Affirming democratic principles in an emerging global economy
A Resolution adopted by General Synod XXI (1997)
Whereas, The United Church of Christ has spoken consistently for a biblically-based and just approach to economic relationships nationally and internationally; and
Whereas, national and international economic changes today affect the traditions and values of civil liberties and political democracy in the United States and around the world;
Therefore, Be It Resolved that the Twenty-first General Synod reaffirms the heritage of the United Church of Christ as an advocate for just, democratic, participatory and inclusive economic policies in both public and private sectors, including:
the responsibility of multinational corporations and international financial institutions to respect and hold themselves accountable to fundamental human rights, particularly with regard to child labor, employment of minorities, and wages that are adequate for local costs of living;
the responsibility of workers to organize for collective bargaining with employers regarding wages, benefits, and working conditions, and the responsibility of employers to respect not only worker rights but also workersÍ dignity, and to create and maintain a climate conducive to the workersÍ autonomous decision to organize;
the responsibility of collective bargaining units, such as unions, to respect their members and encourage their participation in further efforts to democratize, to respect and hold themselves accountable to fundamental human rights, and to reform and expand the labor movement domestically and abroad;
the responsibility of governments at all levels to foster a more democratic system by seeking balance among the rights and interests of citizens, workers, and corporations; and to support existing as well as to facilitate the creation of new participatory community institutions for developing jobs and caring for people;
the responsibility of businesses, governments, and communities to share responsibility for protecting the earthÍs environment;
the responsibility of businesses, governments, and communities to support affirmative action for all who have traditionally been denied rights in the workplace;
the responsibility of all citizens to be informed participants in the political process at all levels and to form community organizations and associations to express common interests and achieve common goals in such areas as economic planning, neighborhood development, public education, and health care;
the responsibility of religious bodies to provide moral and ethical guidance for individuals and society in ways that respect other religious traditions and resist authoritarian powers and principalities wherever they appear;
the responsibility of The United Church of Christ in covenant with all churches and church institutions to practice principles of economic democracy which foster justice and participation in its own ministries; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Twenty-first General Synod of The United Church of Christ commends this resolution to the churches, associations, conferences, instrumentalities, and institutions of The United Church of Christ as a basis for their own policies and their ministries of social witness.
Subject to the availability of funds.
Acts of Kindness and Working for Justice
Based on Micah 6:8, "God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"
When the North Carolina-based textile manufacturer named Pillowtex declared bankruptcy, it shut down five NC factories and laid off 5,500 people. Without notice, workers lost their incomes and health insurance. Some faced foreclosure on their homes. Many laid-off workers could not find comparable jobs in their area.
The ripple effects of the plant closures devastated local economies. But the effects did not stop there. Local churches were impacted as well. Congregations wanted to help. Prayer services, food, and emergency funds were generously offered. But everyone realized these efforts were inadequate. Congregations could not provide families with health insurance or on-going mortgage payments. Nor could they restore lost jobs to a hard-hit community.
Economic hardship is not a rare event. Around the country, millions of people are unemployed and millions more work part time when they need and prefer full-time work. One-quarter of all jobs pay a wage so low that a full-time worker cannot keep a family of four above poverty. Some 45 million people, predominantly low-wage workers and their families, lack health insurance.
What is the role of the church in the midst of unemployment and joblessness? When jobs pay too little? When housing, childcare, and health care are too expensive?
The church is called by God to act with kindness, to care for those in need. Congregations respond faithfully by feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and helping workers who lose their jobs.
But God’s people are also called to do justice. The Biblical vision of justice requires us to move beyond charity and works of mercy. We are called to create the economic conditions and institutions that will begin to put an end to the hardships God’s people face.
As followers of Jesus, we are called to care for the immediate needs of the unemployed and to lobby Congress for better international trade policies and an improved unemployment insurance system. We are called to give food to the food pantry and to ensure that every worker has a living wage. We are called to reconfigure social programs to provide a wholesome life to those who rely on them. We are called to care and to help. We are called to be informed, to demonstrate, to organize, to lobby, and to vote.
Workers need jobs with good wages and benefits. Everyone needs health insurance and affordable housing. The country needs a strong safety net to provide income, retraining, and other services for the unemployed. Let us be about the work of living into God’s reign. With God’s help, may we create a new, more just society within in the midst of the old one.
Jesus Was a Low-Wage Worker
Based on Luke 6:20: "Then he looked up at his disciples and said: 'Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God'"
Jesus and the disciples were low-wage workers, just like too many workers in the U.S. today. Nurses aides, hotel housekeepers, farm workers, early childcare specialists, retail sales clerks, and custodians are examples of workers who provide vitally needed services but who usually receive wages so low that they cannot keep a family out of poverty.
One-quarter of all jobs in the U.S. pay poverty-level wages. In addition, these jobs are more likely to require evening, night, weekend, or rotating shifts. They are less likely to provide health insurance, a pension, or even paid sick leave. They are more likely to be dangerous and unhealthy. They are more likely to be filled by women and people of color – marginal jobs for the already marginalized. Just like Jesus.
These jobs are seldom ladders to better opportunities. And while more education can improve the job prospects for individuals, education alone will not improve these jobs. Even if all workers were college graduates, we would still need people to sweep floors and flip burgers. These jobs would still be poverty jobs. The problem is not the worker but the job.
Poverty jobs can be changed into life-giving jobs if we actively seek to make this happen. We need to raise the minimum wage to make it a living wage. We need to strengthen the right of all workers to form and join unions. We need to more adequately enforce health and safety laws.
Jesus said, blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of God (Luke 6:20b). Low-wage workers are high-value children of God. They must be able to support themselves and their families, and live with dignity the life of wholeness that God intends for all. God reign does not stop at the door to the workplace but includes all aspects of life, including our work lives. Let us ask God’s help as we seek to live into God’s reign – a reign that provides abundant life and decent wages to all workers.
To order buttons saying "Jesus was a low-wage worker" or "Jesus tambien trabajo por un salario minimo" contact JWM at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 216-736-3720.
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The Landowner and His Workers
The 2011 Labor Sunday reflection
Based on Matthew 20: 1-16, the vineyard owner and his laborers)
For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, "You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right." So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. And about five o'clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, "Why are you standing here idle all day?" They said to him, "Because no one has hired us." He said to them, "You also go into the vineyard." When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, "Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first." When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, "These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat." But he replied to one of them, "Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?" So the last will be first, and the first will be last. -- Matthew 20: 1-16
The Landowner and His Workers
Scripture: Matthew 20: 1-16
Jesus told numerous parables illustrating the kingdom of heaven and how it could be lived out in our daily lives. A number of these involve a landowner who most scholars believe represents God and whose behavior or teachings provide insights into how life is lived in God’s reign, right here, right now.
In this parable from Matthew 20, the landowner has work that needs to be done in his vineyard. Early in the morning he hires the workers he needs and promises to pay them the usual day’s wage. When he goes out again at 9 a.m. he sees unemployed laborers standing about, hoping to be offered work. So he also hires them, promising to pay them fairly. The landowner goes out repeatedly over the course of the day. Each time he encounters more unemployed workers and hires them, even as late as 5 p.m.
Problems arise at the end of the day when the workers find out what they are paid. The ones who have worked since early morning receive the fair day’s pay they had been promised. But so do the workers who did not start until later in the day. All the laborers are paid the same amount, no matter how many hours they worked.
The workers did not think this was fair and maybe we don’t either. In the workplace today, most people receive different wages and salaries based on the number of hours they work and factors such as how fast they work, the experience they bring to the job, and their education and skills.
Some biblical experts turn aside from the question of whether the workers’ pay was fair or not and interpret this parable in a spiritual context. In their view, the parable indicates that it does not matter the stage in a person’s life when he or she becomes a follower of Jesus, whether early in life or later, at a young age or as an elder. God treats every believer identically, giving each one the same “reward.”
While this interpretation is certainly valid, maybe the parable also has a message for us about wages and the treatment of workers, a message about economic life as it is lived out in God’s reign.
Is this landowner, an employer, treating his employees fairly when he pays all of them the same amount, whether they worked all day or just a few of hours? Is this a fair practice, illustrative of the reign of God, or not?
The laborers worked for different lengths of time. Some may also have worked more quickly than others or had more prior experience tending vineyards and picking grapes. But the landowner ignored all these differences. Instead, all the workers received the amount of money they needed to live. The “usual daily wage” described by Matthew is a denarius, the amount of money that would support a large peasant family for one day. The wage was just enough to live on. It allowed for no “extras” but it did cover the necessities, what we might call a living wage. The landowner’s practice provided every worker with a living wage, even those who had worked just a few hours. Making sure that each worker and his family had enough money to meet their needs was more important than providing additional income to those who had worked more hours, worked harder, or had more experience.
Jewish teaching also stipulated that workers must be paid every day (Lev. 19:13). If the typical wage covered the expenses of just one day, then workers would need to be paid every day. In ancient times, the law protected workers who were living paycheck to paycheck.
Repeatedly over the course of the day the landowner went into the marketplace and hired anyone who was unemployed. The landowner believed that each person who wants to work deserves a job, an opportunity to support themselves and their family and to contribute to society. Is this fair?
Maybe the best time to examine this parable and its economic message is when the economy is in crisis, when unemployment is high and harming many workers, and millions of people in the United States and billions around the world live in poverty.
In the United States, we do not provide jobs for people who are unemployed. Instead, we wait for the “market” to do it and the unemployed suffer through months or even years of unemployment. In July, 2011, some 14 million people were officially unemployed in the United States. But a broader count of the jobless and underemployed – a count that includes people who work part time but want full-time jobs and those who have given up looking for work – shows about 29 million are jobless or seeking more hours. This is twice the official number and includes more than one in six potential workers.
While the official unemployment rate for the population as a whole was 9.1% in July, it was higher for already disadvantaged groups and lower for non-Hispanic whites: 15.9% for African American workers, 11.3% for Hispanic workers, 7.7% for Asians, and 8.0% for non-Hispanic white workers. In other words, unemployment among African Americans was about twice the rate for whites and the rate for Hispanics was about 50% higher than for whites. Unemployment among teens was 25%. As noted just above, a more comprehensive count of the jobless and underemployed is about double the official one. Putting this all together, fully 32% of African Americans (one in three), over 22% of Hispanics (nearly one in four), and 50% of teens are either jobless or working part time while wanting full-time hours. Unemployment is also higher among people without a college degree and in areas of the country particularly hard hit by the downturn in construction and manufacturing.
If we hear these statistics with our hearts as well as our heads, we understand that millions of people and households are suffering, losing their homes and their cars, and losing their opportunity for the full life God intends for all God’s people. Despair and hopelessness are the daily companions of millions of people.
The landowner’s practice of hiring all the unemployed people he encountered, providing a job for everyone who wanted one, is a compassionate practice and a mark of God’s just reign. It is also smart. Why should society waste the talents and contributions of people who want to work? Ensuring that everyone who wants a job has one is an attribute of “God’s economy.” It is smart and fair social policy. As people of faith, are we not called to bring similar policies into reality today?
In Jesus’ day, unemployment would have meant very hard times for a worker and his or her family. The same is true today. In the United States, most unemployed people have very meager resources to fall back on. Half of the unemployed have been out of work for at least 4 months. During such an extended period without income, one’s savings are quickly exhausted. The average unemployment insurance benefit is $300 per week but less than half of the unemployed receive any unemployment insurance payments. Even among those who qualify, millions have exhausted their coverage and no longer receive any benefit payments. Millions more will lose benefits if Congress fails to renew the benefit extensions that end in December 2011.
Many of the unemployed are eligible for food stamps. This entitlement is available to anyone with low income, for example, below $28,700 for a family of four. Today, one in seven people in the United States receives food stamps. The average monthly benefit is $134 per person, or about $1.50 per meal. Such a low amount forces many people to also rely on the charitable programs provided by church groups and others. But funding for these is being cut severely also.
The current federal budget, passed by Congress in April, imposed significant cuts on social programs. (Additional cuts were approved in the debt ceiling legislation passed in early August and more are on the horizon.) One program cut significantly was the Emergency Food and Shelter Program, reduced by 40%, some $80 million. This program has provided aid to millions of our poor and near-poor neighbors for nearly three decades by funding more than 13,000 non-profit and public food banks, shelters and homeless-prevention organizations. Under the current federal budget, more than 500 counties and cities will lose funding entirely. Among the more than 1,600 counties and cities that will continue to receive money, most will see significant reductions even though needs have skyrocketed. The Providence In-town Churches Association (in Rhode Island) has received funding through this program for decades to support their outreach and services to low-income and homeless residents. Diana Burdett, UCC member and executive director of PICA, reports that their funds are being cut at the same time the number of people seeking assistance has grown from 500 a month (including about 20 children) to 6,100 a month, nearly half of whom are children. The needs in our communities exceeded the capacity of charitable organizations even before the economic crisis began. Adequately funded public programs must be maintained.
In addition to providing the unemployed with jobs, the landowner in Jesus’ parable also gave each worker a living wage, enough to support the worker and his family, regardless of how many or how few hours he had worked. Is this another aspect of “God’s economy” that we might emulate?
In the United States today, fully one-quarter of all jobs pay poverty-level wages, so low that a full-time worker cannot support a family of four above the official, entirely inadequate poverty level. But we could follow the lead of the landowner and ensure that all jobs provide workers and their families with a fair share of the world’s resources, God’s resources. Is not this a characteristic of God’s reign, a world in which everyone is paid enough to live life in fullness, although not extravagance? Let us be generous with God’s resources, even as we also recognize that all we have belongs to God (Ps 24:1)
Few of us are employers or have much ability to determine anyone’s pay or to give someone a job. But we do live in a democracy and have a responsibility to participate in society’s decision-making processes. We also live in an extremely wealthy country with enough for all. But too much of our wealth is squandered or hoarded. Instead, let us seek God’s reign. Let us raise our voices and use our influence to call for jobs for everyone who wants one, living wages for all, a safety net for those who need it, and generosity in sharing God’s resources among all God’s people.
 21.2 weeks Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employment Situation, July 2011.”
http://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.t12.htm, Accessed August 11,2011
 National Employment Law Project. Less than half the states (22) provide 99 weeks of benefits. Most provide fewer. http://www.nelp.org/page/-/UI/2011/current.extension.law.impact.pdf?nocdn=1?nocdn=1 Accessed Aug 12, 2011
 Gross income below 130% of poverty. There are additional ways to figure income also. http://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/applicant_recipients/eligibility.htm#income
 Steven S. Taylor: The reality of cuts to anti-poverty programs, Monday, August 1, 2011, United Way Worldwide.
 Personal communication (email) Aug 11, 2011, 10:48am.
A Fair Balance
Sermon seeds for Labor Sunday, September 2, 2012
Scripture: 2 Corinthians 8:1-4, 13-15
We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, "The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little."
In Paul's second letter to the Corinthians, he asks for donations of money for the church in Jerusalem where many people are living in poverty. He writes, “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, ‘the one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.
Paul instructs the Corinthians on the importance of a “fair balance,” where no one has either too much or too little. May we have ears to truly hear Paul's message today, a time when in both the United States and around the world, there are a few extremely wealthy people, far too many poor, and many in the middle who are struggling to avoid sliding into poverty. As Paul said, one person’s abundance is for another person’s need. There is plenty for all if we share. The Church is called to work for a world where there is a “fair balance” between abundance for a few and the needs of many.
In the United States and around the world, inequality is growing. The poor are falling deeper into poverty, the rich are getting richer, and those in the middle have seen their incomes stagnate or decline.
- Most working age adults receive all or nearly all of their income from a job. And our wages and salaries largely determine our income in retirement as well. But in the four-fifths of all jobs in the U.S. classified as “non-professional” and “non-supervisory,” wages and salaries have stagnated since the mid-1970s. As a result, average income for the bottom 90% of households today is lower, adjusted for inflation, than in 1970. But at the very top of the income scale – the top 1/100th of 1%, some 16,000 households – annual incomes rose by an average of $20 million over that same time period.
- Inequality is also growing in most countries around the world. Between the mid-1980s and mid-2000’s, among the 73 nations for which data are available, 53 countries (home to over 80% of the world’s population) had a rise in inequality while only 9 (with 4% of the global population) had a fall.
Such an unequal sharing of resources in both the United States and around the world has a direct impact on people’s lives including their health, access to education, and opportunities for advancement. In Bolivia and Peru, infant death rates are four to five times higher for the poorest 20% compared with the richest 20%. A baby boy born in the U.S. to a family in the top 5% will live 25% longer than a boy born into the bottom 5%.
Inequality among countries has also grown in recent decades. Rich countries have gotten richer and pulled further in front of poorer ones.
- For example, in 1990, the average American’s income was 38 times higher than the income of the average Tanzanian. In 2005, the American’s was 61 times larger.
- In rich countries, income per person, adjusted for inflation, has risen two- to three-fold since 1970, a much larger gain than in poorer ones. Tragically, in 13 poor countries, average income is lower today than in 1970.
As the apostle Paul wrote, “It is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need.” The world is richly endowed with God’s abundance. Surely God must be offended and saddened by such inequality.
The federal poverty line in the U.S. is $23,000 for a family of four. But even families with incomes above this level struggle and suffer. Experts estimate that a meager but minimally adequate income is roughly twice the official poverty level, or around $46,000 for a family of four. In the United States, one-third of people live below this higher, but more accurate, “adequacy” line. People with inadequate incomes not only lack essentials like adequate food, shelter, transportation, quality education, and health care. They also lack opportunities to improve their lives. They suffer from poorer health, shorter life expectancy, more mental illness, and higher infant mortality. They do less well in school.
In a rich county, and in a rich world, there is no justification for a high level of inequality that blocks people from reaching their potential and bars millions (and billions globally) of God’s children from becoming the unique, special people God created them to be.
What can be done to reduce inequality? The Church is called to a very important ministry of advocacy and prophecy. The Church and people of faith must advocate for fairer public policies.
- To raise wages for the majority of workers, we need strong labor unions, strengthened labor protections, a higher minimum wage, and more supports for workers such as childcare, early childhood education, and paid sick days.
- Our international trade and investment agreements need to be rewritten to level the playing field between corporations and workers in both the U.S. and around the world, and protect the environment.
- Congress must create jobs and put millions of people back to work.
- Declines in income taxes paid by wealthy households and corporations, as well as cuts in the estate tax that is paid entirely by the wealthy, reduce tax revenues and lead to cuts in government services and higher deficits. More tax revenue is needed to promote the common good and provide opportunities for all. An increase in tax revenue could make higher education more affordable; improve the quality of public schools; provide universal health insurance and early childhood education; support infrastructure investments that create jobs, boost productivity, and enhance the quality of life; strengthen the safety net; and clean up the environment.
- Rich countries need to share more of their wealth with their poorer neighbors around the globe and enact policies that allow all nations to thrive such as cancellation of debts, promotion of food sovereignty, and fair trade and investment treaties.
- We also must protect the environment and quickly move to renewable sources of energy. Climate change will most gravely impact the poor.
The Church and people of faith must also be prophets announcing God’s intentions for our nation and the world. We must challenge cultural behaviors and values that idolize money and “things.” Greed is not good. The Church must speak in support of the common good and against consumerism and materialism. And the Church and people of faith must live out these values in our own lives. We must love our neighbors in word and deed. We must stand with the poor and those on the margins. We must use our money wisely to bring God’s vision to reality.
On Labor Sunday, we especially recognize that all workers – from those who clean hotel rooms and care for elders, to those who work in department stores, fast food chains, and warehouses – are children of God, worthy of respect and living wages.
God created a world of abundance. If we share there is enough for all to live in the fullness of life. Like the Corinthians we are called to follow Paul’s instructions, to find a fair balance between one person’s abundance and another’s need. The economy is not like the weather. It is created by people and can, and should be, directed by people to serve all people and the earth. Our goal is nothing less than a world where “the one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.”
That They All May Be One - Solidarity Forever
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight; I will rejoice in Jerusalem and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. -- Isaiah 65: 17-23
I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will be believe in me through their work, that they may all be one. -- John 17:20-21a
Isaiah may have been focused on the violence and destruction of warfare, but he could have been referring to the economic violence and destruction that exists in the U.S. today.
- Farm workers - those who plant - often don't eat. Nearly two-thirds of farm workers live in poverty.
- And those who build don't always inhabit. In Washington, DC, unemployed men travel from W. Virginia to seek work on construction projects during the week -- while living under the bridges – then return home on the weekend. These people are building but not inhabiting.
- And although for most people physical safety at work is not a concern, each year about 6000 workers are killed on the job from the equipment and other hazardous conditions in which they work.
All workers are made in the image of God, the worker, and have dignity and value. All work that makes a contribution to the community has dignity and is not degrading. But many jobs are degraded.
A degraded job is one that pays too little. It is one of the over one-quarter of all jobs that pays a wage so low that even someone working full time, year round, earns too little to lift a family of four above poverty.
A degraded job is one that is potentially unsafe. Each year some 5.7 million workers are injured on the job or become sick due to their job.
A degraded job is one where the worker is treated unfairly or illegally. According to the Department of Labor, essentially all poultry processing plants and 60% of nursing homes fail to properly pay workers for overtime hours worked, pay less than the legally-required minimum wage, and/or violate of child labor laws.
A degraded job is one where the employer discriminates in hiring and promotions - abuses that occur even in apparently respectable firms like BellSouth and Texaco.
A degraded job is one where a worker has too little autonomy or control over her work, resulting in high levels of stress and even physical illness.
US labor law provides few protections against these abuses.
But workers need jobs, even bad jobs, if that is all they can get. How can workers improve their workplaces and gain dignity on the job - especially the three-quarters of all workers who don't have a college degree and have less bargaining power with their employers?
One important way that workers can address workplace injustices is by joining and participating in a labor union.
All of us are indebted to union struggles of the past for many of the workplace benefits we take for granted. Yahweh gave us the Sabbath but unions brought us the weekend, the 8-hour day, paid vacations and holidays, health insurance, and pensions.
Unions continue to work for justice today.
Unions reject the notion that any work is demeaning and remind us that all workers have value. Janitors, nursing home attendants, hotel and restaurant workers, and many other workers on the bottom of the hierarchy of jobs are trying to join unions to get dignity on the job, fair treatment, and just compensation.
Unions are working to bring living wages, health insurance, pensions, paid vacations, sick leave, and holidays to workers who formerly had none of these.
Unions are working to give employees a greater say in how their jobs are structured and the way workplaces operate day to day.
And through legislative action, unions are working to reform immigration laws, raise the minimum wage, and improve workplace safety.
Unions are some of the most democratic and diverse organizations in the US today. They can be avenues of empowerment that give workers the means to become active in their own liberation from unjust structures of domination.
Like all institutions including churches, unions are not perfect. But this is not a reason for us to fail to work with our union sisters and brothers to support their struggles for justice.
The church has a special role to play in workers' struggles for justice.
A problem in the workplace is not just a problem for an individual worker and it is not just an economic problem. It is also a theological problem. The author of the book of John quotes Jesus praying that people "may all be one" (John 17:21). But how may we all be one when some eat very well and others do well just to eat? How may we all be one when some are safe at work and others are at risk? How may we all be one when, on the job, some people's views are sought out and others are ignored?
God gave us a world of abundance. Unions are helping some of the most oppressed workers in the US and around the world share in this abundance. And in ways not unlike the church at its best, unions are sometimes providing support and avenues of growth where workers move toward greater wholeness.
In whatever ways we can, may we join with workers and our union sisters and brothers in their struggles for justice and greater wholeness.
Hosting the Poor and Marginalized
Based on Luke 14:1, 7-14 (Year C, Proper 17)
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely. … When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
As Jesus is on his way to dine in the home of a Pharisee, he tells his disciples a parable about hospitality. Surprisingly, he recommends against inviting friends, relatives, or rich neighbors to come for lunch or dinner. These guests would likely return the invitation and the host’s gift would be “repaid.” Instead, Jesus suggests inviting people who are poor or have disabilities, someone who probably would not, at least in Jesus’ time, be able to return the invitation. The host would be blessed for performing an act of generosity that would go unreturned.
Today, there are many ways we host the marginalized and less fortunate. We serve in soup kitchens, contribute food to food banks, donate clothes to thrift stores, open our church basements to the homeless, and give money to worthy causes. Some of us are involved in constructing affordable housing and creating community gardens. God blesses these ministries and our generosity.
But the needs within our communities greatly exceed our capacity to help. As David Beckman, president of the anti-hunger organization Bread for the World, points out, the food that churches and charities provide to hungry people is only about 6% of what is provided by federal government nutrition programs. Nationwide, the nearly 3,400 shelters (some sponsored by faith organizations) serve 600,000-plus homeless people. But many continue to live in our streets, parks, and vacant areas. Even with the combined efforts of government programs and the faith community, millions of people in the United States are hungry, homeless, without health care, and without opportunities for a better life. They are also forced to rely on charity, an experience many find to be humiliating and degrading.
Many of our neighbors are struggling because they do not have jobs. Unemployment is always a problem even when the overall economy is strong. But in recent years, joblessness has skyrocketed. While in recent months the official count of the unemployed has improved, this is largely due to people dropping out of the workforce. Someone who is not actively looking for work is no longer included in the count of the unemployed. Congress must enact a large program to create jobs and put people back to work. This would also boost tax revenue and reduce reliance on safety net programs, closing most of the deficit. Unfortunately, there is little political will to do this. Read more.
But on this Labor Sunday we need to also recognize that among the people who rely on our soup kitchens, food banks, clothes closets and government programs are many who work. They have jobs but their wages are very low. Or their employer may assign them too few hours. Or they may have been impoverished by paying medical bills. Or they may have borrowed money to pay for needed car repairs and then been drawn into a downward spiral of debt, extremely high interest payments, and poverty.
We are called to do all we can to meet our neighbors’ needs during a crisis situation: to feed, to clothe, to house, to care for. But what if the crisis is not just a one-time emergency? What if the crisis is a day in, day out, permanent condition? What then is our role?
This is a question we need to ponder and to pray over, especially on Labor Sunday.
Unless a household is independently wealthy, one or more family members must work. But just having a job does not necessarily mean a family is economically self-sufficient.
Over one in every four jobs (28%) pays poverty-level wages, so low that even a full-time worker cannot support a family above poverty.
Over 8 in 10 low-wage workers do not have a single paid sick day. If they get sick and cannot work, or if they must stay home with a sick child, they are not paid. And if they are gone too long they may be laid off.
Every week, over half of all low-wage workers are cheated – by their unscrupulous employers – out of some of their wages.
Over one-quarter (27%) of low-wage workers do not have health insurance, either from their own job or through a family member and, whether insured or not, nearly two-thirds of low-wage workers say it is difficult to pay for needed health care.
Many low-wage workers have unpredictable work schedules that vary week to week and day to day. Their incomes vary also. Many are required to be continually on call, available to come in for additional hours, or risk being penalized with reduced hours or even layoff. Many are sent home during scheduled shifts if business is slow. Such scheduling makes workers’ income uncertain and variable. It also makes a second job, schooling, or scheduled child care nearly impossible.
What is the role of the church in a society where the needs extend far beyond our ability to respond? What must we do when the needs arise not just from an occasional crisis but are the day-to-day, long-term reality for millions of our neighbors? What is God calling our congregation to do when episodic interventions are not enough? More fundamental change is needed. Are we not called to rewrite the economic rules and to change the economic system so that everyone, certainly everyone who works, is able to care for themselves and their family?
We may agree that change is needed, but the specifics of what to do are not so obvious. It is difficult to know how to proceed, to discern what we are called to do.
In 2007, the UCC General Synod called for the creation of a new program to help congregations address the economic problems in our communities, the nation, and the world. The Economic Justice Covenant Program provides resources for congregations seeking to study economic injustices, pray and discern God's will for their economic justice ministry, draft and adopt an Economic Justice Covenant, and engage in actions to promote economic justice.
Is God calling your congregation to become an Economic Justice Church? Are you called to identify and support organizations in your community that are improving the lives of workers.
Jesus was a low-wage worker. (Request buttons with this message in English and Spanish.) He was also a person of infinite value, just like low-wage workers today. Let us extend our hospitality and our caring beyond the programs that meet our neighbors’ immediate needs for food, shelter, or clothing. On this Labor Sunday, let us covenant to work with God to create a world where all workers participate in the abundance that God provides for all of us to share.
Scripture: James 2:1-10, 14-17; Mark 7:24-37 (Cycle B, Proper 18)
Have you heard of Susan Boyle? Susan Boyle is a 47-year-old woman who aspires to be a professional singer. She was a contestant on “Britian’s Got Talent,” a reality TV show similar to the U.S. program “American Idol.” But she doesn’t fit our image of a singing star: she is not attractive, or thin, or sexy in the way we seem to expect from female performers. In school she was thought to have a learning disability and suffered from bullying. Before her appearance on the TV show she had been employed in few jobs outside of caring for her aging mother.
When she came onstage, the audience and judges were, shall we say, unrestrained in their responses. Disbelief over her appearance and age quickly turned into ridicule and open hostility. It only got worse when, in answer to a question about her dreams, she said she hoped to be a famous singer. But then Boyle began to sing. Within seconds, ridicule turned to amazement and the audience was on its feet wildly cheering her performance. The power of her voice totally captivated the audience. So did her obvious courage to sing so well in front of such a hostile audience.
To say she became an overnight sensation is an understatement. Within days, the YouTube video of her performance had been watched by millions of people. I recommend taking a look at it if you haven’t already. The faces of the judges are the best part. Within seconds you see them change from sneering, eye-rolling ridicule to amazement and support. The change in the audience is similar. Boyle has enormous talent. She has tremendous courage as well. This frumpy, middle-aged, utterly un-cool woman from small-town Scotland would not be limited by others’ opinions of her. They come to admire not just her voice but also (maybe especially) her belief in herself and her courage to stand up to their hostility.
So often we make judgments about others based on unimportant, superficial characteristics. But seldom are our judgments immediately put to the test when we are given an opportunity to learn about a person on a deeper level and discover that our initial judgments are wrong.
Unfortunately, judging others is something most of us do all the time. We make assumptions about another person’s talents, abilities, and even their worth as a human being based on very little other than the way they look; the way they talk; the clothes they wear; their age, race, and ethnicity; their car, house; and other nonessentials. Our brains gather up and process these inconsequential fragments of information and then make snap decisions about the person.
Our tendency to make quick judgments that affect how we see people and how we treat them is exactly what James is referring to in the passage read this morning. Evidently this was a problem in the very early church just as it is today.
A rich person comes in and is escorted up to the front pew. We make a point to welcome them. We offer to take them downstairs to coffee hour after the service. But then a poor person comes in. Someone not dressed quite right. Or maybe a person of a different race or ethnicity, a differently-abled person, or a same-gender-loving couple. Well, they can sit in the back. They will be fine on their own, no need to fuss over them. At least it seems the early church let everyone in. According to the God Is Still Speaking bouncer ad, there are churches today that stop some folks from even coming in the front door.
Making judgments based on our prejudices is, unfortunately, easy to do. Even Jesus, our fully-human, fully-divine brother, briefly succumbed. In the passage in Mark, Jesus has gone to Tyre which could be considered a foreign country. There he is approached by someone – a woman, a Gentile, a SyroPhoenician – who wants him to heal her daughter: She is the ultimate outsider. Jesus makes a snap judgment. He refuses her request to heal her daughter. Moreover, he does so in a cruel way: “it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Even in Jesus’ time, comparing someone to a dog was an insult. When the woman doesn’t back down, even in the face of this insult, Jesus immediately recognizes her humanity. He quickly moves past the sexism, religious bias, and dislike of foreigners that was so common in his time. Instantly, Jesus drives the demon from the woman’s child.
If Jesus could be temporarily blinded by the prejudices of his culture, then we all can be.
Obviously, people are very diverse and each has unique God-given gifts and talents. But we are called to value each person equally, to treat everyone with equal respect and dignity. Our common heritage as children of the same Creator outweighs any of our differences. Can we see God in everyone and recognize each person as a sister or brother? As Christians we seek to live out a vision of equality in our church and in all aspects of our lives together.
Today on Labor Sunday, the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, let’s take a few moments and think about workers and work places. Is each worker treated equally, with equal respect and dignity? Consider some of the conditions under which people work.
• One-quarter of all the jobs in the U.S. pay poverty-level wages, so low that a full-time worker cannot keep a family of four out of poverty.
• Some jobs are unnecessarily dangerous. In the U.S. someone dies from an occupational illness or injury every eight minutes. Often, they (and their survivors) have not received fair compensation for their losses and they may also bear large health care expenses.
• Nearly 80% of low-wage workers do not have paid sick days so they can stay home, with pay, when they are ill.
• Low-wage jobs are often dead-end jobs with no opportunities for advancement. At a poultry processing plant in Ohio, a 55-year-old man still gets just $8.10 an hour with minimal benefits after 20 years in the plant.
• Some workers see their wages stolen by their employers in what has come to be called an epidemic of wage theft. Workers are not paid for all the hours they work or they are paid below the legally required wage. The U.S. Department of Labor found that 100% of poultry processing plants do not pay workers for all the hours they work. Just 40% of nursing homes are in compliance with federal labor laws concerning wages and child labor. Wal-Mart is notorious for requiring workers to sign out, then go back to work, putting in time that they will not be paid for at all.
• In Florida over the past 10 years, seven cases of modern-day slavery have been exposed involving over 1000 workers and 12 employers. Workers are confined and if they try to leave or refuse to work they are beaten.
• All of us have purchased and worn clothing made with sweatshop labor. We have eaten fruits and vegetables harvested by farm workers who live in deep poverty.
Why does our rich society allow these abuses happen?
These problems are very complex and defy simple solutions. But let’s consider one factor that may play a role: Do we make snap judgments about low-wage workers that lead us to view them as being less worthy than other people, less deserving of a better life?
Do we think low-wage workers do not deserve a better job? They should work harder. They should have stayed in school. They should have waited longer to have kids. They should not have come to the U.S. They should learn English. The list could go on and on.
There are millions of low-wage workers, most of whom we will never know. Our snap judgments about them will never be tested against the reality of who they really are.
But as people of God, may we strive to see all people as equally valuable. Can we see that we are all created in God’s image, all fully deserving of a fair portion of the abundant resources that God provides to all of us to share? In other words, can we see that everyone needs a job that is safe, a job where each person is treated with dignity and fairness, and everyone is paid enough so they can buy the things they need for a decent life.
In Justice and Witness Ministries we have a phrase to remind us of the valuable people who work in low-wage jobs: “Jesus was a low-wage worker.” Jesus was a landless peasant. A snap judgment would put him on the lowest levels of Palestinian society. But we know the true worth of Jesus, his infinite value. Can we see that low-wage workers today are of equal worth? Can our eyes be opened to recognize them as our highly valuable sisters and brothers? Can we see how they resemble Jesus?
Everywhere Jesus traveled around Galilee he was approached by people seeking to be healed. The passages we read in John tell how he restored hearing to a man who was deaf. Jesus had and has amazing powers. If we seek his healing, we may be able to hear the cries of low-wage workers. If we seek his healing, we may be able to see everyone as a valuable person, one of our sisters and brothers in Christ. Jesus was a low-wage worker, just like millions of people in the U.S. and hundreds of millions around the world. Let us embrace these people of God and work for their liberation from poverty and oppression. They deserve no less.
To order buttons saying "Jesus was a low-wage worker" or "Jesus tambien trabajo por un salario minimo" contact JWM at email@example.com or call 216-736-3720.
"Let us be doers, not merely hearers" of Jesus' word
(Based on the lectionary selection: James 1:17-27 -- Year B, Proper 17)
Labor Day is the time we commemorate work and workers. In the church, we recognize that God, who loves us and cares about all aspects of our lives, is also concerned about our work lives. Our work situations can be fulfilling and empowering, or demeaning and humiliating. Our jobs determine the size of our incomes, and whether we have health insurance and a pension. Our jobs are the main determinants of whether we live in a big house or any house at all, whether we send our children to college or to bed with an empty stomach. Moreover, even at this time when the economy is considered to be "strong," one in every eleven people who want to work cannot find a job or can only find a part-time one.
If we are "doers of the word, and not merely hearers," as James urged, then we must respond to Jesus’ call to love our neighbors. We must work for justice in the workplace. We must help those who have too little. We must change employment situations that degrade workers. What might we be called to do?
We could work to ensure that all workers are paid a "living wage" adequate for the rich life that God intends for everyone. Currently, one-quarter of all jobs pay a poverty-level wage, one so low that a full-time worker cannot keep a family out of poverty.
We could urge Congress to raise the minimum wage. Pending legislation would increase it from the current level of $5.15 an hour ($10,700 a year) to $7.25, the first increase since 1997.
We could strengthen the right to form or join a union, an internationally recognized human right but one that is seriously eroded in the U.S. We could improve safety in the dangerous workplaces that threaten miners, meat packers, farm workers, and many others. We could provide health insurance to everyone including the one in every six people who currently are without it. We could improve contracting practices in New Orleans so that workers would not be left without a paycheck after weeks of work. We could ensure that everyone who wants and needs a job also has one.
God reign does not end at the door of the workplace. Our love for our neighbors must extend to their working lives also. Let us be doers, not merely hearers, of God’s word.
|Additional Worship Resources|
Based on Isaiah 35:4-7a; James 2:1-10,14-17 and Mark 7:24-37 (Year B, Proper 18)
The lectionary passages today all bring us the same message. Jesus -- or as Isaiah writes, the coming of the Lord -- restores sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and speech to the one whose tongue is tied. But the message is obviously intended not just for those who are totally blind or completely deaf. The message is for all of us who too often fail to see clearly, hear distinctly, or speak out when we should.
According to James, we have a bad habit of evaluating people based on superficial and unimportant characteristics, of seeing with our worldly eyes instead of with our God-opened eyes. Even Jesus falls into this trap in his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman. She had four things weighing against her: gender (female), religion (Gentile), origins (foreign), and the location where she lived (Tyre). (The HarperCollins Study Bible notes that the region of Tyre, northwest of Galilee, was “despised” by Jews.) But Jesus’ initial reluctance to share his gifts with her is quickly overcome. He sees past her superficial characteristics and recognizes a neighbor.
James warns us against treating people differently depending on how they look or the size of their bank accounts. But stuck in our old ways, without God-opened eyes, we often do notice riches and poverty. We notice who is stylishly dressed and who is not. We notice expensive cars and large houses. According to James, if we show partiality based on someone’s wealth or lack of wealth, we sin.
Film makers are masters at using visual clues to create a character. Clothes, hair style, general appearance, car, house or apartment, obvious signs of wealth or poverty, and many other small signals are very carefully chosen to quickly tell the audience about a character. Usually within the first few minutes of the film we “know” a lot about the major characters. We easily understand what the visual clues are signaling to us.
But these judgements based on unimportant, external clues are just what the biblical writers are warning us against. Making the leap from observing someone’s looks, possessions, and wealth to making a judgement about their character and their value is what James is calling a sin.
In the U.S. today, it is hard not to notice the impact of poverty and wealth. Inequality is at a record high. The middle class is shrinking. Some 45 million people live in poverty and another 60 million people have incomes below what experts believe to be a minimally adequate level. (Poverty counts for each state are here) In total, about one-third of the population has too little income. Many others worry about their finances.
But although millions struggle, the United States is a very wealthy country. Over the past 40 years as wages for many have fallen or stagnated and inequality has climbed, the economy as a whole has continued to flourish. Resources are plentiful. But when they are not shared with all God’s people, the result is inequality, a condition that prevents us from living lives of wholeness as intended by God.
Such a grave situation with such severe consequences might spark outrage and urgent efforts to make changes. But little has been done and the situation is getting worse every year. Might it be that we see poor people through the world’s eyes – as less valuable, as less deserving, as complicit in their fate?
Suffering people are all around us. They wait on us in stores and restaurants. They care for our children and elders. They wash our cars, manicure our nails, and clean our office buildings. Do we see them with God-opened eyes, as people of infinite value who are being mistreated by an economic system that permits wages to be too low, work hours to be too few and variable, and dignity on the job to be optional?
Picture a person who washes cars at a car wash in Los Angeles. What do you see? Now consider this: Among the 10,000 people working as car washers in LA, roughly one-fourth are (illegally) paid only in tips while those who do get a paycheck are paid very little.
Imagine a woman who works in a nail salon doing manicures. Who do you see? Now add this to the picture. In New York City (and probably other cities also), the vast majority of people employed in nail salons are (illegally) paid below minimum wage and sometimes they are not paid at all.
On this Labor Sunday, consider some of the other factors that workers and their families struggle against.
- Many of the poor are working but they earn too little to get out of poverty. Among the poor age 18 to 64, just over one-third is not available to work because they are retired, going to school, or disabled. Among the other two-thirds who could work, 74% are either working or looking for work.
- The federal minimum wage, $7.25/hour, has been unchanged since 2009 and is far too low. A minimum-wage worker earns just $15,000 in a year if she works full time but many low-wage jobs are part time. (See your state’s minimum wage and current state efforts to raise minimum wages.)
- Many people live paycheck to paycheck. A study by the Federal Reserve Board found that 47% of households could not cover an unexpected expense costing $400 without borrowing money or selling something.
- Some 43 million people, including more than 80% of low-wage workers, do not have paid sick days. They either work when sick (and when family members are sick) or take home a shrunken paycheck.
With God-opened eyes, may we begin to see our struggling sisters and brothers more clearly and recognize that they are people of infinite worth being abused by a harsh system.
The passage from James not only warns us to show no partiality to the person in fine clothes but also reminds us that faith without works is dead. We are called to stand with our neighbors to correct workplace abuses. We need reform of our labor laws. We need to support workers’ right to form unions. We need to stand with workers in their struggles for higher wages. With our God-opened eyes, can we see we need to step up and help change the system? To get more involved, consider joining the UCC Economic Justice Movement.
 In the U.S. in 2013, 45 million people (about I in 7) were poor. The official poverty level income in the U.S. is about $24,000 for a family of four in 2013. Anyone with an income below this level is considered to live in poverty. But many experts think a minimally adequate standard of living requires about twice the poverty-level income or about $48,000 for a family of four. In 2013, one-third of people in the U.S. (106 million) had income below this minimally adequate level. U.S. Bureau of the Census http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/data/incpovhlth/2013/tables.html
 Economic Policy Institute http://www.epi.org/publication/poor-people-work-a-majority-of-poor-people-who-can-work-do/
 Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System http://www.federalreserve.gov/econresdata/2014-report-economic-well-being-us-households-201505.pdf