A time to weep

I had an allotment post planned for today but although I believe with all my heart that growing food well is one of the most important, life-giving and even holy things we can do, now is not the time for me to write about gardening.

Of all the images that have filled our screens during this summer of horrors – and I do not remember a summer like this for horror – the ones that haunt me continually are from Ferguson, Missouri, where black teenager Michael Brown was gunned down by a policeman and his body left untended in the street for four hours.

Michael Brown was unarmed and he was shot at least six times, Eyewitnesses say he had his hands in the air. He was due to start college two days later.

I have a son just one year older than Michael Brown. I am writing this late at night and I know that soon he will be emerging onto the streets of Edinburgh, elated if his show at the Fringe has gone well, perhaps more subdued if it hasn’t.

Either way, he and his university friends may be a bit loud. There’s a lot of tension to release after a show. But they won’t attract attention from the police. (And even if they did, we in the UK do not, thank God, routinely give our police officers firearms.)

How is that one teenager can walk down the street freely with his friends, while another ends up dead in the road?

How is it that I can be rejoicing in my son’s achievements while a mother in Missouri has been robbed of the chance ever again to hug hers and tell him: ‘Well done: I’m so proud of you’?

I have read some powerful posts about Ferguson this week. Two that stood out were Black Bodies, White Souls by Austin Channing and  The Cross and the Molotov Cocktail by Christena Cleveland (links at the bottom of this post).

Both are strongly worded, disturbing challenges to people like me, white people who claim to follow Jesus.

These women – and the pain and anger I have seen in the news from Ferguson – have made me face up to what I know in theory but mostly try not to accept as reality: there are structural injustices built into Western society (let’s not kid ourselves this is just about the US) that work in favour of people like me and my son.

I can’t write about the allotment today  – not because the allotment is unimportant but because to ignore what I have seen these past days would be a form of walking by on the other side, pretending that the people who are bleeding at the edge of the road are somehow nothing to do with me.

In fact it would be worse than that because what I need to think about today is not just that the mother of a boy the same age as my son is grieving, but also my own complicity in the structures that are compounding that grief.

I need to think about how my life might shore up those injustices, and what I am going to do about it.

I highly recommend these posts: Black Bodies, White Souls by Austin Channing; The Cross and the Molotov Cocktail by Christena Cleveland.

There is a very full and thoroughly referenced timeline of the events in Ferguson here.

 

the Magnificat and the shopping centre

To prepare for Advent this year I read the Magnificat, that famous song of Mary that is recorded in Luke’s gospel. Soon after that I went to Broomhill, an area of Sheffield almost halfway between where we live and the city centre. I hadn’t been for a few weeks and I was shocked by the changes I found.

Together, the two experiences combined to convince me (and I know I’ve been slow) that it’s impossible to take Advent seriously and continue to shop like a typical Western consumer.

This is what I found in Broomhill.

on a roll

This used to be an independent sandwich shop.

Blackwells

This was a bookshop.

Williamsons

This is an excellent hardware store which has been trading in Sheffield for fifty years. It’s moving to the bookshop premises because they are smaller. Not because it is short of things to sell but because the landlord refused to renew their lease, preferring to hand it to Sainsbury’s instead. (I do not know why Broomhill needs a Sainsbury’s only a few doors away from Eurospar in one direction and Tesco in the other but that is what it will get.)

Cream

This was a coffee shop.  It had, a seasonal menu that changed regularly and it stocked local food, such as the excellent Our Cow Molly ice cream.

Our Cow Molly is part of a family-run dairy farm that was set up in 1947 and now numbers eighty cows, which graze on top of one of Sheffield’s famous seven hills. When the current owner’s grandfather started the business sixty years ago, a bottle of milk had the same value as a loaf of bread or a bottle of beer. Now the big traders have forced the price of milk so low that hundreds of dairy farmers are going out of business. ‘We didn’t want to be next so Our Cow Molly dairy ice cream was born!’ explains their website.

The owner of Cream has sold the lease to Costa Coffee, a global chain that already has several branches in Sheffield, each serving an identical menu. Just to be sure, I emailed Costa and asked them whether individual branches were allowed to stock locally sourced food. They replied: ‘The store will have to stock the same products as the rest of our stores in line with our company policy.’

This globalised, one-size-fits-all way of doing business is wrecking our world. It’s destroying individuality, creativity and local resilience. It places power in the hands of a few and forces the rest of us to do things their way. The global food industry in particular is one that screams injustice, whether that’s in the treatment of small scale producers, the conditions in which animals are kept to ensure low prices or the terrible havoc wreaked on the land by large scale agricultural practices.*

In the Magnificat, a pregnant teenager sings of themes that recur throughout the Bible: of justice and equality and of God overthrowing the power structures of the world. ‘He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly,’ cries Mary. ‘He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.’ **

When I read the Magnificat this year, I felt more than ever the dissonance between joining in Mary’s celebration and continuing to spend money without thinking about where it is going. I buy more stuff in December than at any other time. I don’t want my money to contribute to wrecking the environment and putting more power in the hands of people who have too much already.

So as a family we have drawn up some criteria for our shopping and present-giving this month. As far as possible, we will try to buy and give things that meet at least one of the following criteria, things that are:

:: locally produced, or
:: recycled, or
:: sold by an independent retailer, or
:: organic, or
:: fairly traded or
:: hand made originals

We won’t be shopping at big retailers that shirk their responsibility to pay corporation tax. In general I won’t be shopping at supermarkets but I’m making an exception for our local Co-op. That’s partly because the Co-op sells more fairly traded goods than any other supermarket, and also because there’s a small branch only five minutes’ walk from our house. I’m absolutely convinced that if it went out of business we’d get Tesco or Sainsbury’s moving in and tightening still further the grip they have on our buying choices.

I know this isn’t perfect. I know to my shame that we’ll probably still consume more in one month that some families in other countries do in a year. I know loads of people of all faiths and none have been doing this kind of thing for ages and we have been slow to get going. But it’s a start. It’s only by beginning that we’ll find out where to go next.

Joanna Blythman’s books are especially helpful for understanding more about the food industry.
** Tom Wright’s Luke for Everyone really helped me understand the revolutionary nature of Mary’s song.