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No. 30: What About Boycotting?

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 30
October, 1991
Copyright 1991, Biblical Horizons

A close supporter of Biblical Horizons asks whether it is proper and wise to get involved in all the boycotts that Christians are being asked to observe today. She raises the point that Paul’s advice about eating meat sacrificed to idols seems relevant to the discussion. I think she is right, and in response to her question and observation, would like to set out some points for consideration.

We should take note of the situation described in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10. The pagan temples in Corinth took much of the meat sacrificed to their idols and sold it in the market. Indeed, 1 Corinthians 8:10 informs us that these temples actually had restaurants attached to them. The Corinthians wrote to Paul and asked him if it were proper for believers to frequent these restaurants and if it were proper to buy meat from temple fleshmongers in the market.

Paul replies that since idols are nothing one way or another, there is nothing wrong with eating meat sacrificed to idols. He tells them that when they buy meat they should not bother to ask about it (1 Cor. 10:25). He tells them that the only consideration should be whether or not their personal practice offends weaker believers. If a weaker believer makes a point of telling you that the meat you are buying is the residue of a pagan sacrifice, then oblige him and buy meat elsewhere (1 Cor. 10:28). If a weaker brother will be hurt seeing you eat in a pagan Temple restaurant, then don’t eat there (1 Cor. 8:10-13).

The issue here is not one of obliging pharisees and legalists. If someone disapproves of buying sacrificed meat or disapproves of your eating in a Temple, you don’t have to oblige him, because he clearly thinks of himself as a strong believer. But if someone is likely to misinterpret your actions and as a result start paying attention to pagan idols and thereby be led astray, then by all means be sensitive to his needs.

Now, this is all that Paul says about the matter. A modern boycotter would press the point by observing that the temples were making loads of money from the sale of this meat. A boycotter would argue that the Corinthian Christians should refuse to buy such meat in order to "put the temples out of business." But Paul does not say anything about this matter. He could have. If he’d had a boycotting mentality, he would have. But he didn’t.

As Biblical Christians, we recognize that idolatry is a far worse sin and far more dangerous to society than either abortion or pornography, gross and wicked though they are. If Paul did not advocate boycotting the shops run by the very temples of idolatry, we cannot expect that he would advocate boycotting K-Mart or Walden Books.

In fact, nowhere in the Bible that I know of does any religious leader advocate boycotting as a means of effecting social change.

Now, an argument from silence, which this is, is a weak argument — but it is not completely nugatory. If boycotting is not part of God’s social agenda, we ought to ask if there are reasons why it is not. I can think of three good reason why the Bible does not advocate boycotting.

First, boycotting is almost never successful, by itself, in getting a store to change its policy. I doubt if there are enough Christians willing to engage in boycotting K-Mart to make even a slight dent in K-Mart’s profits. If K-Mart changes the policies that the boycotters object to, it will be for other reasons. The primary reason that some boycotts seem to work is that the boycott creates a scandal, and no sales business wants scandal and controversy attached to its name. There are other ways to create "scandal" than boycotting, however. The boycotting aspect of the action is unnecessary.

Second, even if the boycott worked, who would be hurt? Certainly not the owners and managers of Burger King or Walden Books! Even if the boycott succeeded in closing down these chains completely, the men at the top, who have made the offensive decisions, would find other equally lucrative jobs, or they would be laid off with "golden parachutes." No, it is the little people at the bottom of the chain who alone may be hurt by a boycott. It is the ordinary, decent, hardworking people who staff your local K-Mart who might be laid off.

It is interesting that conservative Christians have argued for years that boycotting South Africa only hurts the poor blacks, and that we should employ other means to persuade that nation to change its policies. Yet when it comes to large chain stores and restaurants, conservative Christians completely reverse their policy.

Third, I believe that boycotting does not set out a good witness for the faith. Consider the alternatives. For one thing, concerned Christian leaders could phone the officers of these companies and ask for a hearing. Christians could engage in letter campaigns, writing kind but firm letters asking that the stores they patronize not support Planned Parenthood or sell pornographic literature. If such appeals as these fail, it is still possible to put pressure on the men at the top by the use of mass media, or by a token one-week boycott to call attention to the problem. Measures like these do not threaten the livelihood of the innocent employees of these large chains, who often are in the lower socio-economic brackets of our society.

Boycotting is a bad witness because it politicizes all kinds of issues that ought not to be political. Paul’s argument holds true: What and where we eat and shop ought not to be a religious or political matter. Politicizing every economic decision down to which brand of cereal or stick of gum to buy diverts the true focus of the faith (and starts to border on the ridiculous). As Peter Leithart observes in the essay preceding this one, it creates the idea that the conservative Christian world is a power bloc rather than a servant community.

There are other considerations as well. Once a boycott starts, it is hard to end. Many of us receive information, often through the Christian grapevine, urging us to boycott Mennen products or Maxwell House coffee, but how many of us hear when the boycott has been called off because these companies have apologized or changed their ways? Calling off a boycott is seldom pursued with the same vigor as was employed in calling for the boycott in the first place. If the boycott has been effective in hurting the company financially, then the poor people at the bottom continue to be hurt.

At the same time, the Bible does not forbid boycotting either. I believe there may be a place for boycotting a local store that is offensive, when the boycott will directly affect those making the offensive decisions. A local store that chooses to sell hardcore pornography might be effectively boycotted as a last resort. Those who would be hurt directly would be the owners.

And of course, if your personal conscience is bothered by the thought of patronizing a "temple market," then don’t do so. But that is a personal choice, and actually according to Paul a "weaker" choice. Your personal choice is not a license to start a crusade to move the Church into a posture of political confrontation, particularly when the tool used in the confrontation is only marginally effective and actually could harm only innocent people.

The Biblical principal of war is clear: Go for the head and crush it. Only in small, local situations will a boycott actually harm the person making the offensive decisions, so only in small, local situations will the boycott be effective in crushing the head of the opposition. The kinds of boycotts that conservative Christians are calling for these days only hurt the weak and helpless, like the teenagers that were massacred in Viet-Nam while we let Ho Chi Minh sleep easy at night, or like the teenagers buried alive or sliced to ribbons by "smart fire" in the Gulf War while we granted Saddam Hussein immunity.

This is not how Christians should fight.