While waiting for my course on Christianity and Social Power to begin, I observed the students sitting at the large ring of tables around the room. Though technically classified as a seminar, the course is taught by the illustrious Kathryn Tanner and is consequently filled with approximately 40 eager pupils.
The first thing I noticed: in front of all but two students was a glowing apple, that ubiquitous symbol of cutting edge and downright cool western technology. There were original Macbooks, Macbook Pros, Macbook Airs, and iPads propped up on stands. And I could not help but let the irony wash over me: here we are in a course on Christianity’s frequent complicity with exploitative power structures and in a majority Christian-identified room we have played directly into the hand of the dominant culture. Oh yes, and I too had a glowing apple at my place.
I like to think of myself as a generally socially responsible person. I purchase only fair trade coffee to brew at home and I study at local coffee shops that tend to brew fair trade blends. I drive a car that was rated #5 for fuel efficiency in the year it was made. I research the nonprofits to which I donate to ensure their program strategy makes sense and that my funds will be employed strategically. But sometimes, I must admit, when I am rushed and Starbucks is the only convenient option and they are not brewing fair trade (which they typically are not), I do not forgo my cup of coffee. And I shop at H&M because, on a student budget, who can afford American Apparel? And despite this recent This American Life exposé, I love my Macbook. So what gives?
I think I manifest what we typically refer to as “liberal guilt:” that pervasive feeling of shame that I was born into privilege, and that every dollar I spend on luxuries such as Starbucks coffee and an iPod is a double injustice: it is both money that could have gone to those who cannot even afford to eat, let alone buy an iPod, and it is also playing into an unjust structure that is stacked against the oppressed and marginalized. Further, I feel guilty about feeling guilty. After all, it is sort of imperialistic and narcissistic to think that I, a white westerner, can save the day for an exploited worker in China.
And the truth is, this guilt only gets me so far. My internal narrative goes something like this: “Every morning I brew fair trade at home and bring it with me in a reusable travel mug, so it is okay if I buy one cup of Starbucks every once in a while.” Or, “I have to have a laptop for my work and these companies are all exploitative, so I might as well buy my Macbook.”
In other words, I maintain my ethical convictions up to the point at which I am only slightly inconvenienced: I have to carry my travel mug around with me all day, I may have to ride home in the rain when I bike to class, I have to drive out of my way to Trader Joe’s to buy fair trade. But when the stakes become higher – not owning a laptop or buying more expensive clothes that are guaranteed to be made under fair working conditions at a fair wage – I cave. And, from my observation in my class, it appears most of us do.
The fact is, I am privileged just by virtue of the fact that I have the means to study the relationship between Christianity and social power – at an Ivy League institution nonetheless. But what bearing does that have on me if my ethic is inconsistent with the conclusions I take from the course? Can I – or can any of us who are privileged – ever fully live into an ostensibly impossible ethic, or are we doomed to a life of hypocrisy?