Written by Rev. Loey Powell
As a kid, I learned the sing-songy jingle of, “Sticks and stones will break your bones, but names will never hurt you.” I sang it back to boys who taunted me and my friends, empowered by its disarming message. As an adult, I learned that names and words can cause much greater harm than physical threats; names and words can actually be cause for prosecution in hate crime cases when people of color or those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender are verbally abused.
But I am still amazed and appalled that words and names which demean women and girls do not constitute verbal abuse in the same way – the “b” word and “ho” are heard on prime time television shows and family hour shows with great regularity. Other belittling names and words characterize women as stupid or obsessed only with their looks or weight or with getting a date. Such names and words fill the airwaves on the radio and even appear on public advertising bulletin boards. Video games are filled with distorted images of women who become objects of conquest for the player.
As you conscientiously avoid consuming violence in the media, pay attention as well to how women and girls are portrayed in magazines, on billboards, in the songs you love to listen to, on the TV shows you watch or movies you plan to see. Compile a list of the words used to describe women and girls. While what you watch, see or hear may not be overtly violent in a shoot-em-up kind of way, could distorted images of women possibly contribute to a culture that could lead to - or justify in some people’s minds - actual physical violence against women?
Women are the primary targets of most of that kind of violence, particularly domestic violence. How can we cultivate through our words a society that truly values women and girls as much as it does men and boys? Are you willing to challenge your friends, or boss, or co-workers, or family members who use demeaning and pejorative names and words for girls and women? Can you raise awareness in your children’s schools about words and name-calling that diminishes not just the target of those names but also the one who speaks them? Can you hold your local media accountable for the kind of programming they offer?
We are all created in the image of God, the Holy One whose name is many and whose attributes are all good and gracious. May we be so with each other.
Religious and theological response to the terrorist attack at the World Trade Center and Pentagon has been quick, constant, and thorough. But while the public has been hearing the voices of the three traditional peace theologies, and reflecting on them, the voice of a fourth theological paradigm, just peace theology, has been less clear and less understood by the public as a paradigm. The three classic theological understandings in Christian theology—pacifism, just war, and crusade/holy war—have been articulated well and have increased or decreased in public affirmation. The fourth paradigm, just peace theology, has been spoken, but not perceived as clearly by the public. But if the Bush administration does not start taking seriously the call for Just Peace by many in the Christian community, it is going to lose the public support it so desires.
Pacifists have been vocal in insisting that terrorists must be held accountable for their acts and brought to justice. Pacifists have also put forward many alternative strategies, so that violence is not answered with violence. But on the central question of how the al Qaeda network might be brought to justice, pacifists have largely been silent.
Just war advocates have filled this silence, affirming that force in bringing al Qaeda to justice is morally justified. And a strong case can be made that all the criteria of a just war have been met. While there is room to argue over some of the criteria, generally this military action in Afghanistan has come closer to meeting all the criteria than any war in the past couple of hundred years. There are several reasons for this. Because wars over the past two centuries have seen such a dramatic increase in the power of weaponry, and because most wars have felt free to attack the infrastructure of the opposing nation, recent past wars, including World War II, have seen civilians deliberately attacked, and large number of civilian casualties. But Afghanistan had no infrastructure to destroy, and care was taken, using newer and more targeted weaponry, to hold civilian casualties to as small a number as could reasonably be expected.
So if this was a successful just war, why are we so far from peace? The very success of this "just war" shows the weakness of the just war theory.
Conducting a just war is only half the response needed. Force has been successfully applied, but justice has not been brought, nor has the cycle of violence been broken. Justice, of course, is a much richer concept than retributive justice. It at least includes restorative justice. While garbage trucks in New York were seen with large banners saying "revenge," the government has generally tried to minimize talk of revenge, and concentrate on bringing the wrongdoers to (retributive) "justice." By "justice," Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld is clear: he wants Osama bin Laden dead or alive, but prefers him dead. Revenge is lurking just below the surface. And the U.S. government shows little interest in any larger concept of justice than using military force to stop or kill terrorists and end the threat of current terrorists. But this is why the Christian community has never regarded just war theory as the whole answer. The Christian tradition is much richer, and voices have been raised in the mainline Protestant community, the evangelical community, and the Catholic community urging caution in the use of force and insisting that a much larger effort is needed to restore peace and bring a just international order. It is this larger consensus in the Christian community that Just Peace theology has attempted to articulate.
Peace is not just the absence of conflict. Peace is the presence of justice. Peace, or shalom, is a broad concept implying right relations and harmony. When the United Church of Christ defined "just peace" at its 1985 General Synod (in the process of declaring itself to be a Just Peace Church), it defined it as the interrelationship of justice, friendship, and common security from violence. The goal is always to minimize violence while working for justice and friendship. Just peace theology does not reject either just war theory or pacifism, as the United Methodist Church made clear in its 1986 document from the Council of Bishops entitled "In Defense of Creation." It attempts to put these Christian understandings in a broader context.
One way of putting this is that just war theory plus pacifism's non-violent alternatives to war equals just peace theology. Pacifists don't simply resist the use of force. They also insist that there are many positive alternatives to force, and if the cycle of violence is to be broken, and justice and friendship to be created, these alternatives must be employed. Mainline Protestants, Evangelicals and Catholics agree. And most pacifists have a great regard for the need for justice as well as for peace, keeping the two in balance. Just peace theology, of course, seeks to raise the commitment to justice equal to and interrelated to the commitment to peace.
Just peace advocates and pacifists ask these hard questions: How will the cycle of violence be broken? How will we acknowledge the beam in our own eye and our complicity in causing the situation? How will we look at the root causes of the conflict, and address the larger issues of justice, which must be addressed if there is to be reconciliation and the restoration of a just and peaceful community? How can we create international structures of common security from violence, international structures of justice?
Over the past ten years 23 Christian ethicists, biblical and moral theologians, international relations scholars, peace activists, and conflict resolution practitioners have worked to refine the Just Peace paradigm. Ten just peace practices were identified: (1) nonviolent direct action; (2) independent initiatives to reduce threat; (3) cooperative conflict resolution; (4) acknowledgement of responsibility and seeking repentance and forgiveness; (5) advancement of democracy, human rights, and religious liberty; (6) fostering of just and sustainable economic development; (7) working with emerging cooperative forces in the international system; (8) strengthening the United Nations and international organizations; (9) reducing offensive weapons trade; (10) encouraging grassroots peacemaking groups. (See Glen Stassen, Just Peacemaking: Ten Practices for Abolishing War; Cleveland, Ohio: The Pilgrim Press, 1998).
To fight terrorism, there are at least two broad categories where the United States needs to be offering proactive leadership, to address the question of justice and achieve a just peace. One is the development and use of greater international cooperation and the strengthening of international institutions. The other is the addressing of some of the root causes of unrest that Osama bin Laden has been able to exploit for his terrorist purposes. These include, above all, addressing the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
Right now the U.S. is attempting to define "terrorism" and "war on terrorism" by itself, without reference to any international standard or body. As President Bush put it, you are either for us or against us. How different that is from saying "you're either for terrorism as defined by the U.N., or against it." In the first case, the U.S. projects itself as an imperial power and invites the world to support U.S. power or oppose it. That is an invitation to more immediate terrorism and the nurturing of future terrorists, who will not agree with the U.S. imposing global imperial power.
If the U.S. wants to strengthen friendship with the Muslim and Arab world, as well as with other nations, and if it wants to maintain public support, it must put as much effort into initiatives of justice and development of international institutions capable of fighting terrorism over the long haul as it is now putting into military budgets and solutions. Justice, friendship, and common security from violence must be balanced.
Instead, if the U.S. thinks it can use unilateral military power, and use the language of holy war ("axis of evil" and other words which demonize perceived enemies, projecting all evil on one side and all goodness on the other), the U.S. will be giving bin Laden exactly what he sought: a holy war between the Muslim world and U.S. imperialism.
The Rev. Dr. Jay Lintner served as Director of the United Church of Christ Washington Office from 1985 to 2000. From 1981 to 1985 he served as Peace Priority Coordinator for the United Church of Christ, where he was staff to the Peace Theology Development Team that produced A Just Peace Church.
The United Church of Christ’s mission statement on Health and Human Service calls us to demonstrate and convey the compassion of Christ. Our mission statement reminds us that the whole church is itself the creation of God’s compassionate mercy in Christ, and as such the instrument of God’s intention for all humankind. Where the Church is there are those engaged in diakonia – the ministry of healing service, care, compassion and hospitality.
Cancer is a significant issue nationally and in the lives of many faith communities. There are many ways that congregations are supporting people as they deal with a cancer diagnosis and its accompanying life changes. Cancer diagnosis presents a unique spectrum of needs, feelings, pastoral concerns, and phases, impacting individuals, families and indeed, the whole community of care.
The purpose of this resource is to orient you to some of the central questions and considerations that may emerge as you journey with those in your faith community affected by cancer. The PowerPoint slides and Handbook will guide you in leading group discussions. Depending on the time and circumstances, you may choose to divide it into modules. We recommend three sections: God’s Healing Touch (slides 1 through 13); Care Throughout the Seasons (slides 14 through 25); and Y(our) Congregation: What Can We Do? (slides 25-29).
This resource is geared to facilitators of faith community health ministries(both lay and nurse led), Deacons, Called to Care Ministries, grief ministries, Clergy or any group within your congregation that practices spiritual and/or physical care and healing.
This resource comes as the result of several collaborations. In its initial form, it was the product of an independent study at Yale Divinity School in which the authors (James DeBoer and Laura Fitzpatrick) explored ways in which clergy and congregations are responding to the needs of people affected by cancer, with the guidance of Drs. Elaine Ramshaw and Janet Ruffing, OSM. The project also benefitted greatly from the wisdom and guidance of Rev. Shelly Stackhouse (Church of the Redeemer), Dean of Students Dale Peterson, and Rev. Adele Crawford, interim Dean of Chapel. Barbara Baylor, UCC Minister for Health Care Justice, subsequently provided very helpful feedback and also brought in the UCC Faith Community Nurse Leadership Team to provide additional help with editing. Rebecca Anton, Wendy Merriman and Peggy Matteson (all members of the UCC Faith Community Nurse Leadership Team) provided valuable assistance and feedback by piloting the project in several congregations and hospital settings.
For more information, contact Barbara Baylor (216) 736-3708.
Resolution: Reaffirming Universal Health Care Y2K
Submitted by the former Board for Homeland Ministries, American Missionary Association, Health and Welfare Program
At its Eighteenth General Synod in 1991, the United Church of Christ voted a pronouncement and a priority with the goal to "enlist all members of the UCC and its constituent parts, in study and action so that they may be knowledgeable and empowered to work for the establishment of an affordable, accessible health care system for all persons residing in the United States." The UCC Health Care Task Force was formed in response to this pronouncement and priority. The Task Force was instrumental in publishing a working document titled Educating and Organizing Health Ministries, Volume 1: Toward An Accessible Universal Health Care. However, since 1991 and after the defeat of a national health care reform in 1994, the priority and empahsis of UCC health programming efforts has been on the development of Health Ministries within local UCC congregations. Nonetheless, health care continues to rank as a leading health issue for our country. And, there is growing public concern that the crisis in health care is deepening in our nation. This assault on affordable and accessible health care has reached beyond crisis proportions and is now a major epidemic in the United States.
The U.S. spends the most per capita on health care of any industrialized nation, and has the second highest infant mortality rate of these nations. Further, our citizens have the shortest life expectancy and are the least satisfied with their health care system.
Health care costs exceeded $1 trillion in a single year for the first time in 1996. It now accounts for 13.6% of the nation's economy.
In 1997 more than 2.5 million families spent 30% or more of their earnings on health care.
Currently over 43 million Americans are uninsured.
Over 31 million Americans have health insurance, but are under-insured. They are unable to afford premiums (even when employers offer coverage).
In 1996 over 11 million children were uninsured.
About 14% of people age 55-65 were uninsured in 1994.
The capping of total reimbursements to medicare providers makes it possible to withhold care from medicare beneficiaries with the greatest needs who are less profitable to serve.
States now have greater flexibility to force medicaid recipients into low-cost medicaid-only managed care plans with minimal federal oversight.
While the Portability Bill does prohibit private health insurers from imposing pre-existing condition exclusions beyond 12 months, it does not guarantee access to the same benefit or limiting the premiums that can be charged.
The Patients Bill of Rights was passed but is generally weak in that it still allows HMO's to make major medical decisions.
Managed Care (HMO's or MCO's) have all but replaced traditional fee-for-service plans and are now proving not to be any more cost-effective.
The United States is the only industrialized nation that does not have national health care.
We need a system that provides universal coverage. And, we need to actively advocate for such a system by insisting that Congress put universal health care back on the agenda in 2000.
The UCC Health Care Task Force was revised and met in Cleveland in November to prioritize health issues and to develop a health agenda. One of the top five priorities that emerged from this meeting was Universal Health Care Access. The goal is to organize, educate, equip and mobilize local congregations and the community for advocating for universal health care! This resolution calls upon the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries, the Office for Church In Society, the Office for Communication, the Office of Church Life and Leadership, the United Church Board for World Ministries, The Council for Human Service Ministries, agencies of the United Church of Christ, individual churches, conferences and associations to REAFFIRM their commitment to health and universal health care as per the recommendation from General Synod Eighteen.
WHEREAS, we believe that health care is a basic right and not a privilege; and
WHEREAS, the gospels convey a message from God—a very powerful message that is the Church's marching order to meet the issue of affordable, accessible health care for all; and
WHEREAS, medical and health research have proven beyond question that poverty is the single strongest predictor of disease, disability and premature death, and that poverty is also the strongest predictor of blocked access to medical care; and
WHEREAS, an estimated 90 million people have little or no health insurance; and
WHEREAS, rationed care, loss of doctor choice, reduced quality of care and higher costs have now become the norm rather than the exception;
THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries calls upon conferences, associations, and local churches to awake and rise to this epidemic of health care injustice and abuse of the health care system; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries encourages local churches, conferences, associations, instrumentalities, organizations, health and welfare institutions associated with the UCC to once again join with the National Council of Churches and other denominations in the movement to raise the visibility of "Universal Health Care in the 2000 electoral season."
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries encourages local churches, conferences, associations, instrumentalities, organizations, and health and welfare institutions associated with the UCC to join in education and advocacy activities to advance legislation that support universal health care;
AND BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries RE-APPOINT The UCC Health Care Task Force to work in concert with the office of Church in Society (OCIS), the Office for Communication, the Office of Church Life and Leadership, UCC Health and Welfare Coordinating Council, the UCC Parish Nurse and Physician's Network and the Council for Health and Human Service Ministries (CHHSM) to revisit this issue and to develop new action plans and strategies for empowering our local churches to work for the establishment of Health Care For All.
Resources on educating and organizing for health care justice and reform.
General Synod Resolutions
- An Urgent Call For Advocacy In Support Of Healthcare For All, As In H.R. 676
- Resolution Reaffirming Universal Health Care
- Reclaiming the church's ministry of health and healing
- UCC Mission Statement on Health and Human Service
- Health Effects and Impacts of Tobacco Use on Children and Youth
Health Information & Resources:
Partners for health care reform:
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 email@example.com or call 216-736-3720.
|Additional Worship Resources|
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.