Commentary

Cries of the Workers

Worker justice and democracy are key issues for the church

It’s wonderful that Metro Lutheran offers a quarterly column on the Church and concerns of economic justice. It has been observed that we modern folk don’t take into account the inheritance that is ours just by being born into a world deeply affected by the organized labor movement. We go through our days taking for granted 40-hour work weeks, two-day weekends, paid vacations, medical coverage, and pensions.

Whether members of a labor union or not, most of us have benefited from at least some of the things on that list, because there were people who went before us who asked, demanded and in some cases fought for them.

A friend of mine, Chris Conry, a union member, calls these labor achievements our legacy. They’ve been bequeathed to us and we must pass them to our children. Yet they are a legacy that we dare not take for granted, because they are by no means assured. Indeed, in recent years the tide has appeared to be surging the other way — impacting wages and benefits for working people. As a culture we are now more insistent about the “rights” and needs of business than we are about the rights and needs of workers.

It is strange how often the Church has seen itself as removed from these issues and uninvolved in the struggles of labor. The just reward for labor is a theme throughout our Scriptures and the Christian tradition. The Old Testament, for example, is replete with instructions or “laws” that govern how the community is to live together, who is to be taken care of, and how wealth and property are to be distributed among the people. The prophets are clear that the kind of religious response God demands has little to do with musical settings or liturgical considerations but deals directly with how justice and equity is practiced among God’s people.

The ISAIAH organization, of which I am a part, has been working very hard this year to ensure access to participation by all in the democracy that we claim as Americans. It is evident, however, that access to such participation is a far larger issue than only the right and the ability to vote. To be able to contribute to shaping the future of this country, every person also needs to have time and resources to commit to those essential tasks. It is difficult to serve on school and community organizations, to be engaged in congregational activities, or even to build relationships with neighbors without the guarantees that the labor movement has always sought for working people. We have come to think of those guarantees, including just wages and fair work schedules, as essential if our citizens are to build strong families, flourishing faith communities and a vibrant democracy. These are concerns that also are central to people of faith.

It is no wonder that the biblical writers had so much to say about the way the community lived together, and why the prophets so forcefully reiterated these concerns. Like us, they wanted a just society, opportunity to contribute through work and partnership with others in building their community in obedience to God. Even today not everyone is benefiting as they should. Not everyone receives a living wage for working full-time. Not everyone has been granted the right to participate fully in our common life. Our generation, too, needs to listen to God’s call and continue to build the legacy of faith and work that we have been given.

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Stevenson serves Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Saint Paul. He is active in the metro-wide ISAIAH community organization. He can be contacted at gsteven@myinfmail.com.