The Common Good
September-October 1998

The Power of Alliance

by Bill Wylie-Kellermann | September-October 1998

Why the church and the labor movement belong together.

Biblically, theologically, ethically, even pastorally, it is incumbent upon the church to stand with workers, to be with them in the struggle for justice, to join them in holding corporations accountable to human community.

The day before his death, in a prescient sermon now famous, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. urged pastors and laypeople to support the striking sanitation workers of Memphis, Tennessee, by turning to Luke's parable of the Good Samaritan. In summoning the congregation to break the court injunction by marching the day following, he detailed the risks of that biblical "bloody pass," the winding road from Jerusalem down to Jericho. He allowed that the priest and the Levite may have been simply afraid, warily wondering if the robbers still hovered about, or if the victim was himself a thief lying in wait in wounded disguise.

And so the first question the Levite asked was, "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?" That's the question before you tonight. Not, "If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?"..."If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?" That's the question.

The Brickmakers Local
Not long ago I heard Rev. Joe Lowery of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference preach at a striking workers prayer service, "The first labor negotiations in history took place between Pharaoh and Moses." Actually, Exodus portrays a pretty remarkable piece of negotiating (seven chapters worth), with offers and counteroffers, nudges and reversals aplenty.

God, of course, had heard the cry of the brickmakers, on whose lives and sweat the very foundations of empire were being laid. Moses is sent. But after the initial meeting, Pharaoh responds in hardball fashion, in effect demanding the same productivity on fewer resources ("Let them gather their own straw," Exodus 5:7). It is a demoralizing tactic: At the first sign of protest, make working conditions even worse. Needless to say, Moses comes to the table with no small leverage, those plagues, but Pharaoh's heart is hardened in a manner all too familiar to poor and working people today. In the end the people of Israel walk out for good, learning to make, by God's grace, a whole new economy.

When the prophets took measure of the nation's health, they always looked to the least—the widows and orphans and sojourners in the land, but also (the law spells this out—Leviticus 19:13; Deuteronomy 24:15) to the fate of workers. King Josiah got it in challenge from Jeremiah: "Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbors serve him for nothing, and does not give them their wages" (22:13). The book of James echoes that spirit: "Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts" (5:4). Notice a number of echoes here, in fact.

The Carpenter and the Fishermen
It hardly needs saying that Jesus heard such cries and pronounced similar woes upon the rich. He gathered a movement of spiritual and social transformation among the poor and unclean, among dispossessed peasants and common laborers. Notorious in this last group of working stiffs were certain fishermen of Galilee on whose callings recent archeology and scholarship have cast new light.

Richard Horsley and Neil Silberman have recently written on changes in this political economy. For millennia, fishing on the Galilee had been a very local, self-reliant, and seasonal affair in the lakeside villages. Rapid spoilage fixed a limit on the market, localizing a self-sustaining economy. However, under the tetrarchy of Herod Antipas, who was anxious to make his backward region productive for Rome (by both taxes and exports), and with the development of preservative techniques in which hauls of sardine and carp could be pickled or salted, the pressures of a wider market seem just then to have been altering the Galilean economy. Romans developed a taste for salt-fish. Spicy sauces and fish stews were highly valued as both condiment and medicine. Magdala, lakeside hometown of the disciple Mary, became a kind of factory town nicknamed Taricheae, or the "Town of Salt-Fish." The Galilee, little more than a large freshwater lake, was becoming virtually "industrialized" and perhaps even overfished.

Against such a background the gospel stories of disciples fishing all night and coming up empty, not to mention those miraculous net-busting catches, take on a different cast. Nobody was organizing a maritime union, but when Peter and friends dropped their nets to follow Jesus they were certainly signing on to a movement that offered a sweeping alternative community—economic, political, and spiritual—to the dominating imperial system of Rome.

Corporate Powers That Be
In thinking through the church's role to support workers in the face of forces that abuse or exploit them, there is no resource in the scriptures more pertinent than a theology of the "principalities and powers," evinced especially in the New Testament. Rediscovered and reclaimed in recent years by the likes of William Stringfellow and now Walter Wink, this biblical theology identifies the whole range of institutions, ideologies, and other structures of power as aspects of the created order, creatures, in fact, that have a life and integrity of their own and are accountable to the judgment of God.

Stringfellow averred that the vocation, the calling, of every power was to praise God and serve human life (see Colossians 1:15-20). Imagine General Motors or United Parcel Service or Caterpillar held to such an account.

Of course each power has a more particular and concrete calling. The vocation of the commercial media, for example, might be to serve human beings by getting the truth out and providing a forum for public discussion; the vocation of the health care system is to nurture and heal; and so on. As a tool of analysis and discernment, "vocation" is at once a simple and radical idea. It means Christians begin by asking about root purposes. What is a bank for? What is an auto company for? What, even, is an economy for? In every case the answer must identify its servanthood to humanity, to the community in which it functions, even (and here we arrive at a crux) its own employees.

The problem, deep and ubiquitous, is that in the Fall these vocations are necessarily distorted, confused, even inverted. The corporate powers forget who they are called in the Word of God to be. In the fallenness of life, the powers cease to praise God and serve human life. Instead they imagine they are god and they enslave human life. The assaultive contempt that so many corporations demonstrate for their own employees is virtually one with the contempt they show for the wider society, and for the Earth itself.

Frankly, though it is a task largely unclaimed, the church proclaims the redeeming work of Christ in large part by exposing this dehumanizing distortion and calling the powers, including the corporations, back to their created vocations (Ephesians 3:9-10). The logion "People before profits" is actually a kind of bumper-sticker theology in this regard. A friend of mine, a Catholic sister active in all sorts of social movements, says that the only time people ever walked out on her in church was when she explained that papal encyclicals and Catholic teaching placed labor above capital.

With respect to corporations, the mechanisms and forums for accountability are becoming fewer and farther between. Shareholder meetings have sometimes been an arena for church suasion and action. Now they are more and more obviated by mutual fund managers who hold controlling interests from above in the name of indifferent market players. Corporate charters issued by states were once for limited periods and required the scrutiny of annual renewal and review. Now they are a legal formality, a pretense without teeth.

Corporations have been subject to the law (indeed, recognized as "persons" before the courts) and constrained by government regulation. Now, as corporations become larger than many nation-states and as capitalism moves into global hyperspace without the restraints of local or democratic regulation (as per NAFTA, GATT, or MAI), there may cease to be any effective point at which they can be held accountable to human life. Theologically, this hastening arrogation of global sovereignty portends not merely idolatry, but a kind of blasphemy.

It is also, as corporations shake off the remnants of political and economic restraint, behind much of the union-busting assault now at work on so many fronts. Hence, when churches stand with workers in the struggle for justice, it is (as in the past) a solidarity, a preferential option expressly urged upon us by scripture. However, (at present) it is also potentially an alliance on behalf of human life, a forum where the corporate powers may be reminded of their vocations and for that matter their creatureliness, a locus where the sovereignty of God may be in effect proclaimed, and a place where the interests of local communities, or even the Earth itself, may be defended. If this sounds as much like a call to the unions as it is to the church, then so be it.

Powers Closer to Home
Last year I had occasion to address a conference of United Auto Worker chaplains—a wonderful collection, it seemed to me, largely of Baptists and Pentecostals on the shop floor. I offered a principalities view of corporations, predatory and expansive. The chaplains and their union leaders loved it. I explained how the church too is a principality, confused in its vocation. In the death of Christ it is freed from bondage to the powers yet it is divided and ruled by mammon, racism, and the like. In the resurrection of Christ it is freed to risk it all, to die, and yet it remains obsessively anxious about its own survival. They nodded in knowing agreement.

I drew a breath and told how movements and unions are likewise powers subject to the Fall, whose vocations can be forgotten and corrupted, and need to be called back again and again to the roots of their identity, a task chaplains were perhaps well placed to undertake. The congregation voiced scattered "Amens." The leadership at the table behind me went cold. Applied close to home, a theology of the powers often meets a mixed reception.

Ask: The vocation of a union is what? Well, I suppose, to praise God and serve human life, human communities, by honoring the integrity of labor everywhere; connecting workers in the struggle of justice for one another; giving them public voice (or voices); resisting the assaults of capital and wealth; furthering the development of democracy and nonviolent action...and more I'm sure.

Be biblically realistic about the Fall: Organizations born in battle and risk become consumed with shoring up, above all else, their own institutional survival; lawyers and coffers dictate strategy; movement becomes bureaucracy; solidarity becomes turf war or "interest group" politics; alliances become power for sale; workplace democracy gives way to overpowering incumbency (and its mechanisms)...and more I'm sure. However much the oxymoron "union bosses" may be caricatured and exploited in the media, it can signify in a nutshell the inversion of fallen life.

The vocational question, in both its root and fallen aspect, must be put again and again firstly by workers in their own movements. However, it also must be asked by the church in a way that gives encouragement to those within the labor movement working tirelessly for reform and renewal. As with the larger picture, the church's natural bias from within the union is also from below, beginning with rank and file, from the bottom up. Here, putting the vocational question, no matter how sometimes troublesome, is in fact an open gift of churches to labor.

Roles and Charisms of the Church
This is to say that when clergy and churches at their best enter into alliances with labor unions they do so while maintaining, nonetheless, a certain freedom and independence. They come without laying down critical biblical faculties. They come bearing whatever moral weight they publicly retain, but do not simply throw the cloak of morality over any given struggle. They must come as partners, clear about their own vocation and identity. They ought, I believe, to come with an active bias toward creative and redemptive gospel nonviolence. And because the churches intercede for the whole world, they would bring a broadening perspective to the table. They ask not only how the community can support this fight, but how this fight can serve the wider community.

One gift a church may bring, to any social struggle, is discernment. If the powers-that-be are realities both material and spiritual, as the scriptures suggest (being "visible and invisible, heavenly and earthly"—see Colossians 1:16), then comprehending their workings would take an eye and a heart for the spirit. All too often churchfolk enter coalitions relying on the otherwise excellent social analyses of their partners, without remembering that this is only half the picture, and that they have (however atrophied) gifts of spiritual listening to offer at the strategy table.

In like manner, half of any struggle is a spiritual battle. (Sometimes the corporate types understand this better than the children of light and engage a sort of "spiritual warfare" of their own, setting about systematically to break the spirit of hope and solidarity with despair.) Prayer and fasting and public worship and singing and signs of imagination are among the tactics of any movement that knows it wrestles not merely with flesh and blood (see Ephesians 6:10-18).

If the church is to step up to this alliance, it better be doing good theology. That might seem to go without saying—especially in light of the powers discussion foregoing, but I'm thinking particularly of the theology of work itself. Given the rhythm of work and rest identified with the blessings of creation in the first chapter of the first book of the Hebrew Bible, we are on a foundational theme. Given the entanglement of work in the curse of the Fall, in the broken relationship between human beings and the creation, in the inversion of dominion suggested above, it is hardly to be ignored. Moreover, all of this is reiterated and reworked in the Sabbath/Jubilee approach to economics (Leviticus 25; Exodus 21:2-6, 23:7-11; Deuteronomy 15:1-18; Isaiah 61:1-4; Luke 4:17-21), which runs throughout the biblical witness. (See Ched Myers' "'God Speed the Year of Jubilee!'" May-June 1998 and "Jesus' New Economy of Grace," July-August 1998.)

We ought, however, to be chastened to recall the historical import of such previous theologizing. The Protestant work ethic may be today so thoroughly supplanted by the "ethics" of consumption that it's all but forgotten, yet it played a supporting role in the rise of capitalism itself. The exalted individualism and moral virtue, justification really, which it imputed to work, lubricated (if not drove) the social machinery of industrial capitalism.

With the apparent triumph of consumer capitalism so touted in the global economy, we are at a moment of crucial and perhaps radical rethinking about work. Questions abound. What is work? What does a biblical theology say about the basis of and right to meaningful work? Can labor now be decommodified? Can it be separated from the corporate provision of "jobs"? What is the relationship of labor and land? Of work and community? Can new forms of work be generated by communities, for communities, from the bottom up? Certain of these questions will be welcomed by the labor unions. Others will stretch their limits.

In all of this, the church will be stretched as well. Such are the gifts of the alliance table. What if at the turn of the millennium, labor were renewed as movement? What if the church were too?

Bill Wylie-Kellermann, a Sojourners contributing editor, was a Methodist pastor living in Detroit and worked as director of Graduate Theological Studies for SCUPE (the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education) when this article appeared.

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