Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Clouds of Witness

Here, in a nutshell, is the problem with boycotts.

Jesus turned it into wine, he washed his disciples' feet in it and walked across it, according to stories told in the Bible. Water is a sacred thing, the United Church of Canada says, and should not be bought and sold like any other commodity.

"It carries great spiritual strength for communities of faith," David Hallman, the church's director of energy and the environment, said in a telephone interview.

Water is an essential element of life, Hallman said, and so is considered as sacred as life itself.

"Because we see water as part of the fundamental elements of life, we see it as part of the public trust."
It's not that I disagree with the idea that bottled water raises problems. But all bottled drinks contain a large amount of water; to pick on bottled water as the "problem" is just foolish.

And there is that commodification issue again, which Western Christianity especially seems to love to buy into. It isn't people that are sacred, or the whole: it is things, items, "stuff" like bottled water.

This is a real issue:

Toronto's annual multi-denominational Easter Walk, for instance, had a water theme this year, with churchgoers joined by activists as they marched through the downtown.

At stops throughout the walk, members of Catholic, Anglican and United Churches explored various issues surrounding water, including privatization and difficulties by the world's poor to access clean water.

Kairos, a Toronto-based inter-religious group, helped organize the walk.

The group has been actively campaigning against water privatization for two years.
But I'm not sure boycotting bottled water does very much for it. Indeed, the issue is one connected (oddly enough) to Hallowe'en: and that's the question of trust.

We don't quite trust the strangers around us, so only packaged candy should be dispensed at the front door. No more popcorn balls or homemade treats, no more inviting children into your "haunted house." Rather than work on what causes us to distrust each other (at the bottom, an economic system that fragments us into disposable widgets who matter nothing in the larger scheme of "the economy". If I hear another economist talk about how some must suffer so the rest may prosper, I may do violence on his John Stuart Mill-stuffed head!), we simply hunker down a little lower, and call that defensive posture "normal." (Gee, maybe the French have a point!) We don't trust the water company anymore, and we hear from the opponents of bottled water that it's all just municipal sourced H20, so we make sure we buy "spring water," preferably from exotic sources, which just reinforces the privatization of water in 3rd world countries. And all in an attempt to avoid the ubiquitous liquid candy dispensed at every fast food restaurant every 3 feet in America. (At the end of my block, on a busy thoroughfare, there are 3 fast food restaurants next to each other. You can walk from parking lot to parking lot to get to each one. Not to mention all the small local restaurants which line the main road, all with soft drink dispensers in their kitchens.)

Ironies abound.

So is the response a boycott of bottled water? I've told you the story of my friend, a UCC pastor, who was berated, along with all the UCC pastors in his town, for not supporting a boycott of Taco Bell when there was a dispute over how the tomato supplier in Florida paid the migrant workers who picked the crops. Turned out the boycott was not a simple matter of standing up for migrant workers, but it also meant putting jobs in his town, in his church, at risk.

Actions have unforeseen consequences. Murphy's Law applies even to the well-intentioned.

And, of course, I haven't shopped in Wal-Mart in years. One of the three fast food places near me is a McDonald's, another restaurant that hasn't had my custom for a decade now, and didn't get it much before that. I'm sure I'll have them on their knees soon. I am, in other words, not much for boycotts. I don't like those places; I don't spend my money there. End of discussion. Should they stay in business? Well, I knew a lovely couple in southern Illinois who owed their incomes to Wal-Mart, and were grateful for the store. When I lived there, I shopped there occassionally, if only for them. Such is the nature and complexity of Christian ministry.

But is this action even sensible? What are we trying to accomplish, when we declare an object sacred, set apart as more important in God's creation than anything else? The Hebrews and the Celts called certain places "holy." For the Hebrews, it was to commemorate the active presence of God, to tie God to the material world as we are material creatures. For the Celts, holy ground was a "thin place" where the ephemeral and the material met and could be known. Holy ground served much the same purpose as the named places in the Hebrew Scriptures. Is water, then, "holy," simply because it is water? Or is it holy because we need some way to transcend economics and self-interest, and this is all we've got?

The problem of water is the problem of life itself, and what we are doing to it. Water is a valuable commodity around the world, in part because of scarcity, in part because of industrializtion. A great deal of water usage is for oil well drilling, manufacturing, construction (concrete): in short, all those things we take for granted in America as necessary for making our lives comfortable. Water is used for those things, or polluted in the pursuit of making those things, and since we don't see it and don't live near it (how many of you have seen a refinery complex, or know someone who lives near one? Recall the opening scenes of "Blade Runner" and remove any signs of life, and you have an idea what they are like. And they use water, too.) we don't think about it. What we think about is bottled water. Which is nice, I suppose.

But I'm not sure it isn't hacking at the branches, rather than the root, of the tree of evil. Wendell Berry counsels that we think locally, act locally. This could be one more reason why.

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