Today we are going to do something a little different. I want you to grab a partner – maybe someone sitting beside you or someone sitting in the row in front of or behind you, and I want you to look at the tags in your shirts or dresses to see where they are made. And when you are done, I want you to shout out the locations.
One of my favorite musical groups, Sweet Honey in the Rock, is an a cappella women’s group that sings spiritual and political songs. One of their songs is called “Are My Hands Clean?”[i] Here are the words:
I wear garments touched by hands from all over the world; 35% cotton, 65% polyester, the journey begins in Central America; In the cotton fields of El Salvador; In a province soaked in blood, Pesticide-sprayed workers toil in a broiling sun; Pulling cotton for two dollars a day.
Then we move on up to another rung—Cargill; A top-forty trading conglomerate, takes the cotton through the Panama Canal; Up the Eastern seaboard, coming to the US of A for the first time; In South Carolina; At the Burlington mills; Joins a shipment of polyester filament courtesy of the New Jersey petro-chemical mills of; Dupont.
Dupont strands of filament begin in the South American country of Venezuela; Where oil riggers bring up oil from the earth for six dollars a day; Then Exxon, largest oil company in the world; Upgrades the product in the country of Trinidad and Tobago; Then back into the Caribbean and Atlantic Seas; To the factories of Dupont; On the way to the Burlington mills; In South Carolina; To meet the cotton from the blood-soaked fields of El Salvador.
In South Carolina; Burlington factories hum with the business of weaving oil and cotton into miles of fabric; for Sears; Who takes this bounty back into the Caribbean Sea; Headed for Haiti this time—May she be one day soon free—; Far from the Port-au-Prince palace; Third world women toil doing piece work to Sears specifications; For three dollars a day my sisters make my blouse.
It leaves the third world for the last time; Coming back into the sea to be sealed in plastic for me; This third world sister; And I go to the Sears department store where I buy my blouse; On sale for 20% discount.
Are my hands clean?[ii]
The point of the song and the point of us thinking about where our clothes come from is that there is a lot more to our everyday living than we can ever imagine. My shirt being made in Guatemala or the Dominican Republic is just a small piece of the story. Many hands touch that shirt before I ever purchase the shirt – in fact, even the hands that sell me the shirt have a story. Somewhere, and some times multiple somewheres, along the way our garments are a part of a bigger story – one that regularly involves injustice, oppression, and poverty. And through our participation in the process, we become a part of that system of sin.
I remember when I worked for a non-profit that advocated for the people of Guatemala, a story had come out about the Gap and how they were using manufacturers that were what we would call “sweat shops.” I remember telling my boss that I was thinking of no longer shopping at the Gap, and he asked me why? I thought my reason would be obvious, but before I could elaborate, he explained that almost every clothing manufacturer was touched by the sinful industry of oppression and injustice. And if not our clothes, then our food or personal care products could also be perpetrators. The idea of boycotting one company was pointless to him because a boycott could only make the smallest of dents in an unjust world.
The despair that he created for me that day was like the despair that Paul has in our lesson from Romans today. “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” I know his words are a bit convoluted, but basically, Paul is articulating how hard doing the right thing is – even when we know the right thing to do, we cannot seem to do the right thing. And that is assuming we know the right thing to do in the first place!
So what are we supposed to do in this messy world of sin, with our sinful participation in that world? Well, the church invites us to confess. Every week after we pray, before we partake of the holy, cleansing meal, we confess our sins – known and even those unknown to us (like those injustices caused by simply putting on a shirt today). And we confess aloud together – so that we know that Mrs. Edith sins, just like Hunter sins, and just like I sin. And we even admit together that not just our words and deeds are sinful – sometimes our thoughts are sinful too. We admit that even though we bit our tongues this week, the sinful thought was still there, letting evil creep into our lives.
But after the confession, an incredible thing happens. We are forgiven. We are forgiven again, for the millionth time, and invited to the table as a reconciled community. We are fed together, having fully acknowledged our sinfulness, and recognizing how we all have work to do. Finally, we are sent out into the world: to try a little better this week, to care a little more, to long for justice a little more, and to keep trying to seek and serve Christ in all persons. Our worship and scripture tell us, “no,” our hands are not clean. But we are blessed by the God who saves us, and we go forth into the world to keep trying. Amen.
[ii] As found at http://collegeofsanmateo.edu/integrativelearning/learningcommunities/commons/James/AreMyHands Clean.pdf on July 3, 2014.