On August 9th, I stood with brothers and sisters of mine on the steps of the Old St. Louis County Courthouse looking east through the famous Gateway Arch across the Mississippi River to Illinois. We were standing on the very steps where people of African descent were treated like chattel, bought and sold while looking in that same direction 150 years ago.
I felt a gut-churning sadness intensified by irony. The Arch was meant to be viewed from East to West, and, as you looked through it toward St. Louis, you were looking through the gateway to the formerly untamed, "unclaimed" (that is, by Europeans) West. You were supposedly looking into a land of "freedom." But a slave standing on the steps of the courthouse, looking east across the river to Illinois (albeit before the construction of the arch), looked upon the land of a free state where her their present chains were illegal...just a few hundred yards away.
I feel that same gut-churning sadness intensified by irony when I think about our economy today. An insane number of products and services today that we enjoy for remarkably low prices are remarkably low because of conscripted prison labor. When you look at those dirt cheap jeans at JC Penny or take a second to marvel at the ridiculously low price of a McDonald's burger, it feels like a certain kind of freedom (albeit not culinary freedom). It feels like looking West to the world of unclaimed consumer possibilities.
But looking East, from the perspective of a prisoner in our mass incarceration system, someone who is forced to process that beef patty and whose wages are capped at $1.15 per hour...well, it might just look like slavery. It turns out the Gateway Arch and the Golden Arches aren't all that different.
In the midst of this kind of world, where slavery masquerades as freedom, Christians are called to justice inspired by hope. And hope is not glib optimism. It is not wishful thinking. Hope is confidence in a promised future yet unseen. Hope is faith extending itself beyond the present. And if we have hope in the flourishing and just world that God has promised, we have the strength to resist the injustices of the present.
McDonald's image by Miguel Vaca via Flickr / Creative Commons adapted for use.