By Father Jeremy Tobin, O.Praem
Recently I got a request from someone in Bangladesh urging people to sign a petition seeking full and fair compensation from two national clothing retailers for the survivors of a horrific fire that killed more than 1,100 people in a clothing factory a year ago.
The individual, Aklima Khanam, was a 20-year-old survivor. Some of you may remember the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York around the turn of the last century where almost 200 immigrant women died. They were locked in to keep them working. This galvanized the new movement for worker rights. The rest is history.
The event last year in Bangladesh dwarfs what happened 100 years ago in the United States. Here, too, survivors say they were locked in to keep them working and the cost in human life and injury was staggering.
Looking at the way workers are treated in these international sweat shops unencumbered by American labor law begins another chapter in human oppression and exploitation. It is always the most vulnerable poorest classes of people affected, especially women and children.
This came to me right after we celebrated total destruction. Jesus faced a rigged trial and was tortured and executed in the most grizzly way possible. His followers were dispersed. The Scriptures told how this was the plan of God, and Jesus did what he promised, he rose from the dead. His resurrection was the final statement that injustice of every kind would come to an end.
There will always be a push back from the kind of exploitation I just outlined, and, despite the lack of material resources, such movements will not stop. We always preach the death and resurrection of Jesus as a unit. One explains the other. It also says that no matter how much evil we encounter, people will keep getting back up to resist it.
These next two years we will celebrate the 50th anniversaries of the two major civil rights laws in our country. The struggle for civil rights and worker justice did not begin in the 1960s or 1860s, but from the first time one group exploited another.
The theological inspiration for every movement for social justice can be found in the Scriptures we read on Easter, in the Easter season and throughout Lent. The prophets are quite explicit about justice and fairness. Those who have been exploited can look to the trial and execution of Jesus. The followers of Jesus came from the exploited and marginalized.
Things we rely on as basic: food and clothes are produced all over the world by young, poor, invisible people. When we buy brand named clothes at high prices, we have no idea where they were made. Labels tell very little. Think for a moment about an $800 suit going at clearance for less than a $100, then try and figure out the real cost of its manufacture. Then think about the wages the workers get who make the clothes. No, the answer is not to react and make your own clothes. The answer is to change the system that is built on exploitation.
We can turn to food and those who grow and harvest the crops. That leads us to the broken immigration system. We just saw pictures of Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson reaching through the border fence trying to give someone communion during the Mass for unity the bishops had at the Mexico-Arizona border.
The point is the endless push back for justice. They can build fences. They can build sweat shops, but people will always fight for justice. This is the power of resurrection over death. Real Christians know that our religion is built on optimism. Easter is the great feast that anything resembling despair, weakness, misery, etc. will be overcome by the power of justice, the joy of freedom and the peace that comes out of the empty tomb.
(Father Jeremy Tobin, O.Praem, lives at the Priory of St. Moses the Black, Jackson)