Recent union victories mean it’s time for a more organized religion

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In the book by theologian and labor activist Colleen Wessel-McCoy, Liberty Church of the Poorit refers to a sermon the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. preached from his pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1968: “We would have a better world, [if] Christians would stop talking so much about religion and start doing something about it… But the problem is that the church has sanctioned all the evils of the world, be it racism, or be it the evils of monopoly capitalism, or be it the evils of militarism. With a few notable exceptions, King is right: Christians have a lot of “sanctioned evil” to admit. But if there was ever a time to recognize sanctioned evil and start doing something about it, that time is now.

The new wave of labor organizing has sparked conversations about worker power, economic injustice and racial disparities. Christians have a new opportunity to oppose the evil and injustice that low-wage workers currently face.

Even in recent weeks we have seen workers win a union at Amazon’s JFK8 and several Starbucks stores across the country also began to unionize. Yet even in light of these victories, many Christians do not immediately understand why they should care about worker exploitation, systemic economic injustice, or unions. While it’s not uncommon to see progressive clergy show up at a strike or industrial action, it’s more unusual to see lay people in these environments. What if that could change? What if we organized our churches as well as our workplaces?

Organizing our religious communities is not just a hypothetically “nice” thing to do. The central goal of the organization is for ordinary people to use their collective power to right injustices.

Businesses, politicians and other financial interests often try to find ways to derail the organization. The failure of Amazon’s labor campaign in April 2021 is certainly a notable example of that. Yet, as labor scholar and activist Jane McAlevey points out, it is also true that the reason the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union failed in Bessmer, Alabama because it failed to organize and integrate support from local faith communities. McAlevey writes, “The media often highlighted the religious aspect of the campaign, with key personnel in the effort being religious leaders or people of faith themselves. But there was a near total absence of Bessemer or local Birmingham church organizations on the campaign’s endorsement list.

McAlevey’s observation is that there were religious people in the countryside in Bessemer, but their churches and religious communities were absent. Of course, every struggle is different, but there is something important to learn from McAlevey’s observation: supporting faith communities is an important part of a successful organizing campaign. In the end, workers win union elections, but community support is essential.

In September 2021, I wrote an article for The bias who made a similar point: I argued that the clergy could be an important presence on a strike line. One of the key points of my argument was that part of the reason the clergy have power is because they represent their religious communities. It still rings true. But the workers need the support of more than just the clergy; workers need the power of entire church.

Militant clergy presenting and speaking with moral authority to bosses and corporations without regard to the lives of workers is important and invaluable. But there’s no denying that the power of the clergy ultimately comes from the people and organizations they work with. The labor movement needs more than clergy to speak at rallies – it needs everything Christians and believers to organize for workers’ rights.

Beyond simple campaign strategy, there is also a moral and theological imperative within Christian theology that should inspire Christians to come forward. Jesuit liberation theologian Father Ignacio Ellacuría explains it best in his essay, “The Crucified People”, which is found in the book Systematic theology, co-authored by fellow Jesuit liberation theologian Jon Sobrino. In the essay, Ellacuría intervenes in the theological conversation around Christian soteriologies (theories of what the death of Jesus means for our salvation). There are a handful of normative theories regarding the death of Jesus and what it means for human salvation. One example is the substitutionary atonement theory, which posits that when Jesus dies on the cross, he takes on all our sins, appeasing God the Father who saves mankind from the condemnation of hell.

Atonement theories are interesting and important, but the question Ellacuría asks us is not centered on the soteriological implications of Jesus’ death, but on Why Jesus died first. Ellacuría writes, “We can admit that the death of Jesus and the crucifixion of the people are necessary, but only if we are talking about a necessity in history and not just a natural necessity.”

Rather than fall back on a cosmic or metaphysical justification for the necessity of Jesus’ death, Ellacuría reasons that Jesus was crucified for the same reason the poor and working people everywhere are crucified: the powers and principalities of this world do not simply don’t care about the lives of the people they exploit. And if exploited people create trouble, then powers and principalities try to silence calls for justice and protect their own brand.

Reflecting on the crucifixion of Jesus, Ellacuría explains that there is a whole class of people who find themselves in a situation similar to that of Jesus when he was here on this earth. Ellacuría calls this class of people the “crucified people”. Ellacuría expresses it thus: “What is meant by crucified persons here is that collective body which, as the majority of humanity, owes its crucifixion situation to the way in which society is organized and maintained by a minority which exercises its domination…”

Jesus was and continues to be crucified because he stands with the crucified in our modern world. These people are crucified because we have created entire systems that necessarily crucify them for the benefit of a small minority of wealthy and powerful elites. The forces that crucified Jesus are the same forces that crucify millions of poor and working class people in the United States and around the world.

Theological conversations and mystical explanations often make the crucifixion and its soteriological implications otherworldly. But it is important to anchor the crucifixion in reality. Think of it this way: what would you do if you saw Jesus suffering on the cross? Would you just resign yourself to believing that this is all part of a saving plan? Of course not! You would cry and moan in the streets; you would find a way to present yourself as a witness on behalf of the crucified. As far as the poor and working people of the United States are concerned, it is not enough for Christians to simply send their pastors and clergy to speak a good prophetic word. Christians must come en masse to the crucified people and participate in their descent from the cross.

Sometimes theology leaves too much to nuance or is unnecessarily vague in its application, so I want to make it very clear: the extreme poverty we have in the United States is a political choice on the part of politicians more morally bankrupt who choose to spend money on bombs and planes rather than eliminating poverty. Our out of control capitalist system is rigged against us and is slowly crucifying poor and low income people through low wage jobs, lack of health care, high rents, ecological devastation and systemic racism. When we see workers organizing, it is our moral duty to show up and do what we can to prevent their crucifixion.

Materially, this means getting involved. Here are some ideas on how to get involved that you should share with your faith community:

● Contact unions and local organizations in your area and ask how you can help them.
● Invite unions and workers to speak at your church or faith community gatherings.
● Write letters to your state and local politicians about labor exploitation laws.
● Mobilize your faith community to come out for a strike or industrial action.
● Consider the contribution of strike funds to your faith community’s budget.
● With the advice of local unions or labor organizations, organize phone zaps to the bosses and the exploiting companies in your region.

King was right: we would have a better world if Christians talked less about religion and were committed to fighting for justice. There is a clear theological call to confront the ways our world continues to crucify people, but it is up to us to take that call beyond theology and into the streets.

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