Lent is a time for giving things up. But it’s also a time for considering what’s really important to us.
Lenten sacrifice isn’t just a matter of deprivation, discomfort, or inconvenience. The act of giving up something meaningful fits within the larger context of the three penitential disciplines that are the focus of this season: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
The relevance of the first two should be clear enough. We prayerfully consider what we’re willing to fast. The connection to almsgiving is less obvious, but just as basic.
Abstaining from something we consider important puts us in solidarity with people for whom the things we would normally use and enjoy are out of reach. It makes us more sensitive to the needs of the poor, those who know real hunger, who are inadequately clothed, insecurely housed, or undergoing great distress.
Viewed in this light, you can see that when we fall back on clichéd penances like giving up chocolate or other such simple, pleasurable indulgences, we’re failing to make the most of our Lenten experience.
Now, it’s certainly true that chocolate is a major concern for some people; one might even call it a preoccupation. But there are other things we’re accustomed to having available to us that are much more significant for how we live, things that would represent a greater sacrifice if we denied ourselves access to them. Lent is the time for identifying those things, and focusing on them in a serious-minded way.
It happens that in this Lenten season, we’re confronted with a group of people who are clearly in distress, whose needs are urgent and great. Those are the people of Ukraine, suffering under violent Russian aggressiveness.
It would seem natural to offer up our Lenten sacrifice on their behalf. The problem is that abstaining from Russian products isn’t all that easy, since most of us don’t consume very much that comes from Russia. On the scale of sacrifices, vowing to give up vodka, caviar, or those cute little nesting matryoshka dolls would be pretty insignificant.
However, there is another country that’s an international menace, as well as a supporter of Russia’s expansionary vision. That’s China, currently pursuing its goal of global economic dominance and making overt threats to Taiwan.
A trip to Walmart, Target, or your local Apple store will quickly demonstrate the impact which China has on us as consumers. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to think of very many products that don’t come from Chinese manufacturers or Chinese suppliers to U.S. firms.
The Chinese have exploited their vast supply of low-wage labor — a billion or more people — to become the world’s industrial giant. American corporations in particular, faced with much higher domestic labor costs, have taken large segments of their production offshore.
When U.S. managers have direct control over their branches in China, local workers prosper under wage rates and labor conditions that are a great improvement (even if inferior to America).
The situation is different for those toiling under Chinese management. In fact, a significant portion of Chinese production occurs in circumstances of actual slavery. Christians, Muslim Uyghurs, political dissidents, and other oppressed groups endure forced labor (referred to as “reeducation”) in inhuman conditions of physical and mental abuse.
As consumers, we benefit from this cruelty. It gives us inexpensive shoes and clothing. It meets our needs for prescription drugs, cosmetics, and over-the-counter pharmaceuticals. It provides an endless array of sophisticated high-tech gadgetry.
It also allows us to live lives of self-indulgence, blindly — in many cases, willfully so — ignoring the human suffering that makes our selfishness possible.
Trying to do without Chinese products would be a Lenten penance that has teeth. Where we might cope with giving up pizza for Lent, not buying goods that come from China would require effort and personal adjustment. Indeed, it’s hard to find products that aren’t made in China.
Yet taking on this challenge, and even continuing it beyond Lent, could have profound long-term consequences — economic and geopolitical. It could be the start of a restoration of U.S. manufacturing might. It could impede Chinese plans for global dominance.
It might even demonstrate American resolve to the Russians currently bringing death and destruction to Ukraine.
We would probably find it impossible to live completely free of Chinese products. But it would be an important effort, one that’s good for the world, and for our souls.
This essay is based on a homily delivered by Fr. Orsi. It can be viewed online here.
A priest of the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey, Rev. Michael P. Orsi currently serves as parochial vicar at St. Agnes Parish in Naples, Florida. He is host of “Action for Life TV,” a weekly cable television series devoted to pro-life issues, and his writings appear in numerous publications and online journals. His TV show episodes can be viewed online here.