrote, “The question is not “at what point does social activism replace the Gospel,” but whether there is something that Christians should notice and, in some yet unidentified way, do, when we learn that the manufacture of some of the technological instruments..”

    Your question is a good one, but that doesn’t invalidate mine. Yes, activate in some way against injustice, but there are a whole lot more problems out there than just Apple Inc. I have taken part in direct social justice issues myself. I’m not against it.

    I would add to your article that we need to be careful so that:
    1. …the approaches to social justice aren’t confused with biblical mandates. For instance, I think we should say abortion is murder. But, we get off track if we were to say that attempting to repatriate (dare I write the word) “illegal immigrants” is unjust.

    Indeed what seems like a just solution to a particular issues cannot necessarily be equated with either God’s will or wisdom itself.

    2. …social justice doesn’t consume the church and relegate the Gospel to a lesser priority.

    1. William Carr Avatar
      William Carr

      If my question is a good one, then, please, actually address it. You have a different question which, if you want it to be considered, I encourage you to address it to the editor of the site, and I am sure that he will be pleased to post it in “the Commons.”

  4. David Oberdieck Avatar

    Okay, let me try and address your question “where does the church fit in” with regard to availability of jobs, work place safety, health, etc. (I would love to hear your answers).

    My initial response (right or wrong) – It would be wise if the church largely stayed out of these issues. It isn’t in our vocation (as an institution) nor expertise (Can you imagine the UCC or UMC trying to establish just tax policy with regard to the rich.)

    Let individual Christians use their talents and voices to address these types of issues, but keep the church as an institution focused on the things only the church has been called to do – word and sacrament ministry.

    The church nonetheless has some impact via:

    1. Catechizing her members to love God and love neighbor.
    2. Teaching on vocation as a tool not merely for serving self but serving neighbor.
    3. There are dire situations where the church must speak truth to power by preaching the Law of God. This isn’t an excuse for the church to try and formulate policy (tax policy, work place health rules, etc).
    4. The church continues on with its ministry of mercy as it has always done.

    1. William Carr Avatar
      William Carr

      Thank you for your response.

      I had an “aha” moment, when I read your second paragraph: I think we use different “first-referents” for “church”: I am inclined to begin with “church” as “believers in Christ,” then move to institutional forms (notice the sequence in my 12:09 pm reply), while your second paragraph suggests you are more inclined to begin with the church as institution.

      If I use your referent for church, then I agree that the “church” should “largely stay[ ] out,” sort of, at least at first. That is, in the case at hand, the church as institution, should not promulgate some sort of “doctrinal statement” or oblige its constituents to adhere to some sort of practice, e.g., “Draco the Knee-Jerker says, ‘Everybody needs to smash their iPhones.’” So, at this point, I am not advocating that the LCMS, or the faculty of Concordia Seminary, or (the apocryphal congregation used by one of my profs) “St.-John’s-by-the-Junkyard,” should “do” some public something.

      If you use my referent for church, then I hope it’d make my initial questions more clear. Do the incidents and conditions described in the NYT article raise any flags for Christians? Would it have seemed more important to “us,” if the young man who was badly burned and subsequently died had been identified as a Christian (thanks to my wife for introducing this as a possibility)?

      It is true that “only the church has been called to do . . . Word and Sacrament ministry”–though I’m not sure that is simply a church-as-institution calling. What becomes important in the present instance is whether the church (according to whichever referent) has been called to do only Word and Sacrament ministry–in which case “Draco the Knee-Jerker would be right, ‘We should scrap LCMS Human Care and World Relief.’”

      I agree with the four items with which you concluded your response; let me suggest some detail:
      1. Catechesis — the 5th Commandment entails concern for the bodily well-being of all people (Luther’s language is “neighbor” not “brother,” and I admit it would be my construal to say “brother” means “of the household of faith,” while “neighbor” points to a wider scope); the 7th Commandment (Small Cat. “improve and protect . . . property and business”) might also entail confronting an employer about unsafe work environments;
      2. Vocation — not sure I’m all that happy with vocation as “tool;” as an OT geek, I tend to see man’s “dominion” (Gen. 1) as a vocation that never has been abrogated; does/should our new creation in Christ reinvigorate our exercise of that calling, in view of and powered by our baptismal vocation
      3. Is this instance “dire” enough? If not, why not? I found out that the NYT article I saw was, actually, “old news.” What are the criteria for “dire-ness”? If it is not our calling to “formulate policy,” is it our calling to articulate the virtues out of which sound policies can be formed?
      4. The church’s (referent, please?) ministry of mercy continues. Agreed. Our church body has helped victims of hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, and floods–all natural disasters. Do we have a “ministry of mercy” for “disasters” that are not “natural,” for disasters in which we might actually have to acknowledge, even indirectly, some complicity? I think we do.

      I still have more questions than answers, but you asked me to offer some answers; I hope my response has at least suggested some. I think that the church (as institution) has a role, because the church (as Body of Christ) has a role. In the OT, the people of God (Israel) bore certain responsibilities, as people of God, toward a range of “categories” of people among them. Some of those things do not transpose easily or directly into our present milieu; but we need to examine how they do or might fit, because we are people of God. St. Paul said that “as we have opportunity we are to do good to all, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6). In his time already, “opportunity” was not only “local;” he gathered “relief offerings” for believers in other places. Today, “opportunity” is global, because “information” is global–it is increasingly difficult to say we don’t, or can’t, know about something.

      I do not propose any Draconian solutions (I subscribe to Wendell Berry’s theory that attempts at “big” solutions only tend to produce bigger problems), but I do not think we should do (or say) nothing. I think the Body of Christ needs to talk about this, and with some urgency: in Bible classes, congregational meetings, pastors’ conferences, and theological faculties–“wherever two or three are gathered.” My hope, always, is that the Body acts first, then the institution.

  5. Tim Koch Avatar
    Tim Koch

    I’ve been observing your back-and-forth discussion Dr. Carr and (Rev?) David Oberdieck. I appreciate your thoughtful comments. I’m not sure that I’d be able to articulate anything that would contribute to this discussion at this time (I’ll try anyway in a second), but I’ve certainly learned something from your own observations and statements.

    When I read the article and your subsequent conversation, I thought, “What can the church do?”

    And then I was stuck. The issue seemed too large to get a hold of. The Draconian response of “smash all Apple products” certainly didn’t seem appropriate, but there was a twinge of guilt when I took my iPod out of my pocket this morning, as if using it somehow indicted me as being a hypocrite.

    Then I spent my time trying to justify my ownership and use of an iPod (on a small scale to be sure). If I catechize my people and make small changes (opposite Wendell Berry’s concern regarding “big” solutions) does that mean I’ve now earned the right to carry around an iPod guilt free?

    I hope my thoughts have made sense.

    1. William Carr Avatar
      William Carr

      Thanks, Tim.

      Unfortunately, it’s still not “Dr.”

      Being guilt free and feeling guilt free don’t always coincide, do they?

      I keep wondering whether there is a missing addendum to Luther’s “sin boldly,” i.e., “but not too boldly.” We realize that we participate in some larger problem in the world, and aren’t happy about that. We take steps, however small, to live differently, even, shall we say, to live better. Those steps do nothing about the guilt; only the blood of Jesus addresses that. But we take such steps because the “new man” is not exactly content only to be forgiven, but wants now to be part of worthwhile, temporal, though always piecemeal and patchwork, solutions.

      The technological goodies Apple offers are useful, convenient, etc., etc. But they’re not as good as they could be, because of the accompanying human cost. iPhones and iPads and iPods and MacBooks would cost more, I’m sure, if they were manufactured in the U.S., under stricter labor laws (whether all U.S. labor laws are equally good is beyond the scope of this posting). In my view they would be better products if their manufacture was accomplished under safer conditions, even if they cost more.

      A few of us have been “talking” via this site, concordiatheology.org. Perhaps, just perhaps, some others who have read this are talking with other brothers and sisters in the faith. If Christians, of good will and sober thinking, come to some conclusion about something they can do–e.g., some may write Apple, others may come to more Draconian solutions (if only for themselves), though, again, Apple does not appear to be uniquely culpable–no one of us knows how the small steps might add up or what effect they might have.

      If, in the ministry of the Gospel, it is expected of a servant only that he be found faithful, then, perhaps also in affairs of the First Article, it is not so much about whether and what results we can achieve, but that we undertake the effort to examine the Scriptures and ourselves and do faithful things.

  6. Don Avatar

    I am reminded about how I felt when my brother pastor who once talked about the cheep and easy date of taking the bus to the casino fought hard to keep the gambling out of town.

    When the Apostle Paul says he would never eat meat (1 Cor 8:13) did he continue to eat meat?

    When the T totalist make their non drinking sanctification idols am I required to stand for drinking?

    If Jesus is the gate and the sheep are going in and out, what is in and what is out?

    This morning at school devotions we were asked what our talents were. I wondered to myself if ever we would dare say I have the talent of confessing my sins.

    Lord have mercy on us

  7. David Oberdieck Avatar

    William –

    FYI thanks for your feedback on your 28 Jan post.


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