Fair trade stalls in church and trading on Sundays

  • Question 164, from Tessa, UK

    I work for a fair trade organisation. A lot of my customers are not permitted by their churches to hold fair trade stalls on Sundays, which is frustrating for both activists and supporters. Our official view is that Jesus’ anger at the trading that took place in the temple was specifically to do with unjust scales, precisely the situation fair trade is helping to challenge. But from a personal point of view it would be interesting to see a deeper theological analysis of the debate – “should churches sell fair trade on Sundays?”

    It is interesting that since the late 1980s when there was a concerted political campaign in the UK to prevent Sunday trading and ‘Keep Sunday Special’, shopping on Sundays is much more acceptable for Christians these days. In fact, many of the arguments made by the Keep Sunday Special campaigners were prescient – Sunday has become just another day for many, and shopping is the number one leisure activity, far outstripping church attendance.

    The idea that Sunday should be set apart as the ‘Lord’s Day’ really grew to prominence in the Puritan and non-Conformist tradition in Britain. Detractors often referred to it as ‘Sabbatarianism’, because of Sunday often being referred to as the Sabbath, and the strict restrictions on what could and could not be done on that day. Anecdotes abound of families having to go to church three times a day, and not being able to play games or have any fun whatsoever.

    Some of this stereotyping of non-Conformist practice as legalistic and joyless is unfair. But certainly the stricter churches did outlaw many things seen as unspiritual and unworthy of the Sabbath. Shopping on Sundays would have been considered taboo.

    However, despite the religiosity of churchgoers, life goes on outside the church. For the first few centuries of the Church’s existence, Sunday was a normal weekday. For Jewish believers, meeting fellow followers of Christ meant observing the Sabbath rules, then getting up early the next day to worship Jesus before going to work. Gentile converts would also have to meet before work.

    In the middle ages most people worked a seven-day week and the Church carried on its rituals with little impact on the majority of people, who would turn up for the festivals and possible an ordinary service if they had the time. It was only with the passing of certain worker-friendly laws as Britain industrialised that ordinary people ever got time off. The weekend is a fairly modern innovation in human history.

    But as people were given more free time, and because many mill owners (for example) were also devout men, workers were compelled to go to church. Gradually, particularly among Reformed and evangelical churches, it was felt that Sunday, the Lord’s Day, should be set apart for worship and service, much like the Jewish Sabbath. The fourth commandment[1] – of setting one day a week apart for ‘rest’ – began to be seen as a requirement.

    But of course ‘rest’ is a vague term. Defining ‘rest’ as sitting in church listening to a sermon, and other things, for example buying fair trade items from a stall at the back of the church, is highly subjective. Basically, it comes down to personal preference and tradition.

    However, if the ‘Lord’s day’ is really going to mean a day given over to God, then any activity that is in line with God’s agenda is perfectly acceptable. There is Biblical and theological justification for selling fair trade goods, so there should be no issue with selling them on a Sunday.

    There is one more point to make here, though. The use of the story about Jesus driving traders out of the Temple to justify selling fair trade on a Sunday is interesting. Yes, Jesus was reacting to the injustice and swindling that was going on. But Jesus was also reacting to the way the outer court of the Temple had become a market place. [2]

    The outer court was supposed to be the area where the Gentiles could worship God – in fact, probably one of the most important places in the Temple, in that through it Israel could fulfil their calling and be a light to the Gentiles. By trading there, Gentile worship was rendered impossible, and Gentiles were excluded. Jesus’ reaction was also about making sure the rights of worshippers on the fringes weren’t impinged upon.

    Without a doubt, trading in any church can be done with a minimum of disruption and fuss. However, there may be a good rationale for not having stalls set up at the back of the church, if they would distract people from worshipping.

    Related article
    Read Jon the freelance theologian talk about Fair Trade as a prophetic act

    [1] Exodus chapter 20, verse 8
    [2] The story of Jesus clearing the Temple appears in all four gospels. John places it at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (John chapter 2, verses 12-16). The Synoptic gospels place it in the last few days of Jesus’ life (Luke chapter 19, verse 45-46; Mark chapter 11, verses 15-17; Matthew chapter 21, verses 12-13). The Synoptic accounts reference Isaiah chapter 56, verse 7 – “for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations”.

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    1. Atanasia Jul 5

      Dear friend, plesae do not be deceived by the fair trade merchants
      since the claims they make that they are “helping” the people in the third world communities, the artisans and small farmers, are deceptive and false. The first and worst violator of justice is ten thousand villages. Less than five percent of the retail dollar goes to the people who produce the product and in whose name the products are marketed to people with a healthy desire to do good. It turns out that the image of Jesus driving the money-changers from the temple is not at an an inappropriate one. Best wishes and thank you for understanding.


    2. Simon braybrook Jul 10

      Good thoughts. Even the most traditional churches have bake sales don’t they? It would be interesting to consider the comparison between encouraging congregations to open their wallets when the offering plate goes round, and doing so sfterwards at a fair trade stall. Surely both acts can be an act of worship or not?

    3. Jon the freelance theologian Aug 9

      Atanasia, I’m a bit troubled by that as I have spoken first hand to many artisans and farmers from across the world over a number of years and have heard them all say that Fair Trade has changed their lives for the better.

      I’d encourage you to look at more fair trade companies and examine their conduct before dismissing them all as deceitful. Remember it’s just as bad to slander people as to use dishonest weights!

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