06/26/2013 02:06 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2013

Underwear in the New Jerusalem

It was Memorial Day weekend, I was attending a conference in Chicago, and I realized that I had not packed any underwear. Just to be clear, for those of you familiar with Chicago on Memorial Day, I was not attending that conference. This was the annual gathering of the North American Patristics Society (NAPS). "Patristics" is the academic study of the writers and culture of the early Church. This is a respectable establishment. Underwear seemed advisable.

Despite the sleepy acronym, I get a certain buzz from NAPS. The people I meet there are genuinely supportive of each other's work -- which is not a given at academic conferences. But more than that, NAPS is a where I get to interact with my predecessors in the faith. They are not universally pleasant people, but they are not something that I will ever completely understand, explain away, and leave behind. This was something I tried to get at in the piece on the Communion of the Saints that I posted a few weeks ago. The Mothers and Fathers of the Church walk around with me. If I complain about the ways they lived and the things they said, they throw the problems right back at me. They ask embarrassing questions. They make me think.

For example, when I walked into the Gap on Michigan Avenue, I was more than usually aware of how white I was compared to the people working in the store. The ratio of African-Americans and Latinos to whites seemed almost the perfect inverse of the one I see in my school. I know what my students' ambitions are, but when I saw those faces, all darker and younger than mine, I wondered what aspirations these kids were putting off because they were too busy making a living on retail wages. However, if the young woman who waited on me was resentful, she didn't show it. African-American, with a tight, butch haircut and clunky glasses, her smile and good cheer seemed genuine. If anyone was resentful, it was me. Twenty dollars for two pair of grey, cotton boxer briefs. It seemed like a lot of money for so little cloth.

Of course, I was mistaken.

After all, it had only been a few weeks since the collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, in which more than a thousand workers in an assortment of clothing factories were killed. And while, to my knowledge, those factories were not involved in manufacturing my underwear, as of this writing, the Gap has refused to sign an accord on workplace safety in Bangladesh. Consumers want nice underwear at cheap prices. Competition to produce cheap underwear leads to pitiful wages and unsafe working conditions. Unsafe working conditions leads to cotton stained with blood.

I was reminded of this by one of the commenters who responded to the piece I mentioned above, wondering if the Communion of Saints would include the pope who approved of slavery. The question confused me. You mean there was only one pope who approved of slavery? Spending as much time as I do reading about the culture of Late Antiquity, I've almost come to accept slavery as a given, at least as an academic. But whether there were one or a hundred, I believe popes will have to give an account of their actions just like everyone else. Of course, alongside these slavery-endorsing popes, my reader might want to consider Leo XIII, author of the encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), in which he argued that workers have the right to organize and are entitled to just wages and decent working conditions. He could add a list of papal and episcopal declarations on the evils of free market capitalism that violates the essential human rights of workers, along with biographies of hundreds of Catholic activists, social workers -- and even the occasional martyred bishop -- who have stood up for those rights.

I suspect, however, that this reader was more interested in scoring points than taking seriously the evolution of Catholic social thought. Fair enough. But to score a real point, you need to take a real risk. It takes no particular moral courage for an American writing on this side of the Civil War to condemn slavery. It's just a matter of choosing the winning side. It's another thing entirely when the issue is still hot, when blood is being spilled and the outcome is still in doubt. Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, the most amazing piece of public theology in American history, reminds us what Lincoln knew all too well. Millions of people had grown up with slavery as a long-accepted institution. They could not imagine life without it. If we really understand this, we might find a way to love and forgive these figures from the past, despite what they have done. It's the kind of forgiveness that's at the heart of the Gospel.

We might also discover that all we have done is abolish is the word "slavery," while blithely continuing to take advantage of the fact of human enslavement. This reminds me of another impromptu critic of the history of slavery, Dan Savage. I attended a talk at Riverside Church a few years ago, in which Dan pointed out that the New Testament approved of slavery. As I recall, his exact words were that "this was a no-brainer," and that somehow the whole Christian gospel was compromised by this failure. Ironically, only a few days before the collapse at Rana Plaza, Dan was proudly sharing pictures of his husband, Terry Miller, who had just posed as a swimsuit model.

Admittedly, I'm envious. Who wouldn't want a husband who could double as a swimsuit model? But I couldn't help wondering who sewed that sexy swimwear on Terry Miller's bottom. So I emailed the PR firm that handles Mr. Turk, the label for which Miller posed and asked: where do you manufacture your clothes? I got a very quick and courteous reply that most of the work was done in LA. Far from Bangladesh, admittedly, but not necessarily that far from a sweatshop. This is NOT to say that Mr. Turk is guilty of mistreating the people who make their clothes. The company should be considered innocent until proven otherwise. I'd even like to think that, given Savage's controversial stance on slavery, he and Miller were sufficiently aware of the issues to check out the label to make sure it produced its clothes ethically before giving Mr. Turk their endorsement.

But that doesn't mean that any of us are off the hook yet. Before the sewing machines start to run, there's a question about where the cloth comes from. I wrote back to Mr. Turk's PR firm to ask where they sourced their cotton. I ask about cotton because the U.S. Department of Labor cites sixteen countries for using some combination of forced and/or child labor in the production of cotton. (See p. 26 of the attached report.) If the Department of Labor has a hard time making sure that clothing factories in LA abide by minimum wage laws, you can imagine how difficult it is for the U.S. Government to guarantee that foreign goods entering this country were not made by forced labor. (If your imagination is weak, read p. 7 of the report cited above.) And it seems that even those Fairtrade labels that are supposed to salve our consciences and guarantee that the cotton-products we buy are safe and ethically produced might mean less than we hope they do.

I did not hear back from Mr. Turk about the cotton sources. Perhaps the question is too technical, too complicated. But if no one can tell American consumers where their clothing is being made or how the people making it are being treated, can we be sure that we are not all complicit in something like slavery? Can we shake our finger and feel superior to the men and women of the past who were at least honest about their use of slaves? And what is the alternative? Isaiah walked the streets of Jerusalem for three years, stark naked, as a prophetic sign. We could try something like that. But if we simply refuse to buy more clothing, what do we offer to the factory workers and field laborers?

I'm not writing to offer an alternative. I'm not even writing to criticize Mr. Turk, or Terry Miller, or Dan Savage, or whoever wrote the comment about slavery-approving popes on my column. After all, I'm as complicit as they are. And I can't imagine living without my grey cotton boxer briefs. I'm only hoping that someday soon someone can show me where I can buy a clean pair of underwear.