God’s Labor Movement

Tuesday, March 27, 2012 — Week of 5 Lent

Charles Henry Brent, Bishop of the Philippines, and of Western New York, 1929

Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 957)

Psalms (morning) [120], 121, 122, 123 // 124, 125, 126, [127] (evening)

Exodus 5:1 – 6:1

1 Corinthians 14:20-33a, 39-40

Mark 9:42-50

[Go to http://www.missionstclare.com/english/index.html for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

The Exodus is the foundational story of the Hebrew scriptures. It is the story of the creation of a people. God takes them from bondage to liberation, from oppression to freedom. God leads them to their own secure home.

It all starts as a labor movement. On behalf of the workers, Moses makes a demand for time-off for the laborers to celebrate a religious festival. Management refuses. Trying to intimidate the workers, management punishes them for organizing. Management raises quotas. It’s the kind of thing that looks good in the board room and at stockholders meetings — a plan to increase productivity. Instead of the company supplying straw for bricks, the workers will gather straw and will continue to produce at the same level. It’s a cost-cutting measure for the company. It should raise the bottom line and have a dual purpose of discouraging any unionizing activity.

The management strategy worked. The workers blamed the union. They turned on Moses and Aaron. “You have brought us into bad odor with Pharaoh and his officials…” Moses and Aaron turn to God. God determines to escalate the conflict. There will be some serious union activity in the brick-making sector.

There is a lot of pro-labor sentiment in the scripture. The Torah establishes just expectations for prompt and fair payment of workers, demanding the same regulations for foreigners and immigrants as for the locals. In the Name of the Lord the prophets decry unjust labor practices and extreme income gaps.

Jesus speaks to the common economic plight of peasants when he places petitions such as “give us this day our daily bread” and “forgive us our debts” at the center of the teaching we call the Lord’s Prayer. Many of his parables are set in a place of work, including the parable of the vineyard where every laborer gets paid a living wage regardless of how long each has worked. His most striking public act was to overturn the tables of the moneychangers, challenging the financial system of the Temple, presumably at least in part for their oppressive business practices.

Anyone who takes the Bible seriously is probably going to have a pro-labor inclination. Many people who have created unions and other labor advocacy organizations have done so as a religious calling.

We have a story in our family. Kathy’s grandfather was a Southern Baptist pastor in a South Carolina mill town. When the textile workers went on strike in the 1930’s, part of the largest organized labor action in the history of the U.S., he was run out of town. The violence that management used across the South, backed up by sheriffs and other law enforcement agencies, was so profound that for decades union activity in the South was profoundly suppressed. The South became the third-world labor market of the U.S. — bring your factory here where we have low-wages and no unions.

Kathy’s family was like many others that were victimized by the brutal suppression. They were shamed by her grandfather’s forced exodus to Mississippi. They never talked of it. It was only referred to as “Granddaddy’s problems back in Carolina.” Kathy’s questions about the circumstances met embarrassed discouragement. We don’t talk about such things. It took Kathy years to learn her grandfather was punished for courageously standing up for his parishioners who were laborers. When Kathy said she was proud to learn what he had done, her older aunts couldn’t understand. The oppression was so thorough that they were left only shamed and intimidated. That’s a story that was repeated throughout the South.

The movement that God initiates through Moses will lead to a different end — freedom and the creation of a new people with instructions for living together justly.

We live with similar issues today. How is power shared and abused? Every person should have work. Every worker should be compensated. The system should be just and should share it’s fruitfulness with all. How can labor be structured in a just way, with living wages and benefits that give a worker’s family appropriate security? These are Biblical issues as well as business and economic issues. Every once in a while we are given a pretty clear choice to choose between the economics of Pharaoh and the economics of God. When we choose wrongly, we always invite plagues.

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