I have been musing on the question of boycotts recently. Some prominent people have said that they will boycott the opening ceremony at the summer Olympics in Beijing. Others are still planning to attend. The Dalai Lama has asked people not to boycott the games. What is a person of conscience to do? And what is an appropriate and effective response to injustice?
In 2005 I wrote a commentary about the "girlcott" of Abercrombie & Fitch for one of Buffalo's public radio stations. I believe in boycotts and girlcotts even when I suspect that they will not bring about significant change. I believe in them because they are a way of saying that I will not participate in or support something which I believe to be unjust. They are a way of responding to what St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome. Here's how J.B. Phillips translated Romans 12:2:
Don't let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity.
My Quaker activist mother would have liked "Don't let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould," my activist mother who used to tell me, "You may not be able to change the world, but you better work to keep the world from changing you."
I know that the absence of world leaders or even some athletes at the summer Olympics won't convince the Chinese government to change its policy in Tibet. It will take much more than a boycott to do that. I also know that the International Olympic Committee's hope that China would improve its human rights record in the lead-up to the games has not been fulfilled. Neither the awarding of the games nor a boycott of the games has or will convince the Chinese government to change.
If I can't change the world - or even the Chinese government - I'd better work to keep the world from changing me. I'd better work to make sure that I don't support - even indirectly - something that I believe is unjust. I'd better work to keep the world from squeezing me into its mold. Others may choose to tune in to the games this August, but I won't.