First published May 27, 2013
In case you hadn't noticed, we live in a discriminatory society. It's encased in our flesh, and pops out its head whenever we define ourselves against somebody or something else. However, we love the underdog, the lonely hero and the outcast winner. How many movies, stories and songs are written and performed in which the outsider wins?
In that light, we love to see the campaign started in the U.S.A.: #FitchTheHomeless. We love it that here is a guy who is challenging a large corporate bully. The CEO of the American apparel label "Abercrombie and Fitch", Mike Jefferies is reported as saying: 'In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids," he says. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don't belong [in our clothes], and they can't belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.' (newsfeed.time.com)
In order to combat this behaviour, Greg Karber, an L.A. writer went around, found all the second hand A&F clothing and gave them out to the homeless on Skid Row in L.A. He then encouraged people watching to go home, find their A&F clothing and give it out just as he had. This sounds noble, right? Who can argue with something that attacks a corporate giant, its exclusionary policies, and helps clothe the homeless people at the same time?
Of course when we really think about this though, there is something deeply troubling about this display of philanthropic behaviour.
For a start, it's doing nothing to combat homelessness in society in any systematic manner. It's just a small bandage for a chronic disease. But to be fair, that was not his goal in the video anyway, just perhaps a fortunate by-product. But herein lies the real issue; the deepest problem is that in this ad we are actually exploiting the poor, using them as a resource, to fight our essentially middle-class war. Because that is exactly what this is, this is the middle class re-enacting the fight against the school bully at school, taking part in make-believe Hollywood fight for meaning.
This is about us middle-class wage earners and students striving for meaning. But this is not what homeless people care about. They are not concerned with fighting A&F, they are concerned with getting a job, earning a wage, living indoors, providing for a family, normal social contact. This campaign will not help this. Instead it is exploiting their presence in society, using them as a tool to fight their battle, only to be quickly pushed aside when the battle is won, or more likely, fades back into the murky waters of the Internet.
But I didn't write this to say 'stop your social action'. Instead, I want to say, as Christians, we have a better way. As we often find in life, the shape of the gospel has an application to our social conscious' and the way we interact with society. Jesus Christ, is the answer, as all good Sunday school kids know.
In his incarnation, Jesus, instead of simply watching humans losing the battle against sin and with the world falling apart, became a human. His incarnation is a radical identification with the world in its deepest darkness and sin. It offers a new model for our engagement that pushes beyond our internet slactivism and our supermarket vision of fair-trade. Want to help the homeless? Go and actually live with them, do what Jesus did and talk with them, find out what they want, what their desires are, who they are and what their stories are.
Go out on a mission with a group like drug-arm who form actual relationships with these people. Don't use them as weapons in the middle-class desire to assert our identity in our market-driven world. Want to give farmers in the majority world a fair trade? Actually find out where your coffee beans come from, don't let the choice be between $9 or $11 at the supermarket, find out who they are, look around like this coffee brand did.
There is something real when we can really know what's going on behind our products, behind the eyes of people who have had to struggle in our world. Of course, don't forget also the ultimate goal of the incarnation, the sharing of the good news. In our identification, in actually caring, we offer an avenue for our own communication of the gospel, which shows that we are in fact interested in these people, not just in adding to our tally of 'souls saved'.
Don't hear me as condemning the work of Greg Karber, he has latched onto something true, our society is one driven by superficial image and success, not caring for the least and the lost. But, remember that Jesus did not just give us some clothes, he gave his whole life in his identification with us, something he knew would happen when he chose to become human. Remember that we have a better way.
The gospel gives real, physical hope, if only we would remember this and let it impact our actions beyond skin deep.
Dale Wang (22) is studying his final year of a BA(hons) in Classical Studies at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch. He has been heavily involved in the Christian Union on campus, being their communications officer and leading bible studies.
Dale Wang's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/dale-wang.html