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Searching our Hearts and our Cultural Values
Cycle C, Proper 18 (September 4, 2016)
Based on Philemon 1:1-22
The short book of Philemon is an incredible letter, a masterful piece of subtle (and not so subtle) arm twisting. The author, probably the apostle Paul, is a very persuasive, even wily writer.
The letter is addressed to Philemon, the owner of Onesimus, a slave. Slavery was a legal and common practice at the time this letter was written during the second half of the first century. Onesimus has left – possibly run away from – his owner Philemon and Paul is sending him back. But Paul is arguing very forcefully that, going forward, Philemon should not regard Onesimus as a slave but as “more than a slave, a beloved brother.”
And Paul is pulling out all the stops to convince him. The writer promises to pay any debts that Omesimus may have incurred. Paul also asks Philemon to prepare a room for him (Paul) for he will soon be coming to visit! Even if Philemon might disregard Paul’s written entreaty, he is warned that Paul will soon be there, in person, making it even more difficult for him to refuse the request. Finally, Paul reminds Philemon of all he owes to Paul: “I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.” Paul may “say” nothing about this debt but he is certainly willing to write about it!
Paul may have, physically, saved Philemon’s life. But more likely Paul brought Philemon into what we today call the Christian faith, bringing him into new life in Christ. And now Paul is calling on Philemon to live out that new life in a new way: to move beyond the common, legal, accepted practice of slavery. (We don’t know Philemon’s final decision but I would bet on Paul.)
Just like Philemon, each of us today is immersed in our culture’s values and common practices. Many of these values and practices are consistent with our faith but others are not. Are there aspects of our lives -- things we do and think -- that with deeper reflection we would see as inconsistent with our call to be people of the Way? Do we live with too little deliberation, prayer, and discernment about our daily activities?
On this Labor Sunday, let us examine our economy and our workplaces through the lens of our faith. We know that God’s will is for each of us to live a life of wholeness. God’s abundance is to be shared so all people live in the fullness of life. This means workers must be paid a living wage and be treated with dignity. All workers. No exceptions.
But in our economy and in our culture, some workers are much more valuable than others and some have very little value. We fail to look at each person and see a child of God endowed with infinite value. Instead we see the dropout, the formerly incarcerated person, the immigrant, the one who didn’t go to college, the person with a disability, the older and slowing-down person, the one who doesn’t speak like me, or look like me, or act like me.
But the abuse and exploitation of these “others” impacts all of us, whether we choose to see it or not. Like many of us, I got up this morning, got dressed, ate an orange, and had a cup of coffee. During the first 30 minutes of my day I was not thinking about all the people in the United States and around the world whose efforts allowed me to blindly follow my typical morning pattern. I am largely unaware of my dependence on the people who:
• made the clothes I put on (probably produced under sweatshop conditions),
• picked my orange (farm workers are among the most abused workers in the U.S.) and
• grew my coffee beans (were these fair-trade beans, grown by small farmers who are paid a fair price within a fair trade system that is supportive of their efforts to remain outside the exploitative web of multinational corporations?).
Just living for half an hour during a typical day in the United States or in any other country means we participate in a system that is destructive, in ways large and small, of the physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being of many of our neighbors. Some of us may feel the pain and suffer the abuses of this system in our own work lives.
This description of how our common choices and behaviors impact workers is not intended to produce guilt but reflection. And we must begin this reflection with the realization that each of us, as a consumer, is caught in a web of exploitation; even with the best of intentions it is nearly impossible for any of us to live without participating in and benefiting from the systematic abuse of workers (and the destruction of the environment – but let’s put that issue aside for another time).
It is very difficult to buy clothes – and especially shoes – that are made under fair, sweat-free conditions and not in a sweatshop where very low pay, very long hours, sexual harassment, and, often, unsafe conditions are the norm. Farm workers suffer from low pay, few benefits, and harsh and often dangerous working conditions. Many of our labor protections explicitly exclude farm workers from coverage. Looking internationally, most coffee beans are produced by small farmers in tropical countries who grow and harvest their crop, then sell it to a local buyer, a “coyote.” It passes through the hands and vehicles of additional middlemen until it reaches a major port where it is typically bought by one of the handful of huge multinational coffee roasters. How can a small farmer get fair treatment in a system where all the market power lies with the middlemen and especially the huge multinational firms? Some grocery stores sell fair-trade products but most do not.
So what can we do? And remember this accounting covers just the first 30 minutes of our day. Attempting to buy nothing but sweat-free and fair-trade products would consume a huge amount of our time and would mean that some products we commonly use, even need, would be off-limits to us. Maybe we should just stay in bed!
In the ideal world, laws, regulations, trade agreements, and labor contracts would protect all workers and ensure fair pay, good benefits, decent working conditions, and respect on the job. But we are not there yet, nowhere close. We live in a fallen world and, no getting around it, we are part of the problem. But we are also called to be part of the solution. We are called to examine our lives and acknowledge our complicity. And then to be savvy and wily like Paul in deciding where is the best place and what is the best way to intervene to make things better. We cannot do everything but we certainly can do something.
We can buy (and our congregations can sell) fair-trade coffee, tea, chocolate – most chocolate is produced using child labor, fair-trade chocolate is free of child labor, olive oil – from Palestinian small farmer cooperatives, and other products through the UCC Fair Trade Project with Equal Exchange.
We can support farm workers. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a group of tomato pickers based in Immokalee, FL, has struggled for years to boost pay and improve working conditions in the Florida fields. The CIW asks tomato buyers to participate in the Fair Food Program, a partnership among growers, tomato pickers, and tomato buyers that is improving the lives of farm workers. Over the past 15 years, all the major fast-food companies including Taco Bell, McDonalds, Burger King, and Subway have joined. But Wendy’s has not. So in March, 2016, the CIW called a consumer boycott of Wendy’s to continue until Wendy’s joins the Fair Food Program. We can honor this boycott; don’t go to Wendy’s. Find more information and suggestions about additional ways to support these farm workers here.
We can support workers struggling for better pay, more hours of work, and a union. The Fight for 15 is a nation-wide effort by fast food and retail workers to raise their pay to $15 an hour and form unions. They need our support during their marches and rallies that happen periodically around the country. Other groups of workers are also organizing to improve their jobs and their lives. Let us stand with our neighbors as they seek fairer, more just workplaces.
We can work to raise the minimum wage in our cities, states, and nation so that, eventually, all wages will be living wages. We can defeat the proposed trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. We can advocate for job creation, for example, through legislation to repair our crumbling infrastructure and rehabilitate our housing stock to make it more energy efficient. We can seek to reverse the trend toward greater income inequality.
We can also join together in the UCC Economic Justice Movement. You will receive emails every two to three months with an action opportunity. Holding a Labor Sunday service focused on economic and workplace justice is one way to participate.
We live in a land flowing with milk and honey. God’s abundance has been lavished on us to be shared among all God’s people. But we know that not everyone is living the abundant life that is God’s vision for each of us. Let us search our hearts, examine our actions, and seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We cannot help all our neighbors but we can help some of them. Let us stand with those on the margins and together with God, create a world that more closely matches God’s vision.