Peace Sunday, Christian Unity, Haiti – 15 Jan 2016

In this week’s prayer email:

  • Peace Sunday
  • Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity
  • Short Notes: Haiti

Openness to God … an understanding that God seeks our love and obedience, not just material sacrifices … a willingness to trust that faithfulness to God will be rewarded, whatever trials it involves … a readiness to witness publicly to God’s goodness. These are positive character traits evident in this week’s Revised Common Lectionary texts. As we examine our lives, in which areas do we need to pray that God will strengthen us?

Peace Sunday

In his message for this year’s Peace Sunday (January 15th) Pope Francis contrasts the violence of the last century (two deadly World Wars, the threat of nuclear war and a great number of other conflicts) with the “piecemeal” violence of this: “wars in different countries and continents; terrorism, organized crime and unforeseen acts of violence; the abuses suffered by migrants and victims of human trafficking; and the devastation of the environment”. Both the violence itself and the diversion of resources it entails “can lead to the death, physical and spiritual, of many people, if not of all”, he writes.

In the face of such a bleak appraisal of widespread and overwhelming violence, can ordinary individuals play any role in peace making? Is this not the preserve of governments and specialised bodies? Pope Francis argues not only that individuals can be peacemakers but that they are also the principal hope for peace. “Everyone”, he writes, “can be an artisan of peace”. How?

First, there is the need to recognise and respect “the image and likeness of God in each person [which] will enable us to acknowledge one another as sacred gifts endowed with immense dignity”. Second, we need to choose to “make active nonviolence our way of life”. He explains, “I ask God to help all of us to cultivate nonviolence in our most personal thoughts and values. May charity and nonviolence govern how we treat each other as individuals, within society and in international life… In the most local and ordinary situations and in the international order, may nonviolence become the hallmark of our decisions, our relationships and our actions…”

But what does “active non-violence” actually mean? The idea is explored in more depth in some of the accompanying materials for Peace Sunday, in particular the video, the Peace Sunday booklet and the worksheets Exploring Gospel Nonviolence. Thus the nonviolence of Jesus is not passive, meek and mild or defeatist, but is a positive force for healing, restoration and the assertion of human dignity, which exposes hypocrisy, speaks truth to power and resists exploitation – but which rejects retaliation and the temptation to respond to violence in kind. A visual aid, “the two hands of active non violence” graphically explains the concept. Two hands are placed at ninety degrees to each other, touching at the wrists, one upright, the other outstretched. The upright hand says ‘Stop’ to the person involved in the injustice or violence; it shows a refusal to cooperate in that violence or injustice. But the outstretched hand says, ‘We need to talk… I will not reject you’ and makes it clear that change and the opportunity to work things out together is being sought.

In her video message, Pax Christi International’s Marie Dennis says, “Mobilizing courageous and creative people-power, nonviolence doesn’t escape conflict but actively and powerful engages and transforms it”. She describes a conference held in Rome last year where many of the 85 participants were from war-torn or violent countries including Iraq, Sri Lanka, Colombia, South Sudan, the DR Congo and Afghanistan. “Their testimony was extremely powerful”, she says. She quotes Dominican Sister Nazek Matty whose community was expelled from Mosul by ISIS, who said, “We can’t respond to violence with worse violence. In order to kill five violent men, we have to create 10 violent men to kill them. . . . It’s like a dragon with seven heads. You cut one and two others come up.” Marie Dennis continues, “Many of the conference participants highlighted a deep yearning for just peace, especially in war zones around the world, and an amazing persistence in the pursuit of peace even in the most difficult circumstances. Courageous people in local communities living with unimaginable danger said, ‘Stop the militarization, stop bombing, stop the proliferation of weapons. Rely on nonviolent strategies to transform conflict’.” And she goes on to describe the involvement of the church in non-violent peace-building strategies, working in some extremely dangerous places to bring a just and lasting peace. The Pax Christi materials for Peace Sunday cite other examples of non violence in action

Perhaps this Peace Sunday we might pray using this prayer from Pax Christi USA (reproduced with kind permission):

Recognising the violence in my own heart,
yet trusting in the goodness and mercy of God, I seek to practice the nonviolence of Jesus: by striving for peace within myself and seeking to be a peacemaker in my daily life; by refusing to retaliate in the face of provocation and violence;
by living conscientiously and simply so that I do not deprive others of the means to live;
by actively resisting evil and working nonviolently to abolish war and the causes of war from my own heart and from the face of the earth.
God, I trust in your sustaining love and believe that you will give me the grace to live out this prayer.

Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity

The message for Peace Sunday beautifully complements this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the theme of which is “Reconciliation – the love of Christ compels us”, based on 2 Corinthians 5:14-20.

The materials for the week of prayer are themselves a remarkable achievement and worthy of engagement and celebration for their provenance alone. The resources have been created by the Council of Churches in Germany (ACK) in the context of the 500th  anniversary of the Reformation. They are the result of an ecumenical project and have been long in the making.

The theme for the week emerged from the broader discussions that have been going on in Germany over the past few years about how the churches in Germany might commemorate the Reformation ecumenically. “After extensive, and sometimes difficult, discussions, the churches in Germany agreed that the way to commemorate ecumenically this Reformation event should be with a Christusfest – a celebration of Christ. If the emphasis were to be placed on Christ and his work of reconciliation as the center of Christian faith, then all the ecumenical partners of the EKD – the Evangelical Church in Germany – ([EKD’s partners include] Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Baptist, Methodist, Mennonite and others) could participate in the anniversary festivities. Given the fact that the history of the Reformation was marked by painful division, this is a very remarkable achievement.”

The materials for the week have two main “accents”: first is the celebration of God’s love and grace, reflecting the great theme of Martin Luther’s Reformation of ‘justification by faith alone’. Second is the recognition of the pain and division that subsequently afflicted the church. The resources “openly name the guilt and offer an opportunity to take steps towards reconciliation”.

It is also noteworthy that the resources were being written in 2015 against the backdrop of the huge influx of refugees to Germany from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea and elsewhere, in which many individuals and churches actively practised reconciliation by offering hospitality. “The practical help and powerful actions against hatred of the foreigner were a clear witness to reconciliation for the German population”.

There are two main components to the materials: a worship service outline and eight daily reflections (for individual reflection or church use). Both have been adapted, as intended, by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland for use in a UK context and can be found here.

The worship service incorporates a powerful symbolic action of constructing and then tearing down a wall. The stones or bricks each represent a sin that divides (for example, lack of love, abuse of power, discrimination, etc). As each sin is named, the brick is brought forward to build a dividing wall. Forgiveness for each sin is sought. Later in the service, a prayer of reconciliation is offered and the wall is dismantled – the bricks being rearranged into the form of the cross. This symbolic act is given added poignancy by its inspiration: the Berlin Wall and its fall in 1989 – “a symbol of hope for any situation in which a division seems insurmountable”. The whole service, focused on reconciliation, is a profoundly helpful liturgy that would be useful in a variety of situations where acknowledgement of conflict and reconciliation are needed.

Please pray:

  • In thanksgiving for the work that has gone into creating the resources for the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity – for the individuals involved, for their determination, faithfulness and witness.
  • In thanksgiving for situations where reconciliation has happened against the odds, including in Germany.
  • For situations of conflict where reconciliation seems impossible – for strength and resilience for those who strive to keep the hope of peace alive.
  • That the materials will inspire and lead others in situations of conflict towards reconciliation and healing.

Short Notes: Haiti

Haiti

“So many absences. So many rifts still present in our wounded hearts. Painful memories. Are hopes permitted?”

With these words, independent journalist Gotson Pierre reflected on the 7th anniversary of the Haitian earthquake. Looking at materials put together by Haitians to commemorate the event, and coverage from the time (NYT – also very hard to watch), one is again stunned by the scale of the destruction. We mourn as a society – and rightly – when events occur which kill people in their dozens: how can we begin to comprehend an event which killed such a large proportion of the population that its equivalent in the UK* would be something that killed between 325,000 and 2 million people? It is beyond imagining.

The time since the earthquake has been marked by well-publicised political difficulties, issues around aid (especially controversies caused by the way aid was channelled to foreign agencies and by the decisions [cf here and here] of external bodies), and the addition of other crises, such as the introduction of cholera by UN peacekeepers and the destruction caused by Hurricane Matthew . It’s also been marked by less-well-publicised – but important – small-scale successes in rebuilding (cf here, here and here)

As the New Year begins, many Haitians are seeking to look forward, using the memory of what has happened in the past to inspire future action. They are also awaiting a new government. On the 3rd of January, Jovenel Moise was confirmed as the new president-elect of the country, having received over 55% of the vote in the first round of presidential elections held in November. He will take office on 7 February. He has promised to focus on curbing corruption and growing food security.

Please pray:

  • for all whose hearts remain wounded by the events of 12 January 2010
  • for all who are still seeking to rebuild, that they may rebuild well and in a way that meets the needs of the most vulnerable … and for all who have had further losses since the earthquake
  • that national and local government leaders may have clear vision, an ability to prioritise, and the capacity to accomplish what is most necessary. Pray especially for the new president and those he will ask to help govern.
  • for justice for Haitians who have suffered because of the decisions made by international actors. Pray especially for proper funding of efforts to fight cholera, including efforts by the UN to fund their new plan.
  • that aid organisations will continue to learn from the experiences of Haiti and the impact of their work on the state there

*figures based on the full range of estimates for the death toll – see discussion here

World AIDS Day, Winter Cold, Northeast Nigeria, Colombia – 4 December 2016

In this week’s email:

  • World AIDS Day
  • Short Notes: Winter Cold, Northeast Nigeria, Colombia

This week’s Revised Common Lectionary readings offer a vision of the future, present encouragement, and challenge – the vision of the peaceable kingdom, in which all things are reconciled in Christ; an encouraging reminder in the epistle of the hope that Christians can receive now from Scripture and the Spirit; and the challenge of repentance that John the Baptist brings. May we – and all who encounter these readings – be inspired, encouraged and challenged!

World AIDS Day

“There’s really some great progress in terms of the HIV epidemic. But it’s … not past yet. HIV is a reality for us and I think it’s really important for us as a church that we must stay connected to this, or if we are not yet part of this, that we should become really involved in the fight against HIV and AIDS.”  World AIDS Day video by the Revd Christo Greyling, founder of Christian AIDS Bureau for Southern Africa (CABSA)

The past ten years have indeed seen some transformational shifts in the fight to end the HIV epidemic:

  • the numbers of people receiving treatment have improved hugely: in 2006, UNAIDS said that only 1.65 million people were on antiretroviral therapy in low and middle income countries. As of June 2016, UNAIDS estimates that 18.2 million people worldwide are receiving treatment.
  • mother-to-child transmission rates have fallen sharply. In South Africa, which has taken strong action to ensure appropriate ante-natal treatment, early mother-to-child transmission fell from more than 20% in 2004 to 1.8% in 2015.
  • Estimates of AIDS-related deaths have fallen sharply from a peak of roughly 2 million a year in 2005 to roughly 1.1 million a year in 2015
  • Low and middle-income countries have increased their investment in fighting AIDS by 46% in the five years from 2010 to 2015. In 2015, they spent US$ 10.8 billion.

These are causes for rejoicing – they represent millions of children born HIV-free and millions of HIV+ people living longer, healthier lives. We give thanks to God for those who have been part of these successes and for what they’ve enabled.

But at the same time, the good news isn’t the only news. As the new StopAIDS campaign says, “It ain’t over.” Treatment rates vary greatly from country to country and often within countries depending on your location or socio-economic status. There is a serious ‘prevention gap’ amongst adolescents and adults: UNAIDS notes: “New infections among young women aged 15-24 years have declined by only 6% between 2010 and 2015, while the rate of new

HIV infections among 25–49-year-old men and women is essentially flat. Meanwhile, new infections appear to be rising among people who inject drugs and men who have sex with men.”

What does this mean? If we look simply at young women, in 2015, an estimated 390,000 women between 15 and 24 became newly infected with HIV – that’s about 7500 young women a week. UNAIDS notes, “young women are facing a triple threat:

  • they are at high risk of becoming infected with HIV
  • they have low rates of testing and have
  • difficulting accessing and staying on treatment”

The high risk for young women stems from a range of causes. Our colleague Lyn van Rooyen, who runs CABSA, writes that primary factors include “child marriage, age disparate relationships, economic hardship and inequality – we still hear so many stories of ‘survival sex’, patriarchy and gender inequality … sexual and gender-based violence, poorer education for girls and young women, lack of specific information about HIV and HIV transmission, lack of comprehensive sexuality education, and biological vulnerability (the sexual organs of young women are more prone to trauma and micro tears, have a different pH etc, making them more vulnerable to infection).”

I (Maranda) remember sitting with a group of young women in South Africa. Their situations were, as is often true for young people the world over, complex and often contradictory. Society was telling them that education was important, and they could see the merit in aiming for or participating in higher education. But the older members of their church were expecting them to marry and immediately to give up work. Why then, they asked, should they continue with their education? Or should they reject what their church members were telling them? And what if you married and wound up being like the woman whose husband wouldn’t even give her enough money to buy a sanitary products? What should you do when your boyfriend was pressing you to take things further? Or when a friend was seeing an older man with a poor reputation, who was giving her gifts?  Amidst the questions, there was also a fear of attack (South Africa has one of the world’s highest rape rates); no woman went out alone after dark. There were so many areas of vulnerability – especially given the reluctance to mention, much less discuss, HIV.

For the sake of all who are vulnerable to HIV and AIDS, Christians – both those of us who are living with HIV and those who aren’t – need, as Christo Greyling says, to stay or get involved in the fight against the epidemic. That might be through working directly on prevention among young people, the way the Fikelela Project‘s ‘Agents of Change’ programme does, or by supporting such work financially. It might be by our showing in worship and the way we organise our church life that our churches are safe and welcoming spaces. It might be by sharing our own experience or expertise to inform others, or by seeking out information so that if someone comes to us with pastoral concerns relating to their status, we can listen well and understand the context. Or it might be getting involved in advocacy around finance and access to treatment: in September, the UK Government showed leadership by pledging £1.1 billion over three years to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, but there’s still a lot of work to do.

Please pray:

“Compassionate God, we cry out in our finiteness and frailty, knowing there are no cheap answers or quick fixes. We have a lack of words to express our feelings regarding the crises of our world. Grant us peace where we are groaning for grace and grieving for change.”

  • Pray for all who are living with HIV, and all who are affected by HIV and AIDS. Pray especially that all people may have access to treatment and may not experience discrimination because of their condition or that of family members.
  • Pray for all who mourn those who have died because of AIDS.
  • Pray that efforts to reduce new infections will be successful.
  • Give thanks for the ante-natal care that has done so much to halt mother to child transmission in some countries and pray that more countries are able to implement it and to help young people stay free from HIV.
  • World AIDS Day falls during the 16 Days of Activisim against Gender-Based Violence: pray specifically that countries will work to address issues like poverty and Gender-Based Violence that increase vulnerability to HIV. You might want to use the beautiful Creator God prayer by Musa Dube, found here.

Strengthen us and fill us with hope, that we may be able to continue to live with compassion in our struggle with HIV and AIDS.

  • Give thanks for the work of Christian organisations like CABSA helping churches to become aware of the issues around AIDS and to commit themselves to action.
  • Pray that churches may be places of welcome and safety, where people do not experience discrimination because of their HIV status.
  • Pray that churches may support people living with or affected by HIV – and give thanks for the many around the world who offer practical and spiritual care to those within and beyond their community.
  • Pray that churches will be able to offer their communities a safe, stable environment in which people can grow in Christ and find loving care when they face issues that could make them vulnerable to HIV.

The material in italics is from the latest CABSA World AIDS Day resources. You can find the full prayer and many further prayer resources on the CABSA website. Christian AidUSPG, and the Sanctuary Centre also have helpful resources.


Short Notes: Winter Cold, Northeast Nigeria, Colombia
Winter Cold

“In the bleak midwinter …” As parts of the UK have experienced the first cold weather of winter this past week, it’s also grown colder in southeastern Europe and the Middle East, where many refugees in Greece and the Balkans, Iraq, and Kurdistan (among other places) are inadequately protected against the freezing weather. Pray that asylum seekers and refugees in vulnerable situations will be given the resources they need to stay safe and well during the cold weather. Pray for more effective coordination of governmental and intergovernmental resources and policies to keep refugees and asylum seekers safe. Pray that churches may offer effective and useful assistance.

Action Point: Many charities – such as All We Can, CAFOD, and Embrace the Middle East, among others – offer ‘alternative gifts’ that include support for vulnerable refugees. Could you include these among your Christmas gifts to people?

Northeast Nigeria

Boko Haram’s attacks in Northeast Nigeria and Cameroon continue, with millions of people displaced by the violence. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization has expressed particular concern about hunger in Northeast Nigeria: the region has almost 2 million internally displaced people and more than 5 million who are facing acute food insecurity, including some who face famine. UNHCR has warned that 75,000 children are at risk of dying of hunger.

Please pray:

  •  for an end to the attacks and true peace for the region, as well as for comfort and healing for all who have suffered as a result of the violence.
  • in thanksgiving for residents of the region and those from the Nigerian government and outside agencies and groups who are working to assist the suffering.
  • for “a coordinated commitment between the Nigerian government, international partners, and UN agencies” and that the Nigerian government will link humanitarian aid and programmes for long-term development in the region
  • for international donors and the Nigerian government to provide the funding needed for relief and development.
  • for the life and witness of Christians in the region.

Colombia

It is a cause for rejoicing when steps towards peace are taken, especially in situations that have long seemed intractable. This week Colombia’s Congress ratified a peace agreement with the FARC rebels. The agreement is a revised version – with additional concessions from the rebels – of the deal that was rejected in a popular referendum earlier this Autumn. Its implementation would bring to an end a conflict that has stretched for decades and displaced millions.

The situation remains complex: congressional opponents of the deal boycotted the vote and suggest that even the revised version, which incorporates many of their proposals, offers too much impunity to rebels. The rebels state that they have begun to destroy explosives and to create the political grouping that will represent them in the legislature, but that circumstances are not yet ready to move to demobilisation points … while the Government is awaiting a ruling on the extent of its power to use fast-track legislative procedures to grant amnestry to jailed rebels, which is one of the preconditions  rebels have set for demobilisation. Even if the demobilisation begins in good time, the process is likely to be difficult.

And there are other concerns – peace talks are needed with other groups, and there are worryingly high levels of violence against human rights defenders, environmental activists and community leaders.

The President recently tweeted that the ratification of the accord gave rise to a new “chapter of hope” Please give thanks for the progress made and pray that that hope may be realised for all Colombians, and that the country may know peace, stability and justice.

Photograph: World Bank Photo Collection, Creative Commons License

Time for Creation, Peacemaking Sunday, South Sudan – 18 September 2016

Neighbours at Work, Climate, Environmental Defenders, Yemen – 12 March 2016

In this week’s prayer email:

  • Short Notes: Climate, Environmental Defenders, Yemen
  • Loving God’s world: our neighbours at work

The need for good work is our focus this week – and it also figures in the week’s Revised Common Lectionary Gospel, which contains the parable of the Prodigal Son. The father’s forgiveness and generosity is manifested primarily in his treatment of his wayward child – but the young man’s musings also suggest that the older man maintains fair relationships with those who work for him: “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!”

Pray that people in the UK and in other countries may have access to good work with fair remuneration and safe working conditions. And as International Women’s Day approaches, pray especially for increased justice for women in the working world.

Short Notes: Climate, Environmental Defenders, Yemen

  • There’s much that calls for prayer in recent developments around the climate – though also material for thanksgiving. Some commentators have focused on the spike in atmospheric temperatures for February, which soared 0.83 degrees centigrade over normal. While this isn’t the most reliable data, taken in tandem with the low extent of Arctic sea ice , concerns around the Greenland ice sheet, and four prior consecutive months of surface temperatures more than 1 degree over normal, it is a reminder of how urgent it is to take action to limit emissions.Please pray that all the warning signals we are experiencing will inspire governments, businesses and individuals to take action, especially action to speed up the drive for energy efficiency and less carbon-intensive energy generation. In particular:
    • Give thanks for the way that numerous EU governments pressed this week for the EU to up its emissions reduction targets in response to the Paris Agreement – and pray that such arguments are translated into action.
    • Give thanks, too, that China, which set energy consumption caps this week, is progressing more rapidly than expected in increasing energy efficiency – pray that this trend continues.
    • Pray for a meeting of the Canadian Prime Minister and US President this Thursday, from which news of further climate initiatives is anticipated.
    • And give thanks for the success in the UK of the Big Church Switch campaign, which is calling churches and individual Christians to change to renewable energy suppliers.
  • The assassination of Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres has drawn attention to the disturbing level of violence against people seeking to protect sensitive lands and waters and to ensure that indigenous peoples are properly consulted about projects that may affect their territory.  Global Witness states that killings of environmental defenders averaged slightly more than 2 a week in 2014.Berta Cáceres, recently the winner of a prestigious international environmental award, was protesting a series of hydropower dams for which there had not been appropriate consultation; three of her colleagues had already been murdered, and the government had not acted on international calls to offer her protection.Please:
    • Pray for all who mourn Cáceres.
    • Pray for the safety of her colleague Gustavo Castro, who was with her and was injured in the assassination, and for wisdom and safety for environmental and human rights defenders worldwide.
    • Pray for an end to the culture of impunity in Honduras and many other countries, which creates an atmosphere in which violence can flourish.
    • And pray that governments everywhere will have an understanding of and respect for creation and the rights of indigenous peoples.Action Point: There’s a Spanish-language petition asking for protection for Gustavo Castro here. If you’re comfortable with Spanish, might you sign?
  • The murder of 16 people, including 4 nuns and volunteers, at a nursing home run by the Missionaries of Charity in Aden, Yemen, has provoked shock and condemnation around the world. It is also a reminder of the wider continued toll on civilians of Yemen’s conflict: the UN has recently stated that more than 80% of the Yemeni population is in need of some form of protection or humanitarian assistance.In a statement to the Security Council last week,  the UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator said: “The most pressing concern today is the protection of civilians, millions of whom face relentless and often indiscriminate bombing and shelling of urban areas by the parties to the conflict every day … Protected places, such as hospitals, schools and homes continue to be hit by all parties … In the absence of a politically negotiated end to the conflict, the security situation across much of the country is rapidly deteriorating.”He called on the international community “to impress upon the parties to this conflict their obligations to take greater measures to protect civilians, to facilitate unconditional and sustained access to all parts of Yemen” and asked the Council “to press the parties to resume peace talks and agree to a cessation of hostilities.”

    The European Parliament recently called for an EU arms embargo on Saudi Arabia, which stands accused of targeting civilians in its air war against Houthi rebels.

    Please pray:

    • in thanksgiving for the courage and witness of those Christians who have continued to minister in that country despite the personal danger
    • for the safety of Fr. Tom Uzhunnalil, a Salesian priest from India, abducted during the attack, and for the superior of the Missionaries of Charity community, who escaped and is under police protection.
    • for all civilians suffering because of the conflict
    • that the international community will continue to press for protection, humanitarian access, and peace talks and will make progress in these areas with all parties to the conflict.

Loving God’s World: Our neighbours at work

What is good work?

This vital question underlies many of our current areas of concern. And this week, Fairtrade Fortnight and International Women’s Day (8 March) offer an interesting opportunity to reflect on it – and on some ways we can express love of God and neighbour in rediscovering the relationships at the heart of work.

In Christian teaching, work in its broadest sense is an integral part of much human life. Many point to the  creation accounts to show just how fundamental: man is put into the Garden of Eden “to work and to keep it,” and the early chapters of Genesis point to the fact that caring for creation and  ‘ruling’ over it as God’s stewards* are part of what makes human beings human.

Indeed, throughout the Old Testament, work is shown to be inherently relational at a number of levels.  Not only are the materials for work – whether physical resources or skills – gifts from God,  to whom we are responsible for our use of them. The law and the prophets also indicate that the right use of them – a use that provides good work –  involves provision for the needs of the self, family and community in a way that respects the humanity and interdependence of all within the community. Workers are to receive fair wages; all are to partake of the Sabbath rest; all are to be protected by the law; every fifty years the Jubilee is to restore all families’ access to the most fundamental resource – land; a certain percentage of the fruits of human labour are to be set aside to give thanks to God and to provide for those who cannot provide for themselves.

And yet, just as sin distorts all relationships, it distorts the relationships of work. The Old and New Testament show us a world in which, despite God’s commandments, people all too quickly prioritise not right relationship in work but the accumulation of power and goods. In place of the ideal, they are withholding workers’ wages, ignoring the Sabbath, pushing the land beyond its capacity, depriving those without power of their due rights, taking advantage of others’ misfortunes to aggregate assets, and hoarding what should be offered to God and others.

We recognise this world. We live in it. And we participate in its injustices, caught up in a system where the products of work are valued, but the people behind them often seem to be seen simply as units of production … and their needs – and the needs of the natural world – are what an economist might call an ‘externality’. And the potential for distorted relationships is amplified as  we become ever less likely personally to know the people who provide the goods and services we use. In particular, globalisation’s attenuated supply chains mean that we are unlikely ever to meet many of the people who grow the crops we eat, respond to the calls we place, or create the clothing and technology we use every day.

So how do we respond?

“Be careful,” the Church of Sweden once warned, “there are people in your shopping trolley.”

The slogan was on one of their posters supporting Fairtrade, and it got at the heart of the matter. Part of our calling as Christians is to refuse to allow ourselves to be focused simply on work’s products and the way they relate to our wants and needs, and instead to care as much as we can for the brothers and sisters whose labour provides them … as Dewi Hughes said, to recognise that our interaction with what people’s work produces makes them the ‘neighbours’ we are commanded to love.

Fair Trade

is one way of doing that. At its heart, Fair Trade is about restoring the human dimension to some of the most historically problematic working and trading relationships – those of small producers selling to often vastly more powerful marketers and retailers. Built into its standards – whether for Fairtrade products or Fair Trade organizations – is a commitment to paying a price for goods that relates to the costs of sustainable production, taking into account both people’s needs and the environment’s. But that’s not all: there’s also a commitment to prepayment so that producers don’t fall into debt, to the honouring of contracts and long-term partnerships, to ensuring safe working conditions and the right of people to organise and have input into their working conditions. There’s a ban on forced labour and a commitment to ending discrimination on the basis of gender. And there are environmental standards, which ensure that products don’t ‘cost the earth.’

When we buy a Fairtrade-labelled product, or any product from a Fair Trade Organization like Traidcraft or CafeDirect or Divine Chocolate, therefore, we’re signalling that we care enough about our neighbour to want to guarantee them ‘good work’.

That’s part of the success of Fair Trade. It’s not just about the roughly 5,000 Fairtrade products and £1.6 billion in Fairtrade retail sales in the UK … or the 1.65 million farmers, workers and producers who benefit from the international Fairtrade market and who last year received over 100 million Euros in Fairtrade premiums (in addition to the price they received for their goods).

It’s not just about the maternity clinics and mobile clinics and new forms of industry and wheelchairs for the elderly and computer classrooms and electrification schemes that Fairtrade has enabled producer groups to fund.

It’s also about the wider change in perceptions. Fair Trade’s growth has shaken conventional economics’ view that we are selfish beings who care only about our wants and price. It’s showed that where people have enough disposable income to have choices, love of neighbour can be a factor in the way we choose to allocate our spending.

Looking more broadly …

what are other ways in which we can look beyond the products of labour to the people involved and help to ensure their wellbeing?

  • The garment industry employs significant numbers of people globally, and there are major issues around safe working conditions, the right to organise, and decent wages. Labour behind the Label, War on Wantand Fashion Revolution  ask us to raise awareness of the people involved in the sector – and to press for better conditions and wages. Could you visit one of their websites and participate in their campaigns?
  • Traidcraft was one of several agencies that led campaigning to get an independent supermarket ‘watchdog’ to monitor major retailers’ treatment of suppliers. They continue to draw attention to the downward pressure supermarkets exert on suppliers, which has a major impact on the people at the bottom of the supply chain both in the UK and in other countries.Recent controversies in this area have focused on UK milk prices, with a parliamentary committee report on farmgate prices noting: “We question assurance from the retail sector that there is no link between the price at which supermarkets sell to their customers and the price supermarkets pay to farmers … the chronic low price of milk sold through supermarkets inevitably disadvantages farmers in the longer term. Supermarkets may choose to sell milk cheaply as a loss leader, but farmers must not be the victims of the supermarket wars currently taking place in the UK. Progress is uneven amongst supermarkets and assurances must be met with action.”Could you check with your supermarket to find out what price they give farmers for milk? Might you support retailers (or special schemes, such as Morrison’s Milk for Farmers) that seek to give a higher amount to farmers?
  • The Living Wage campaign certifies employers who choose to pay their staff a wage that is calculated according to the basic cost of living in the UK. On their website, you can check to see who is a living wage employer. If an entity with which you regularly interact isn’t one, could you encourage them to become one? If you have a pension, ShareAction has an easy way for you to ask your pension fund to press the companies in which it invests on this topic. You might also want to hold an event to raise awareness of the concept.
  • The right of workers to organise and bargain collectively is enshrined in an international convention which the UK and European countries have all ratified. But not all countries have ratified the convention, and there are many where despite the ratification, those who lead protests against poor working conditions face significant harrassment and threats. The International TUC named ten countries as the world’s worst for systematic violations of workers’ rights: one of these was Colombia. Could you join in Justice for Colombia’s campaign action on behalf of a ‘disappeared’ trade unionist?
  • Two groups which are often subject to injustice in the UK are immigrant domestic workers and care workers. Could you ask members of the House of Lords to support Lord Hylton’s amendments to the Immigration Bill, which are designed to keep immigrant domestic workers from being tied to abusive employers?
  • Support people who are seeking to create good jobs, especially for the most marginalised. Perhaps this is something you can do in your work. Charities are also beginning to work with the private sector: a new initiative from Christian Aid, Traidcraft, Practical Action, Twin and Challenges Worldwide links investors with small and medium enterprises in rural areas that have the potential to grow.

*Many environmental theologians emphasise that the term ‘rule’ or ‘dominion’ would have expressed stewardship  and a duty of care as well as power.

In Times of Conflict

Download here CCOW’s “In Times of Conflict” resource, with links to:

  • prayers relating to remembrance and peace
  • prayers for peace and peacemaking
  • prayers for specific areas in conflict, including prayers written by the people affected by the conflict
  • ways of supporting people affected by conflict