Growing up in church, I tended to think of Christian faith in terms of intimidating lists of do’s and don’ts. Do go to church on Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night. Don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t dance, don’t go to the wrong kind of movies. “Obeying the gospel” was another way of saying “be baptized,” which was itself the final item in a list of things to do to be saved: hear, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized. It took many years before I understood that faith was a radical reorientation of one’s life toward God and others out of which one did or did not do certain things.

“Living justly” can often feel like “living legalistically”—like a return to those days when I felt shame and fear for my sins of commission and omission. The sheer number of ways a typical American’s lifestyle contributes to injustice—as well as the vast number of recommendations out there for how to live a green or sustainable lifestyle—can be overwhelming.

That’s why I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that Julie Clawson begins her book Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices (IVP, 2009) with the words “Don’t panic.” Julie knows that the biggest risk of writing a book like this is that the reader will be so paralyzed that she will do nothing. So she addresses 7 specific areas from our everyday lives (coffee, chocolate, cars, food, clothes, waste, debt) where we can make small but significant changes, but in the process shows how living justly (or not) in these areas connects us to other people from around the world. EJ

Everyday Justice encourages us to take seriously the two greatest commandments according to Jesus: loving God and loving our neighbors. First John 4:20 puts it this way: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” The problem is, as Julie points out, that many of the things that Americans consume are produced by the poorest people on the planet in horrifying conditions. The fact that we do not see these people, except when the occasional scandal exposes their plight,  is no excuse for supporting the systems that keep them poor or otherwise endangered by their working conditions. But we do precisely that with our consumption patterns. Many of the things we buy support companies that treat their workers unethically. And many of the things we consume were produced in ways that deplete the earth of natural resources or were made with dangerous chemicals.

But Everyday Justice is a light shining in this darkness. Yes, it exposes the darkness, causing me to be depressed. But it also gave me hope by showing how I can alter my lifestyle and love my unseen brothers or sisters around the world by supporting companies that pay their workers fair wages or make their products without wasteful plastics or dangerous pesticides.

The area in which the book challenged me the most was clothing. I pride myself on maintaining a simple, inexpensive wardrobe. But I’ve realized that my inexpensive, colorful t-shirts may have a hidden cost, as they could have been made by people who weren’t paid fairly, and were doubtless made with cotton produced with the use of outrageous amounts of pesticide. Further, I have way too many items of clothing purchased specifically because they are relatively “care-free,” i.e., “wrinkle-resistant” or “unshrinkable.” I bought them even though I knew that it took chemicals to make them that way. Our culture trains us to think that we are successful consumers if we find the best bargain on clothing (or whatever). But cheap clothing, as with cheap food, has other costs that are built into its production from the get-go.

Many readers will be on the same theological page with Julie, as I was. The book’s value for them, as for me, will be to help them put their theological values into practice. Other readers may be a little suspicious of what may appear to be a “liberal social justice agenda.” But I suspect these readers will be moved by Julie’s accounts of the real-life impact of our consumption patterns on those who are considered “the least of these,” and may find their theology shifted in subtle ways. But all of us, if we have ears to hear, will be moved a little closer to truly obeying the gospel. And that’s a good thing.