Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Giving up chocolate for Lent, maybe for life

I love chocolate. I think it’s important for you to know that before I get to the giving it up for Lent part. I’ve always loved chocolate. As a young child, I can remember the treat of getting one chocolate bar for the week. I can remember rationing out the squares of my Jersey Milk bar so that I would have two or three squares everyday to get me through to the following Friday when Mom would buy the next weekly chocolate. I remember the thrill of graduating to two chocolate bars per week! And much more recently, under the stress of work and life, I’ve experienced the indulgence of a daily chocolate bar!Mars Caramel

I recently discovered the delightful taste of Wunderbar! And the Peanut Butter version of Oh Henry! is quite yummy. And the Mars Caramel bar (pictured here) is out of this world! Believe me, I love chocolate!

Now, its not exactly uncommon for Christians to give up chocolate for Lent. One friend told me the benefit was how awesome the chocolate tasted on Easter Sunday after the 40-day “fast.” In theory, Christians give up chocolate (or TV or Facebook) in order to create a space for spiritual growth. So I guess if you gave up Twitter for Lent, instead of tweeting your friends, you would “tweet” God and grow spiritually through the discipline of prayer. So why give up chocolate for Lent? Instead of being a temporary deletion that challenges me, a good Lenten discipline should be a spiritual exercise which may permanently change me. Thus, I am not giving up chocolate for Lent in order to practice self-denial (though this will be true) nor to create a space for prayer, but instead I suspect that a time of contemplation about chocolate and spirituality might actually change me permanently. We shall see.

Cadbury creme eggLast Easter I watched a documentary that shocked me. It’s undeniably true that children are involved in the harvesting of cocoa in a widespread way in west Africa. And it’s not just child labour, but also forced slave labour. Children are taken from Burkino Faso and forced to work under gruelling conditions in the cocoa jungle of Ivory Coast.  This has been well-documented for over a decade now and yet most of us buy our Mars Caramel bars, Oh Henry!s and Wunderbars without the real truth ever entering our minds: “This chocolate bar has been produced with the use of forced child labour.” If those chocolate bars were labelled this truthfully, who would buy them? So during this season of Lent, I am giving up chocolate in order to consider a Christian response to this bitter truth about chocolate. Where is the redemptive movement of God in the chocolate industry? And what is our responsibility as Christians spearheading redemption in this world?

To prepare this kind of Christian response to such a significant social injustice, I need your help. A theological response to a problem like this is best developed in community rather than in solitude. There is a method for doing something like this and I’m going to follow it roughly as you’ll se in log posts every Wednesday through the season of Lent. The method goes like this:

  1. Define the issue. Research the facts. Get to the truth.
  2. Collect and consider Scripture which is relevant to the issue.
  3. Review existing theology or doctrines which come to bear on the issue.
  4. Bring this all together and draft a Christian response.
  5. Submit the draft to discussion and debate, then finalize it.

Would you join me in this process? Whether or not you give up chocolate for Lent is your choice, but join our group in hammering out a Christian response to the chocolate industry and you will be changed, if nothing else, you’ll be able to think Christianly about chocolate. How can we get started? You need to watch this outstanding documentary from the BBC called Chocolate: The Bitter Truth. I can’t imagine that anyone could watch this and not be affected. Use the Comment section below to tell us whether you already knew this bitter truth about chocolate. What’s your reaction to seeing this first part of the documentary? If you did know some of this already, tell us what you know and how you discovered it. I’m inviting us to use the Comments to work on Step #1 of the method I proposed above. Feel free to dive into Step #2 as well. While you can certainly view the entire documentary now (click through to youtube), next Wednesday, I will be posting the next part of the video, as well as summarizing our discussion and moving us forward in the above method. (There will likely be some posts between now and then to draw more facts about chocolate to our attention.) Ready to find out the truth? Watch this!

Chocolate: The Bitter Truth is a BBC: Panorama documentary with Paul Kenyon. It was rebroadcast on CBC: The Passionate Eye with the insertion of a little Canadian insight.


  1. Ken,
    You should look into Theo Chocolate. They're a Seattle chocolate maker (bean to bar). They're the only maker in the country that is both Fair Trade and Organic.


  2. Ken I watched the video. I am looking forward to the second installment and likewise the third. Very informative and sad that we westerners support child labor in the third world to indulge in our voracious appetite for chocolate. We are all GUILTY.

    When Lent rolls around we appease our conscience by abstaining from a myriad of vices that has not in any way lessened or made any impact on the greed of humanity, and the children are still slaves. It is all hypocrisy.

    I fully agree with you that something needs to be done. Lent is meaningless unless it brings about reformation in our lives as Christians and non-Christians as well. Below is an example of what I mean. It is a quote from a well known denomination.

    "Our friend Josh is giving up cursing for lent. In order to stick to his commitment he created his own penalty. For every slip of the tongue he is putting $5 into a “swear jar,” and is donating the proceeds to his favorite charity." Just imagine "giving up cursing" if Josh were a genuine Christian he wouldn't have to give up anything for the sake of denying himself.

    If I allow Christ to reign supremely in my life, I will not wait for the arrival Lent to make a difference in my life and others as well.

    I ought to live a Christ-like life of holiness 365 days of the year not just 40 days of the year.

    What do you suggest one do regarding the exploitation and slavery of young boys in Ghana, the Ivory Coast and its northern neighbor Burkina Faso that has an endless supply of child labor?

    Chocolate is not the only problem what about the textile mills in India and many other countries and the drug trade in the stan countries as well as Central and South America and the users in North America. The list goes on and on.

    I realize you didn't expect this, however if we are going to deal with one we cannot exclude other atrocities.

    Oh BTW the Christian theology in all of this just might be to love ones neighbor as Christ taught.

  3. Great video, great kick-off into the discussion.

    I have viewed ahead (sorry if that messes up the pace of the discussion), but a comment the fellow in the video made that surprised me was that it may have been ok if the kids were working with their parents or going to school. This seems to contradict international law (which the documentary noted) that says kids should not work with tools that could harm them.

    Is child labour the problem, child slave labour the problem, or poverty and government / business corruption?

  4. Lara, Thanks for this info about Theo Chocolate. I'm actually Canadian, so I might be in the wrong country.

    I suspect that buying Fairtrade is the right thing to do with regard to chocolate, but I'm trying to go through this study/discussion/discernment time with an open mind. I'd really like to hammer out a Christian position on chocolate and define what responsibility we have to the children who are currently producing the chocolate we consume.

    So, yes, I may ultimately recommend that we eat only fairtrade chocolate, but at this point, I suspect that there's more for us as Christians to do. We'll see....

  5. Orlando,

    Great to hear from you again. It's been a while. I'm glad you like the doc so much you viewed ahead. Shocking, isn't it?

    In my mind, child labour is a problem. That children must work to keep the price of my chocolate bar low is -- well, idk, maddening. But trafficking children from Burkino Faso and then enslaving them in the cocoa jungles is far worse than just having your own kids work with you. It's all very ugly. I don't know the answer, but I do wonder whether as Christians we have a responsibility to be working on some kind of answer.

  6. I agree that it is a no-brainer that trafficking in children needs to be stopped.

    In the case of children working on these small farms - I don't think it is practical or proper to insist that children should not work on the family farm. As long as kids are working in safe conditions and able to attend schools - they should be able to work alongside family members. They do in North America.

  7. Here are a couple of things.

    From the price we pay for a chocolate bar - only about 8% represents cocoa. Of this the government in Côte d’Ivoire gets 40%.

    When dealing with commodity prices - it is all about supply and demand. If the demand for chocolate goes down because people are boycotting chocolate, companies will buy less cocoa causing an oversupply - resulting in lower prices. If people worldwide agree to pay twice as much for chocolate without cutting back - more countries will develop new or increase their existing cocoa industries - and the global supply will increase - depressing prices.

  8. Here is an exerpt from a story written in Businessweek in 2008.
    Down the road from Sinikosson is the warehouse of Aboulaye Trooré, who buys the cocoa harvested in the area. "It is all going to Cargill," Trooré says, as some of his men unload 150-pound bags of cocoa from a truck.

    The farmers in Sinikosson do not know that Cargill buys their beans, but other farmers in the area are on painfully intimate terms with the Minnesota company. In the town of Thoui, members of a local farmers' cooperative say that borrowing money from Cargill has trapped them in debt and forced some of them to take their kids out of school and put them to work. "There is no other way we can buy fertilizer or feed our families throughout the year," says N'guessan Norbert Walle, a former president of the cooperative.

    If farmers can't pay back their debts, they risk arrest. When Walle ran the co-op, his manager was jailed, he says, on orders from Cargill. The arrested manager, Lucien Adje, a former accounting student, says he was taken to the port city of San Pedro and put in a small cell. "You had to do everything in one place - you know, urinate, defecate. I couldn't eat much, it was so filthy."

    The correct procedure for collecting debts is to go to court and seize collateral, so Adje's arrest was illegal. But, as one farmer explained, "In Ivory Coast, the illegal is normal." An executive at an Ivorian export company confirmed that such arrests take place. "I don't know the specifics, but I do know that some exporters have arrested people who owe them money."
    I think eliminating business and government corruption is also required. Some mechanism should be in place to educate farmers on the best sustainable practices for farming and producing their crops. I also think it would be really beneficial if there was a way for the farmers to diversify their crops - so that they all of their eggs are not in one commodity basket.

  9. Thanks for this info, Orlando.

    I had no idea the government take was that huge. Any indication what the government of Côte d’Ivoire does with that money?

  10. That Businessweek article is on my To Read stack. The information is out there and yet MOST people seem to have no idea that their chocolate bars are produced by child and slave labour. So in addition to responding to corporate and government corruption, there's also this huge hurdle of informing the public.

  11. Great reply, Andy.

    Loving one's neighbour sounds like a good place to start in terms of formulating a Christian theological response to the bitter truth about chocolate. If you were a cocoa farmer, Andy, you wouldn't employ your neighbours under the conditions we just saw in Ghana, would you? That's a good start, thanks.

    As for chocolate not being the only problem and what about the textile mills, etc. I disagree with you. If we stay focused on chocolate, we just might be able to formulate a response to it. If we try to look at all other forms of human labour injustice around the world, we are more likely to be overwhelmed and unable to formulate a clear plan of action. On the other hand, if we can deal with the bitter truth about chocolate (our indulgence it it, the children enslaved to produce it, the farmers living in extreme poverty, and more) and formulate some kind of Christian response, that work may inform us or at least give us a starting point on the other issues we raise. It's better to keep our arrow on one target for now.

    Thanks so much for making this a real discussion and not just Ken pontificating ;)

  12. Oops. I'm late with the next post and video installment. Have no fear... good things coming tomorrow! I've found some very good content to share and discuss. Check in on Saturday :)



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