Archived Sections, Commentary

Sharing common concerns

As a young Lutheran, I’m skeptical of ideas for “doing church” in radically new ways. When I’m involved in planning Holy Week, I look the make-it-new folks in the eye and suggest using the lectionary readings, scarlet vestments, and “Ah, Holy Jesus.” Some innovation is valuable, but there’s no need to discard what we already have.
Many members of denominational churches — including younger members — have deep respect for liturgical tradition. Why, then, when it comes to matters of social justice, do we so often try to start from scratch? Overwhelmed by the array of issues and hungry for forward-looking ways to address them, we’re often left mostly with questions: Are marginalized people best served at a local level, or at a national or international one? What matters most — jobs? wages? health care? community fabric? Could we possibly build a movement that engages all these things?
Actually, others already have. As far back as the mid-19th century, the U.S. labor movement fought for shorter hours and restrictions on child labor, both of which gained traction until becoming federal law in the 1930s.
While membership has declined, unions continue to function as effective advocates for justice, both in local communities and in Washington, D.C. And, unlike most organizations, unions engage simultaneously the abstractions of politics and policy and the real lives and diverse needs of individual families.
Still, negative stereotypes of unions persist: corrupt bosses, inflexible on-the-job requirements, crudely anti-business sentiment, even communist sympathies. In fact, if you’re in favor of decent wages, affordable health care, workplace safety and flexibility, and the empowerment of people to improve their own lives and the quality of their work, you share the labor movement’s main goals.
Labor movements have often existed in close relationship with the church, and the two share some fundamental values. Because Christians see human beings as intrinsically valuable, we understand that work is for people, not people for work. And the importance we place on family compels us to support a movement to enable people both to provide for their families and to have some time left to spend with them.
What’s more, while some Christians preach a largely individualistic gospel, Lutherans in our very baptismal commitment emphasize the value and power of community as greater than the sum of its parts—an idea at the very core of organizing and collective bargaining.
Churches have welcomed movements promoting fairly traded imported goods, sustainable food, and local businesses. We as members should also ask about those making and selling our clothing, furniture, sandwiches, and coffee — not only whether they’re paid and treated well but whether they’re allowed to join a union. We can insist that our office and apartment building services contracts go only to firms that allow unions. In many communities, union halls are great places to look for volunteering opportunities. And our elected officials need to hear from us that we support policies that help working families and protect the right to organize.
Younger people tend to be long in energy and short in historical perspective. The pursuit of justice demands innovation and effort, and the church is well positioned to lead. But unions, though they’ve hit troubled times, are not a relic of another era. They continue to support otherwise vulnerable people — and we should support their efforts.
Steve Thorngate is an ELCA member temporarily living in St. Paul while working as an intern at The Utne Reader. He blogs about faith and culture at