There is a brilliant scene in Season Three, episode 11, of the Netflix show ‘The Good Place’ in which the characters discuss the difficulty of trying to do the right thing when living in the modern world. At the forefront of this discussion is the difficulty of trying to buy a tomato from the grocery store. As Michael, the reformed demon, explains, what appears to be one simple choice actually involves dozens of choices we don’t realise we are making, including unwittingly supporting toxic pesticides, exploitative labour and global warming. The Judge (the all-knowing judge found in the Neutral Zone between the Bad Place and the Good Place) rebuffs this by arguing that people should ‘do the research’ and buy another tomato. It is only when she goes to earth to see how difficult this can be that she changes her mind and comes to see that, while she thought it would be easy to make good decisions, it is not always this simple.
What I love about this scene is it brilliantly expresses my own feelings on the difficulty of trying to navigate ethical decisions, reflecting the fact that putting our faith into action is a messy endeavour. Michael is right; even decisions such as buying a tomato (or similar products) can be an ethical minefield to navigate. Do we choose to buy local and seasonal products to reduce airmiles? Or should we prioritise fair trade to ensure workers across the world are treated fairly? Or would it be better to prioritise organic food, to ensure no pesticides have been used? Or should we be more concerned with buying products that are plastic free? Or is it more important to base our consumer decisions on the business practices of the company selling the product? These are just some of the questions I often obsess over, unsure of what the right answer is. It becomes even more complicated when it comes to making decisions on things such as how to invest my pension, or who to bank with.
While our faith calls us to support social justice and engage in ethical decision making, I think it is important to recognise that this isn’t necessarily easy. In fact, the more we try to make good decisions, the more impossible it can start to feel. Not only can this result in us obsessing over the unintended consequences of every decision we make (as Chidi does in the ‘The Good Place’), but the more we start working to address one social injustice, the more problems we start to identify and we start to see how injustices are often interconnected. For instance, climate change can lead to limited resources, limited resources can lead to conflict, conflict can lead to lower school enrolment rates, lack of schooling can lead to early and forced marriage among young girls, etc. When faced with the sheer scale of these problems it can often feel that our small actions don’t matter, leading us to question what real difference we can make. This in turn may cause us to stop trying to make change. I have been there myself, struggling to engage in social justice work because it starts to feel like a losing battle.
However, this only led to feelings of immense guilt, as I recognised that I was privileged enough to be able to choose to disengage, which is exactly why I should be trying to do more. While there is some truth in this, it is likewise important that we remember that in order to engage meaningfully in social justice work we need to prioritise our own mental wellbeing. It is not a coincidence that activism fatigue and burnout is such a common problem – and this is why I am a strong advocate for activism wellbeing. While we shouldn’t completely cease to work for social justice, I believe it is completely ok to feel overwhelmed occasionally and to take a step back for our own health and sanity. If , like me, your wellbeing often suffers due to activism fatigue then you might find SCM’s Well Beings resource helpful, or alternatively you could check out the list of activism wellbeing resources in the Activist Handbook.
Moreover, I think it is important to remember that while we should try to make ethical decisions by considering how things such as our consumer choices impact upon the world around us, we shouldn’t blame ourselves if we can’t do this perfectly all the time. I think the most important thing is the willingness to constantly try to make good ethical choices, even when we get it wrong. I am a big believer that the most meaningful changes doesn’t come from one person getting everything right all the time, it comes from a large group of committed people imperfectly trying to make the world better. To aid with this, it is often helpful to start small and to have goals that are achievable. For instance, while you might not be able to avoid every big corporation that has questionable business practices, you could start by avoiding just one (I started with Nestle). If this sounds like it might be manageable for you, then Ethical Consumer has a comprehensive list of current boycott calls from campaigning groups around the world. Just remember the aim is not to start by boycotting all the companies listed, you can start with just one and then scale up when you feel ready.
I would also strongly encourage everyone to reflect on what role they can play in the fight for social justice. If you are like me, it may be that your faith in action journey is often fraught with concern that you are not doing enough in comparison to other people. While I love campaigning, I am no rabble rouser. I am not sure I will ever feel comfortable leading the charge, or chaining myself to buildings, and I often worry that because I approach social justice in a less direct way that means I am somehow not doing enough. Yet, while delivering an SCM online session before Christmas I was reminded that we are not all called to be rabble rousers. Social movements need all kinds of people to operate – from those who are good at the admin, to the speech writers and the movement leaders. God gave us all different gifts, and social change requires us all, coming together and using these gifts for positive change. We all have our part to play and we should not undersell the importance of the skills we bring with us. A helpful tool to reflect on this is SCM’s Theological Reflection Journal.
Overall, when I feel overwhelmed with the difficulty of putting my faith into action, I return to that episode of the ‘The Good Place’ and remind myself it feels difficult because it is. There are no straightforward answers and God does not expect us to get it right all the time. The important thing is we try, we grow, and we do what we can to make the world a more just place.