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God's Call to End Oppression
Based on Exodus 3:1-15 and Romans 12: 9-21 (Year A, Proper 17)
The Exodus scripture is a familiar one. It tells of God’s call to Moses to deliver the Israelites from Egypt where they are oppressed and forced to labor for the pharaoh.
Moses was born the son of Israelites and grew up in Egypt in the household of the pharaoh. But after killing an Egyptian who was beating one of his fellow Israelites, Moses flees the country, ending in Midian. There he marries, fathers a child, and tends sheep for his father-in-law. Years pass. Life is good. Maybe Moses forgot, or tried to forget, his previous life in Egypt and the oppression of the Israelites.
But God had not forgotten and God won't let Moses forget either. Speaking out of the burning bush, God tells Moses, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians.” God is going to deliver them but Moses is going to do a lot of the work. And he is reluctant: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites of the Egypt?” Exactly. Who would not have said the same thing? But God replied, “I will be with you.” And so Moses went. The rest is history and also a very good illustration of God’s vision for God’s people: liberation from bondage and freedom from oppression including oppression in the workplace.
Like other people in the Hebrew Bible who are called by God for a special task (Jonah, Jeremiah), Moses was reluctant to answer yes. But he did, with the assurance of God’s help and constant presence. Today God continues to call God’s people to action, and continues to provide help and a constant presence to those who respond.
God may call us more often than we realize or want to admit. The call may, rarely, come in the life-changing, awesome moment when we see a burning bush that is not consumed. But God’s call might also (and maybe more often) come as a soft nudge, a gnawing urge, a quiet whisper that maybe, just maybe, we ought to do something about a particular problem. The quiet, more frequent, but much less dramatic calls are easy to ignore. Is it God? Do I really need to? How can I fit more into my busy life? How can I say yes? Does it help to remember that God will be with us, to see us through, that God expects us to find time for God’s priorities?
In the passage from Romans, Paul encourages us to get involved, to follow these gentle urgings. “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.” In an unjust world, in a nation with millions living in poverty, genuine love demands our involvement. Loving our neighbors means standing with people on the margins who seek a better life for themselves, the life that is God's intention for them.
In the U.S. today, 47 million people (nearly one in seven) live in poverty and over one third of us (some 106 million people) live below twice the poverty line,[i] the amount that many researchers think is a minimally adequate income level. At the same time, there are 1,591 billionaires[ii] and 7.1 million[iii] (or 8.4 million[iv] or 9.6 million[v]) millionaires, depending on whose study you read. Over one in seven people in the U.S. is receiving food stamps that provide, on average, less than $1.50 per meal, per person. The dire statistics go on and on. Some 9.5 million people are unemployed.[vi] Millions more are jobless but have given up looking for work and, therefore, are no longer counted among the unemployed.
Over one-quarter of all jobs in the U.S. (28%) pay poverty-level wages, so low that a full-time worker cannot keep a family out of poverty.[vii] In 2013, 42% percent of Hispanic workers, 36% percent of black workers, and 23% of white workers earned poverty-level wages.[viii] Read about the difficulties faced by young workers. Learn about wage theft, the common practice in which employers fail to pay workers all the wages they earn.
The federal minimum wage, $7.75/hour, has not increased in five years. Some states or cities have a higher minimum wage (check your state) and in a few places the minimum wage is nearly high enough to support people at a meager, but adequate, standard of living. But in most locations, the minimum wage needs to be raised. Corporate profits are at record levels (more). Corporate giants can well afford to raise their workers’ pay.
The United States is a wealthy country. There is no justification for poverty, oppressive work conditions, or lack of opportunity. Things do not need to be this way. Our involvement could make a difference. Do we feel a gentle urging to get involved? Are we called to support fast food workers, Wal-Mart employees, and others who are marching and striking for living wages? (See organizations in your location who invite your participation.) Are we called to stand with immigrant workers without papers who are easily abused? Can we pressure Congress to raise the minimum wage? Is our congregation called to be an Economic Justice Church? What else might God be calling us to do?
The world today is a very troubling place for anyone concerned with justice. Can we doubt that God is calling us to get involved? Let us seek to “overcome evil with good.” Let us follow Jesus and walk with those on the margins, knowing that God walks with us.
Order (email or phone:866-822-8224, ext 3720) Jesus was a low-wage worker buttons (English and Spanish) -- no charge.
Interrupted by God
Based on lectionary selection Exodus 3:1-15 and Romans 12:9-21, Year A, Proper 17
Moses is out tending the sheep of his father-in-law, minding his own business. It’s just a typical day in the hot and dry hills of Midian: sheep, sun, dust, brush and, hopefully, a little breeze. Just an ordinary day, or so it seems.
Then Moses sees a bush that is on fire and, on closer inspection, he notices that it is not being consumed by the fire. This is remarkable and Moses turns aside to find out what is happening. His attention has been captured. He stops what he had been doing, puts his own agenda on hold, and even neglects his sheep while he investigates.
It is only after he has turned aside, and looks beyond his own plans for the moment that God calls to him: “Moses, Moses.” And Moses, surely bewildered, responds out of trust and faith, “Here I am.”
God has big plans for Moses. Moses the shepherd is to become Moses the liberator of his people, Moses the law giver, Moses the prophet. But it all starts when Moses notices something that shouldn’t be happening, something out of the ordinary, and turns aside to investigate. He is paying attention and is ready to be interrupted by God. His ordinary day is turning out to be a very extraordinary one.
There is much more to come in this story: plagues, famines, drought, death, the parting of a sea, a 40-year journey through the desert, the liberation of a people. But it all begins when Moses pauses, turns aside from his ordinary business, and answers “Here I am.” It’s true: the longest journey begins with a single step, and the first step may be the most important one.
So what does God ask Moses to do? God knows the sufferings of God’s people in Egypt. God had heard their cries. God says “I have come down to deliver them.” Note that God says “I” have come down to deliver them. It could hardly be clearer. God will deliver the Israelites but Moses will be God’s instrument to bring this about. Moses’ actions will bring God’s justice to God’s people.
Does God still call people, today, in the midst of our busy lives? Are we willing to stop what we are doing, to put aside our plans? Are we ready to be interrupted by God? Or are we too preoccupied with what we want to do? Too intent on checking off the next item on our to-do list? Are we too focused on our own agenda to pause long enough to hear God’s call? Do we talk so much or listen to so much TV that we cannot hear when God calls? Have we walked or driven right past the burning bush without seeing it?
Paul’s letter to the Romans lays out some of the things that God might be calling us to do. Love genuinely. Rejoice in hope. Extend hospitality to strangers. Live in harmony with one another. Associate with the lowly. Overcome evil with good.
On this Labor Day Sunday, is it possible that God is calling us to participate, even to help lead, another journey of liberation? Is God waiting for us to notice something – right here in plain sight – that should not be happening, to pay attention, and to respond?
• To see the people held in the chains of poverty and to free them.
• To hear the cries of those who work but don’t still can’t get by and to seek justice.
• To liberate those working in unsafe or abusive environments.
• To increase the minimum wage so a job will lift workers out of poverty, not keep them there.
• To ensure that everyone can freely choose whether to join a union without being fired or suffering retaliation.
• To lobby for better enforcement of our labor laws so that workers will receive all the pay they earn.
• To stand with those who work hard all week but still don’t have sufficient income to pay for food, and rent, and medicines, and gas.
These are not good times for American workers. One-quarter of all jobs pay poverty-level wages, a wage so low that a full-time worker cannot keep a family of four out of poverty. One in every 10 people who want to work either cannot find a job or can only find part-time work when they want full time (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics). One out of every eight people (and one in every six children) lives below the official poverty line, a higher share of the population than in any other industrialized country, and more than double the levels in Germany, France, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland (Economic Policy Institute and U.S. Bureau of the Census). Wage theft – failing to pay wages in accordance with U.S. labor law – is epidemic. In violation of U.S. law, workers are not paid for all the hours they work, do not receive overtime pay when it is due, or are paid less than the minimum wage (see Wage Theft). There is much that should cause us to pause, to turn aside.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the 20th century prophet, had a successful and busy career as a theologian until he was interrupted by God and turned aside from this path. He was executed in 1945 after attempting to assassinate Hitler and end the Second World War. In Life Together (written in 1938) he wrote:
We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions. We may pass them by, preoccupied with our more important tasks…When we do that we pass by the visible sign of the Cross… God’s way must be done. ... [D]o not assume that our schedule is our own to manage, but allow it to be arranged by God (p. 99).
This Labor Sunday, may God open our eyes, unstop our ears, and slow our pace. May we really see the custodians who clean the floors of our office buildings. May we hear the cries of the hog and poultry processors who slaughter and cut up our meat. May we walk the picket line with those seeking more just working conditions. May our schedules for the day be disturbed by the workers who do not receive their fair share of the resources God provides to be used by all of us. May we live our lives ready to be interrupted by God, ready to say “here I am” when God’s calls our name and asks us to be part of God’s action for liberation.
You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. ---Deuteronomy 24:14-15
Each worker - judge or janitor, sales clerk or scientist, mother or millionaire CEO - is equal in the sight of God. Each person's work, done with integrity, is a contribution to society and has value and dignity. But the world doesn't always see it this way.
Workers are dependent on their employer but employers are much less dependent on any particular worker. This unequal power relationship can lead to problems in the workplace. A common way that workers have responded is to join a labor union.
Articles and studies
Fast-food workers intensify fight for $15 an hour by Steven Greenhouse, New York Times, July 28, 2014
The war on workers, April 3, 2014. A recent Supreme Court ruling weakens the labor movement.
At labor group, a sense of a broader movement, Sept 14, 2013. The labor movement is all workers who act together to improve our jobs.
AFL-CIO has plan to add millions of nonunion members by Steven Greenhouse in the New York Times, Sept. 7, 2013.
If labor dies, what's next? by Harold Meyerson in the American Prospect, Sep/Oct 2012. An excellent overview of the current state of the labor movement plus a brief history of the developments in the U.S. labor movement since 1834.
State and local government workers' unions are under attack. Read more.
Unions are one of the very best ways for workers to bring greater justice to the workplace. The right of workers to form or join unions is so important and fundamental that it is an internationally-recognized human right.
In 1993 the United Church of Christ's General Synod XIX expressed its support "for public policies that restore the rights of working people to engage in collective bargaining without fear of reprisal."
In 1997 General Synod XXI reaffirmed the "responsibility of workers to organize for collective bargaining with employers regarding wages, benefits, and working conditions, and the responsibility of employers to create and maintain a climate conducive to the workers' autonomous decision to organize."
Today just as much as ever, workers need unions. All people who seek justice must support workers' rights to form and join a union. The right to organize a union and bargain collectively with employers is a fundamental human rights. See Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Why People of Faith Support Labor Unions describes how our faith calls us to support workers and their labor unions, and calls for Congress to pass the Employee Free Choice Act.
Why Unions Matter (2.51MB) by our partner Interfaith Worker Justice
Workers, acting together in a union, have been able to improve their work lives and their work places. Congregations and members of the UCC have been involved in these struggles.
Farm workers struggled for better conditions in the fields picking tomatoes for Taco Bell, McDonalds, and Burger King. They now have labor contracts with these firms, higher wages, and greater dignity.
- Smithfield Packing Company workers after many years of struggle were able to freely make the choice to form a union.
As a congregation discerns whether to become an Economic Justice Church, it can be helpful to learn about some of the economic injustices that millions, even billions, of people face every day. Or, once a congregation decides to be an Economic Justice Church, it may want to explore various topics to discern the justice work it is being called to do.
This section of the Economic Justice Covenant Program is intended to give readers small amounts of important information about a number of economic justice topics. Don’t be overwhelmed. Browse through these issues and see what touches your heart, what touches the heart of the congregation. What are you being called to work on at this time?
Each topic area provides links to more resources and suggestions about ways to get involved and begin to change unjust conditions. In addition to the resources and organizations found in these links, there are probably local or state-based organizations working on these issues closer to your church. You may prefer to work close to home through these groups.
Congregational Resource: Restoring Justice and Democracy in America
What faith communities can do. A six session congregation-based educational program prepared by UCC members in the Northern California/Nevada Conference. Download.
Issues to ExplorePublic Education & Economic Justice
“Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages; who says, ‘I will build myself a spacious house with large upper rooms,’ who cuts out windows for it, paneling it with cedar, and painting it with vermillion. Are you a king because you compete in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me?” says the Lord. Jeremiah 22:13-16
Scripture reveals that the struggle to achieve economic justice for all is an imperative of the Christian faith. The Bible contains many passages related to the poor and matters of economic justice. It makes clear God’s deep concern for the last, the lost, and the least. As illustrated in the Gospel stories where Jesus and the disciples feed thousands of people with just a few loaves of bread and fish (Matt 14:13-21; 15:32-38), God’s economy is a gift of grace that is not for sale in the marketplace. God’s economy of life provides abundantly for all God’s people.
We are called to share with our neighbors out of the abundance that God gives to the world. The poor and marginalized are special members of God’s community and we are called to put justice for “the least of these” at the center of the community of life and the mission of the church (Matt 25:40). The Bible tells us that rules devised to benefit some segments of society should not stand if they also disadvantage or harm the poor. “Hear this,” warns Amos (8:4) “you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land…” indicating that manipulating markets, cheating, and exploiting the poor are violations of the vision of God.
God’s envisions a world where all God’s children have everything they need to thrive, live lives of wholeness, and be the people they were created to be. To make God’s vision a reality, God calls the Church to action, to “loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke” (Isaiah 58:6). Let us answer God’s call to be co-creators with God of a world of justice.
The General Synod has repeatedly spoken about the need for economic justice. Two Synod pronouncements are especially informative:
- Christian Faith: Economic Life and Justice [pdf 11.4 MB], approved by General Synod XVII in 1989, saw the struggle to achieve economic justice for all as an imperative of the Christian faith and made a commitment to a guaranteed national minimum income level, universal health care, full employment, affordable housing, and quality education for all.
- A Faithful Response: Calling for a More Just and Humane Direction for Economic Globalization, approved by General Synod XXIV in 2003, describes the impact of the past 25 years of “neo-liberal” economic globalization and calls for fundamental changes in the rules and institutions that shape the process of globalization.
Important resolutions include:
- Affirming Democratic Principles in an Emerging Global Economy (GS XXI, 1999) calls us to support unions, and advocate for just, democratic, participatory, and inclusive economic policies.
- For the Common Good (GS XXV, 2005) calls for fair taxes, public institutions and services, full employment, living wages, adequate income for each person, affordable housing, public transportation.
A listing of all General Synod resolutions and pronouncements that address economic issues since 1999 and selected ones before that date.
January 4, 2016
The nation needs massive infrastructure investments. But President-elect Donald Trump’s proposal is not the usual type of infrastructure construction plan. And it is a bridge-less chasm away from what we need. It would lead to privatization of our infrastructure, massive tax credits for wealthy investors, and increased costs for users and tax payers. The nation and Congress must say no to this plan.
In the Trump proposal private investors -- individuals, hedge funds, investment groups and also construction companies, oil companies, cable companies, etc. -- would pay upfront for an infrastructure project. Trump’s policy advisors estimate that the cost of a project would be financed by the investors’ own money (one-sixth of the total cost) and by borrowed funds (five-sixths of the total). In exchange for their equity investment, investors would receive 1) a tax credit equal to 82% of the amount they invest and 2) a 20- to 30-year lease on the project giving them the right to make money off it.
There are huge problems with this plan.
First, this is a privatization scheme. It creates all the cronyism, lack of accountability and oversight, and corruption that is typically associated with privatization.
Second, the new infrastructure would have to be structured to create a cash inflow for the investors. This means higher prices for users -- think tolls on roads and bridges and higher costs for water and other utilities. If a project could not generate sufficient returns for investors, it would not be constructed.
Third, this would be a huge giveaway of tax dollars. Projects that a corporation (say, an oil pipeline company) was already planning to construct could now be done under this plan at an enormous cost to tax payers for infrastructure that was going to be built anyway. How much additional infrastructure (on top of what companies were already planning) would be build?
Fourth, what gets done (and paid for with our tax dollars) would be what investors want to fund, the projects that could bring them the most money in fees and tolls, not necessarily the most needed projects.
Fifth, Trump is promising a streamlined approval process. What will this mean for labor and environmental regulations and community input?
Sixth, the jobs may also be poor ones given Trump’s promises to eliminate “prevailing wage” and Davis Bacon laws that currently require federal contractors to pay an area’s prevailing wage and benefits to laborers and other workers on federal jobs.
This is just a short list of the most obvious problems. This plan must be opposed. We need infrastructure. But the numerous, grave defects in this proposal mean it is a plan that should be scraped.
Privatization, Waste, and Unfunded Projects: The Problems with Trump's Infrastructure Proposal from Citizens for Tax Justice
Trump’s big infrastructure plan? It’s a trap from the Washington Post.
Trump’s Infrastructure Plan Is a Full-on Privatization Assault from The Nation.
Read more about Privatization from Justice and Witness Ministries
Why is infrastructure an issue of concern for people of faith? Read about some of the moral and environmental considerations in this series on infrastructure justice by Rev. Brooks Berndt:
- Infrastructure Justice: An Overdue Movement Whose Time Has Come
- Not a Sexy Problem, but a Scary One
- Race and the Miner’s Canary Revisited: Water Injustice in the US
- Must We Perish?: Infrastructure and Climate Change
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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.
You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. -- Deuteronomy 24:14
God’s concern for the poor is at the heart of the Christian ethic of economic justice. Our biblical heritage teaches us that caring for the poor, the least among us, the stranger, and the ones on the margins is central to our understanding of God’s mercy and our willingness to love our neighbor.
God envisions a world where all God’s people live lives of wholeness and have the opportunity to be the people they were created to be. We are called to ensure that God’s abundance, given to us all, is equitably shared so everyone may thrive in the fullness of life. Within an economic system of wage labor, this means that everyone must be paid a living wage and be treated with dignity on the job.
The Minimum Wage is Too Low
Most workers in the U.S. are protected by regulations requiring their hourly wages to exceed the minimum set by law. Congress sets the federal minimum wage which was last increased to $7.25 an hour in 2009. Some 30 states, 24 cities and counties, and the District of Colombia, state and local officials have raised their minimum wages above the federal (or state) level. Check out your state.
Minimum wage laws are critically important. Most people need to work in order to support themselves and their families, and there are usually (essentially always) too few jobs. This reality creates the core conflict in the workplace: an employer has much more power than a worker. So even if a worker doesn’t want to take a job because it pays too little, he or she will be forced to accept it anyway, no matter how low the wage, if nothing else is available. To prevent destitution and put a limit on how low the wage could go, Congress passed the first minimum wage law in 1938. Since then, Congress has periodically increased the minimum but not since 2009.
Today, a full-time worker being paid the federal minimum wage would earn just over $15,000 a year, far too little money to support one person, let alone a family. A single parent with one child who works full time earning the minimum wage would live below the federal poverty line.
The hourly wage required to rent a modest, two-bedroom apartment in the U.S. is $19.35 per hour, more than two and a half times the federal minimum wage of $7.25. In every state, a person working full-time at minimum wage would not be able to afford a one-bedroom apartment at the Fair Market Rent.
The low value of the minimum wage contributes to the growing economic divide between the sliver of very rich at the top of the economic ladder and everyone else, especially the folks on the lower rungs. The minimum wage peaked in inflation-adjusted value in 1968, when it was equal to $11.00 in today’s dollars. Since then, many factors justify a minimum wage that is higher than in 1968 -- the amount a typical worker produces in an hour has risen, living standards have risen, low-wage workers’ education and skills have improved – but, instead, the minimum wage today is worth less than 48 years ago.
Tipped Minimum Wage
There is a separate federal minimum wage for anyone classified as a tipped worker – someone who earns at least $30 in tips a month. The tipped minimum wage is $2.13 an hour! It has not been increased since 1991. If the tipped minimum wage plus tips do not add up to at least $7.25 an hour, the employer must make up the difference in cash. But this is difficult to monitor for employers who want to comply and largely unenforceable among employers who chose to ignore the law. The separate tipped minimum wage must be eliminated as a number of states have done already.
Raise the Minimum Wage
Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages; who says, ‘I will build myself a spacious house with large upper rooms’, and who cuts out windows for it, paneling it with cedar, and painting it with vermilion. Are you a king because you compete in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? says the Lord.
-- Jeremiah 22:13-16
There are multiple proposals for raising the minimum wage: to $12 an hour, $15 an hour, or $20 an hour. Research shows that moderate increases in the minimum wage do not cause job loss.
The most modest proposal -- raising the minimum wage to $12 by 2020 – would lift wages for 35.1 million workers—more than one in four. People of color would especially benefit; over one-third of African American and Hispanic workers would receive a raise. An increase of the minimum wage even higher, to $15 or $20 an hour, would impact millions more workers.
If the federal minimum rose to $12 an hour, the average affected worker would earn roughly $2,300 more each year than she does today. The lowest paid workers would see the largest raises. The average age of a worker who would be affected by an increase to $12 is 36 years old. About two-thirds of affected workers are 25 years old or older. The majority of affected workers (56%) are women.
Living Wages for All
The problem of low wages goes far beyond the problems with the minimum wage. In the U.S. today, over one-quarter of all jobs (28%) pay poverty wages, so low that a full-time worker cannot keep a four-person family above poverty. Moreover, many of these low wage jobs are part-time, have irregular hours (making child care arrangements or attending school difficult), and no pension. Some 43 million workers -- nearly four in 10 private sector workers and more than 80 percent of low-wage workers -- do not have paid sick days to care for their own health. Millions more do not have sick days to care for a sick child or family member. More.
Low-wage jobs can be found in every industry or occupation and the number of these jobs is growing rapidly. If nothing is done, the number of low-wage jobs will increase in the future. Much of this work cannot be moved overseas. The jobs performed by low-wage workers -- cleaning, caring for children and elders, selling items to customers -- need to be done in our local communities.
Many workers in low-wage jobs are seeking higher wages; they want and need support. If people of faith stand with low-wage workers, then poverty-wage jobs can be changed into living-wage jobs. Find efforts happening in your area.
To make God’s vision a reality, God calls the Church to action, to “loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke” (Isaiah 58:6). We are called to answer God’s call to be co-creators with God of a world “where justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). God's reign does not stop at the door to the workplace. The Church, the body of Christ, is called to seek out and accompany people wherever they are and stand with them in the struggle for justice.
Someone giving a Mission Moment could say some version of the following.
Today we celebrate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. I want to share what Jesus did the next day. He went to the temple and turned over the tables of people who were buying and selling and changing money. He drove them out of the temple saying, "my house shall be a house of prayer; but you have made it a den of robbers" (Luke 19:46). Notice he said “den of robbers.” Not only was robbery happening in the temple but the temple was also the place where the robbers hung out. Who were these robbers hanging out in the temple? the temple authorities.
According to scholars, Jesus called them robbers because they were collaborating with the “robbers” at the top of the Roman imperial system who were assessing unfair taxes, imposing forced labor, and in various ways exploiting people. In fact, because so much of the activity of the temple hinged upon buying and selling and economic transactions, experts say “that in a real sense the Temple was fundamentally an economic institution,” an abusive economic institution. Jesus’ actions in the Temple that day were in opposition to the religious and economic practices that were happening.
If we are to follow Jesus’ example today, we must speak out and act against economic abuses.
….the speaker could mention, here, some work or ministry happening locally, or encourage people in next steps…
We must follow Jesus’ lead, raise our voices and act to make our economy more fair and just.
A Prayer for Economic Justice
Loving, gracious, justice-seeking God,
We know that in this community, this country, and this world there are many people who do not share in the abundance that you have given us. There are many people whose lives are narrowed and stunted by poverty and the lack of opportunity – even the opportunity to work and earn a fair wage. Too many people who do have jobs are paid too little and not treated with the dignity that each one of us deserves. We know you care deeply about people on the margins of society; help us to care deeply as well. As we remember Jesus’ actions in the temple, we ask that you would also give us the courage and determination to change the economic abuses of our day. Guide our work, soften our hearts, strengthen our resolve, and make us co-creators with you of a world where all people thrive. Amen.
Consider the following abuses that result from our “system” of labor laws and regulations.
• The “system” has set the federal minimum wage at $7.25 an hour. In 1968, when the minimum wage was at its peak (adjusted for inflation), it was worth 52% of the median wage in the economy. To achieve that same ratio today, it would need to rise to $12.00. If this were to happen, 23 million people would get a raise. More
• The “system” sets the minimum wage for tipped workers at $2.13, where it has been since 1991. Anyone who earns more than $30 in tips per month can be classified, and paid, as a tipped worker. Some 4.3 million workers are categorized as tipped workers; two-thirds are women. More
• The “system” allows only about one-quarter (27%) of the unemployed to get unemployment insurance. The other three-quarters of laid-off workers get no supplemental support; they must live off their savings. More
• The “system” does not require employers to provide paid sick days. So over one-quarter of all employees (over 43 million people) have no paid sick leave. If they get sick, as we all do, or if a family member is ill, they are not paid for the time off they take and they may lose their jobs for missing work. More
• The “system” allows firms -- including huge multinationals like Tyson Foods and Purdue -- to employ one-quarter of a million people in their chicken processing plants where, according to Oxfam America, they “1) earn low wages of diminishing value, 2) suffer elevated rates of injury and illness, and 3) often experience a climate of fear in the workplace.” More and more
• The “system” enables wage theft – the illegal but common workplace practice of employers not paying workers all the wages they earn – by failing to enact simple safeguards to prevent it (like requiring employers to provide workers with pay stubs http://www.iwj.org/issues/wage-theft/paystubs-for-all ) and by failing to prosecute violators. Up to two-thirds of workers in low-wage industries have wages stolen by their employers in any given week. More
The “system” is how we, who live in a democracy, organize our society. If we don’t like the system, if we think it violates our values and is at odds with our faith, then we need to get involved and change it. We must follow Jesus’ lead, raise our voices and act to end these systemic abuses. This work, this ministry, probably won’t make us popular. We might be accused of engaging in political activities, just like Jesus was. But if we are to follow Jesus, it is what we must do.
Find out about groups that may be organizing in your area.
Join the Justice and Peace Action Network to help change federal policies on a variety of issues
Join the UCC Economic Justice Movement to take action locally and nationally