Sunday, September 25, 2011

What I'm Up To

It’s been a year since I stepped out of full-time youth ministry to embark on my next great adventure.

Beach near Cape May Point
I loved spending time with kids, talking with parents, working side by side with some of the most gifted young and older adults I’ve had the privilege of knowing. I was honored by the goodbye celebrations the church and youth group gave me, and quite sad the night I finished cleaning my office, loaded the last of my photos, paintings, and boxes in the back of my Fit, and drove away in a heavy rain that matched my mood.

My plan was to spend the rest of the year in “Sabbath,” thinking, praying, reading, then to spend a few months in discernment before launching into whatever emerged.

I started with a week in Cape May, part retreat, part bird-watching marathon. A high point was sharing a quiet early morning beach with a young eagle that had just caught a fish for breakfast. It would have flown but didn’t want to leave its catch, so watched me warily until I left it to eat in peace.

I started this blog a week or two later, then traveled to Miami with my husband and wandered South Beach and Key Biscayne while he sat in a hotel conference room in meetings. Then we drove through the everglades, saw lots of alligators, and spent time on Sanibel Island, kayaking in a mangrove swamp and collecting shells on the beaches.

By the time we returned home I had a young adult novel spinning in my head. I finished that a few months later, then substantially rewrote a novel I started years ago, about a boy living in the Quaker town of Waterford, Virginia, at the start of the Civil War.

As I worked on that novel, The Quaker War, I realized I had never answered for myself the questions the story raised. What happens when private faith and public policy collide? Is it possible to work for peace when surrounded by the reality of war? What should citizens do when civil authority moves in immoral directions? How do we reconcile abstract ideals with the practical demands of daily survival?

By the time I had The Quaker War ready to submit to publishers, I was deep into the real work of this Sabbath time: What does it mean to be a “citizen”? What is my responsibility as a part of our democracy?

News of the “Arab Spring” unfolding in the Middle East spurred me in my wondering. I’ve always known that freedom is a gift to be treasured, but in what ways do we treasure it? And what does it require of us? Is there a recurrent cost, an ongoing debt? While men and women risk their lives to face down tyrants in the public square, what do I contribute to the ongoing story of freedom?

My husband and I traveled to France in June and the issues of freedom, citizenship and democracy became even more pressing. We ate lunch in Place Gutenberg in Salzburg, and admired the Gutenberg Monument crafted by David d’Angers in 1840. At first we wondered at the bas relief scenes surrounding the monument’s base: Ben Franklin and other revolutionaries with the Declaration of Independence. William Wilberforce and other abolitionists freeing slaves from their chains.

But then it became clear: the printing press, Gutenberg’s invention, allowed access to “the Word”, God’s word, but also the printed word, information, knowledge. And that access spurred the quest for freedom.

In Paris, Liberté is writ large across the tops of buildings, but also in the history of streets, squares, public places. We ate dinner on Rue L’Estrapade, a narrow road named for the form of torture carried out on Protestants who insisted on the freedom of religion. We walked through Place Maubert, where reformation-minded printers and booksellers had their tongues cut out before they were burned at the stake. We were reminded at almost every turn of revolution and resistance, the struggle for freedom, the costly stand against power seen from the time of the Roman coliseum, where we sat one peaceful evening to eat a sandwich, through the final days of World War II.

What are the responsibilities of a citizen? To vote and obey the law? Is there more?

Since our trip to France I’ve been reading Soul of a Citizen, Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time, a book Paul Loeb wrote in 1999 that was revised and expanded and reprinted earlier this year. In his introduction to the new edition, Loeb writes 
“In the personal realm, most Americans are thoughtful, caring, generous. We try to do our best by family and friends. At times we'll even stop to help another driver stranded by a roadside break­down, or give some spare change to a stranger. But too often, a wall separates each of us from the world outside, and from others who've likewise taken refuge in their own private sanctuaries--what we might call the gated community of the heart. We've all but forgotten that public participation is the very soul of democratic citizenship.” 
Loeb summarizes some of the challenges facing our nation, and our globe: shrinking salaries, disappearing jobs, environmental dangers, a complex global economy we struggle to understand. 
“How can we make sense of a world where Nike pays Michael Jordan more to appear in its ads than it pays all the workers at its Indonesian shoe factories combined? Or where the planet’s 500 richest people control more wealth than the bottom 3 billion, half of the human population? Or where financial speculation has become so omnipresent it can threaten the entire global economy? Is it possible even to grasp the process that led to these crises, and all the others we face?” 
Loeb goes on to say that we draw back from involvement because the problems are too complex, because there are so many pressing issues we don’t know which to tackle first. But he sees a greater problem at work: a loss of confidence in the possibility of impacting the public sphere. 
“We face a challenge that is as much psychological as political. . . . we need to acknowledge and confront the pervasive sense of powerlessness that afflicts our society. How did so many of us become convinced that we can do nothing to affect our common future? And, by contrast, how have others managed to remove the cataracts form their eyes and muster the confidence to work powerfully for change?” 
Loeb’s questions are the questions that have begun to shape my days. I believe in community, healing, compassion, truth, justice. I continue to look for ways to live those in my own life, to share them with those closest to me, but looking back through some of my earlier posts I can see the growing awareness that "the gated community of the heart" is profoundly affected by what occurs in the public square. If I care about poor kids living in inner city neighborhoods, single moms struggling to raise their kids, clean streams where my grandchildren can play, clean air for my friends with asthma, I need to leave that gated community and begin to speak for the things that I believe in. 

In another book I’ve been reading, The Scandal of Evangelical Politics, Ron Sider says “human experience proves that politics profoundly impacts billions of people. Bad political choices lead to dictatorship, starvation, and death for hundreds of millions. Good political decisions nurture freedom, life, justice, and peace. Politics matter.”

Unfortunately, as Sider demonstrates in his book, most Christians “have not thought very carefully about how to do politics in a wise, biblically grounded way.” My hope is to become a wise, biblically grounded participant in the political arena.

At the same time, I hold in mind Wendell Berry’s essay, "Think Little", which reminds me: “We need better government, no doubt about it. But we also need better minds, better friendships, better marriages, better communities.”
So, plans for the year ahead: 
  • Find publishers for my two middle grade/young adult novels.
  • Write another novel I have brewing, and explore more non-fiction forms of writing.
  • Attract even more birds and insects to my backyard habitat by continuing to learn about native plants and ecosystems.  
  • Look for practical ways to be a more consistent, compassionate, available friend, wife, mother.
  • Engage in building community through hospitality and other creative ventures.
  • Explore what it means to be an active, informed, politically engaged,  “living like Jesus” citizen. 
As part of those last two goals, I’ve been talking with my neighbor about starting a study group to read and discuss The Soul of a Citizen together, then see where that leads us. If you’d like to join our group, and you live nearby, we’d be happy to have you join us.

Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments. 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Thoughts in the Presence of Fear

For the past few weeks we’ve been hearing stories of 9/11: interviews, reflections, commemorations. Then I saw a piece about Homeland Defense, heard a bit more about changes since 9/11, and began to wonder: what happens to peace, democracy, common humanity, in the light of institutionalized paranoia and unchecked military spending?  

Currently, twenty percent of the overall federal budget goes to the Department of Defense: $741,200,000,000. That’s more than one third of all military spending, worldwide, and more than the next six largest militaries combined

Spending on aid, development, diplomacy combined is just 1 percent of the federal budget.  

Wendell Berry’s "Thoughts in the Presence of Fear", published in Orion not long after Sept. 11, 2001, and collected in Citizen Papers in 2003, raises important questions, questions I'd rather not think about on a lovely Sunday morning. But maybe it's time to think more carefully about what it means to be a conscientious citizen, in the most powerful nation in the world. 
The full text is still available on the Orion website.
Thoughts in the Presence of Fear:
I. The time will soon come when we will not be able to remember the horrors of September 11 without remembering also the unquestioning technological and economic optimism that ended on that day. 
II. This optimism rested on the proposition that we were living in a “new world order” and a “new economy” that would “grow” on and on, bringing a prosperity of which every new increment would be “unprecedented”. 
III. The dominant politicians, corporate officers, and investors who believed this proposition did not acknowledge that the prosperity was limited to a tiny percent of the world’s people, and to an ever smaller number of people even in the United States; that it was founded upon the oppressive labor of poor people all over the world; and that its ecological costs increasingly threatened all life, including the lives of the supposedly prosperous. 
IV. The “developed” nations had given to the “free market” the status of a god, and were sacrificing to it their farmers, farmlands, and communities, their forests, wetlands, and prairies, their ecosystems and watersheds. They had accepted universal pollution and global warming as normal costs of doing business. . . . 
VII. We did not anticipate anything like what has now happened. We did not foresee that all our sequence of innovations might be at once overridden by a greater one: the invention of a new kind of war that would turn our previous innovations against us, discovering and exploiting the debits and the dangers that we had ignored. We never considered the possibility that we might be trapped in the webwork of communication and transport that was supposed to make us free. . . 
XI. We now have a clear, inescapable choice that we must make. We can continue to promote a global economic system of unlimited “free trade” among corporations, held together by long and highly vulnerable lines of communication and supply, but now recognizing that such a system will have to be protected by a hugely expensive police force that will be worldwide, whether maintained by one nation or several or all, and that such a police force will be effective precisely to the extent that it oversways the freedom and privacy of the citizens of every nation. 
XII. Or we can promote a decentralized world economy which would have the aim of assuring to every nation and region a local self-sufficiency in life-supporting goods. This would not eliminate international trade, but it would tend toward a trade in surpluses after local needs had been met. 
XIII. One of the gravest dangers to us now, second only to further terrorist attacks against our people, is that we will attempt to go on as before with the corporate program of global “free trade”, whatever the cost in freedom and civil rights, without self-questioning or self-criticism or public debate. . . 
XVIII. In a time such as this, when we have been seriously and most cruelly hurt by those who hate us, and when we must consider ourselves to be gravely threatened by those same people, it is hard to speak of the ways of peace and to remember that Christ enjoined us to love our enemies, but this is no less necessary for being difficult. . . . 
XXI. What leads to peace is not violence but peaceableness, which is not passivity, but an alert, informed, practiced, and active state of being. We should recognize that while we have extravagantly subsidized the means of war, we have almost totally neglected the ways of peaceableness. We have, for example, several national military academies, but not one peace academy. We have ignored the teachings and the examples of Christ, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and other peaceable leaders. And here we have an inescapable duty to notice also that war is profitable, whereas the means of peaceableness, being cheap or free, make no money. 
XXII. The key to peaceableness is continuous practice. It is wrong to suppose that we can exploit and impoverish the poorer countries, while arming them and instructing them in the newest means of war, and then reasonably expect them to be peaceable. 
XXIII. We must not again allow public emotion or the public media to caricature our enemies. If our enemies are now to be some nations of Islam, then we should undertake to know those enemies. Our schools should begin to teach the histories, cultures, arts, and language of the Islamic nations. And our leaders should have the humility and the wisdom to ask the reasons some of those people have for hating us. 
XXIV. Starting with the economies of food and farming, we should promote at home, and encourage abroad, the ideal of local self-sufficiency. We should recognize that this is the surest, the safest, and the cheapest way for the world to live. We should not countenance the loss or destruction of any local capacity to produce necessary goods. 
XXV. We should reconsider and renew and extend our efforts to protect the natural foundations of the human economy: soil, water, and air. We should protect every intact ecosystem and watershed that we have left, and begin restoration of those that have been damaged. 
XXVI. The complexity of our present trouble suggests as never before that we need to change our present concept of education. Education is not properly an industry, and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. It’s proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible. This cannot be done by gathering or “accessing” what we now call “information” - which is to say facts without context and therefore without priority. A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means putting first things first. 
XXVII. The first thing we must begin to teach our children (and learn ourselves) is that we cannot spend and consume endlessly. We have got to learn to save and conserve. We do need a “new economy”, but one that is founded on thrift and care, on saving and conserving, not on excess and waste. An economy based on waste is inherently and hopelessly violent, and war is its inevitable by-product. We need a peaceable economy.

I find myself wondering what it means to pursue a more peaceable life, a more peaceable economy. What does it mean to serve the Prince of Peace in a world devoted to war?

Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Becoming a Fractivist

Fracking makes water disappear…

It will no longer swirl with tadpoles
or ripple with fish. …

It will no longer ascend into clouds,
freeze into snowflakes,
melt into revulets,
cascade over rocks,
turn with the tides,
soak into soil,
rise through roots
or flow from your tap….

Never again, fog mist frost ice dew or rain.
It’s gone.

Not that you’d want it to come back;

it’s poisonous now.

From Meditation on Water Sandra Steingraber

I went last Wednesday to the Shale Gas Outrage protest at 13th and Arch.

At the beginning of the summer I knew almost nothing about shale gas, hydraulic fracturing, horizontal drilling, “fracking.” I’d heard just a little about the governor’s shale gas commission, and was aware the commission was made almost entirely of people from natural gas companies, or politicians whose elections were funded by them. That seemed a little worrisome.

More worrisome were their recommendations, released in late July. The Inquirer said the commission’s recommendations “endorse the industry's call for modernizing the regulatory structure of shale-drilling and creating uniform local zoning rules to streamline approval processes. The commission also endorsed boosting markets for the fuel with incentives for using natural gas in transportation, electric generation, and manufacturing.”

I’ve begun to notice that “modernizing regulation”  is code for “let them do what they want.” And “incentives” are usually a form of corporate welfare, hidden under the mantra of “creating jobs.”

I have a thing about clean water. It’s one of those gifts God gave us that we need to value, protect, watch out for, celebrate. I grieve for those around the globe whose water supply has been damaged – by mining in fragile places, by man-made droughts, by unwise farming practices.

So I started wondering: what does fracking do to water?

Google “fracking,” and you’ll find plenty of industry-sponsored sites that assure you natural gas is the cleanest form of fossil fuel known to man, and nothing bad can ever happen in the drilling process.

Scene from Gasland
Look a little harder, and you’ll find scores of alarming studies that say the simple act of fracturing shale carries immediate, unavoidable risks: the fracturing itself opens new passageways for underground gases to travel, allowing methane and natural, deep radioactive substances to migrate into aquafers.

But that’s just the start of the dangers: fracturing fluid, pumped into wells for a host of reasons, can contain chemicals like cyanide, arsenic, mercury, lead, barium, strontium, and hundreds of other chemicals known to cause cancer, nerve damage, organ failure, birth defects. Any of those can migrate into drinking water.

And as part of the process, some of the fluids pumped in are drawn out again, then need to be disposed of. In Pennsylvania, disposal hasn’t been monitored well. Those fracking fluids – millions of gallons - have been dumped in streams, on fields. Or held in open pits where migrating birds land and die. Pits that overflow when rains are heavy. Pits that allow the fluids to seep into the ground around them. And large quantities of fracking fluids are delivered to municipal water treatment plants that admit they’re not equipped to treat them.

It takes six million gallons of water to frack one well. There are already almost four thousand wells in Pennsylvania, with tens of thousands more planned. Already, in other states, hydrofracking has pumped vast quantities of clean water into shale gas wells. Some of that water will stay deep beneath the earth’s surface, beneath any aquifer, and no one knows if it will ever surface again. Some will migrate through the shale, surfacing miles from where it started, carrying lingering contaminants into previously clean water. And some, millions of gallons, is already on the surface to stay: toxic, polluted, radioactive water no one should ever drink again.

There are other dangers, other environmental concerns, but it's the water that concerns me most.

Imagine being told not to shower because the water from your showerhead might make your house blow up.

Imagine being told not to eat from plates washed in your water because they might be radioactive.

Imagine not being told, and experiencing months, even years, of headaches, rashes, mystery illnesses, caused by undisclosed, invisible chemicals in your water.

There’s been a moratorium on shale gas drilling in the Delaware River watershed. The natural gas industry is confident that ban will be lifted. In fact, that’s the point behind all the ads and billboards about how clean and safe shale gas is. The Delaware Basin River Commission, which regulates use of the watershed, recently permitted exploratory wells in the region, with the promise that rules would be in place by October 21, permitting shale gas drilling.

Photo from StateImpact PA
Fifteen million people drink water from the Delaware River basin. New York City, Newark, Trenton, Philadelphia, Camden, Wilmington.

I went to the Shale Gas Outrage protest Wednesday out of curiosity more than outrage. I had a sense that I should learn more, that maybe fracking should be better regulated, that certainly it should be taxed.

I came away convinced, as most independent researchers suggest, that fracking needs to stop, completely. The industry knows how to drill the wells and extract the gas; they don’t know how to return the water to drinkable state, they don’t know how to keep gas and fracking fluids from migrating, and they don’t know how to cap the wells completely when they’re done. Every well already drilled will be a waste-water nightmare on into the future.

My head is full of scary facts. I had not seen the movie Gasland, but went to a screening as part of my two day frack-fact marathon.  I had heard about the faucet lit on fire for the film. But it wasn’t just one faucet. It was faucet after faucet, and a stream as well – all water that was clean and clear until shale gas drilling nearby.  Josh Fox, the producer, was available at the screening for questions. He’s been accused by the natural gas industry of fabricating and exaggerating his stories. He said, sadly, “There are too many stories, and they’re all the same.”

Photo from
Wednesday’s protest was held just outside of the Shale Gas industry conference, and many of those inside the conference stood just inside glass doors and windows to watch the protestors outside. Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy, described the protesters as hysterical extremists, distorting the facts and engaging in  “unfettered fearmongering.” While he admitted “incidents in which natural gas leaked into drinking water wells,” he also said “tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars of landowner wealth have been created by drilling in Pennsylvania.”

In fact, real jobs created by the fracking industry here in Pennsylvania are far fewer than promised, often dangerous, and won’t last long. And the landowners present at the protest were quick to describe the devastation to their way of life, the loss of property value, and frightening health consequences they’ve experienced from leasing to corporations like Chesapeake Energy.  

McClendon failed to mention that his company has already been fined millions of dollars for reckless drilling, drilling without a permit, shoddy containment and improper discharge of fracking water, illegal withdrawals of water from public water supplies. Apparently, his company, and others, do their work as cheaply as possible, knowing whatever fines imposed will be just a fraction of what it would have cost to do the job safely.

And in fact, many geologists, drilling experts, and other scientists are saying there’s no way to do the job safely. I came away thinking that fracking is like playing Russian roulette with the health of the millions who depend on our waterways, but as I’ve done more research in the few days since, it’s occurred to me that in Russian roulette, there’s at least the possibility of escape.

Wendell Berry recently wrote: 

“We are destroying our country - I mean our country itself, our land. This is a terrible thing to know, but it is not a reason for despair unless we decide to continue the destruction. If we decide to continue the destruction, that will not be because we have no other choice. This destruction is not necessary. It is not inevitable, except that by our submissiveness we make it so.”

“…How do we submit? By not being radical enough. Or by not being thorough enough, which is the same thing.”

I’m not personally, actively, destroying our land, our water, our air. But have I submitted to it? Voted for it? Rewarded it?

I’m not sure, but the more I learn, the more I find myself wondering what Berry means about “not being radical enough, or not being thorough enough.”

The deadline for the Delaware River Basin decision is October 21.

 Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments

Monday, September 5, 2011


I’ve never paid much attention to Labor Day. It’s always seemed an oddly placed holiday; why have a day off so soon after school starts? If I’ve thought of it at all, it’s as a bittersweet epilogue to the joys of summer, a deadline for getting fall plans in order.

I don’t remember learning about Labor Day in school. I can’t remember hearing a sermon about it, and I don’t remember ever teaching anything remotely apropos.

Looking back, that troubles me. It seems as a culture we’ve fallen into an aversion to the very idea of labor, in all of its meanings. We’d rather not work, although we do want to be paid. We’d rather not know whose work we’re enjoying, although we prefer to pay as little as possible.

I know kids with strong opinions about “the poor are poor because they’re lazy” who have never, themselves, worked in any physical way. I remember asking a sixteen-year-old to sweep some broken glass in an area where small children would be playing. She told me she’d never held a broom in her life. When I offered to teach her, she said “And I never will.” How does she plan to keep her floors clean? “I’ll pay someone to do it.”

A boy heading into his senior year of high school, maybe on the same mission trip, refused to clean a toilet when his group had bathroom duty. His leader, a guy a few years older, asked if he’d used the toilet, or planned to in the future. “Of course.” “Then clean it.”

Even adults sometimes have trouble. One team member complained of an assignment: “If I wanted to do dishes, I could have done that at home.”

Didn’t Jesus himself say, “I came not to be served but to serve”? And “anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all”? And “whoever wants to be first must be slave of all”?

Then he demonstrated what he meant by interrupting his dinner party to wash his guests’ feet, the dirty, demeaning work of a servant.

Paul said “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men  . . . . It is the Lord Christ whom you serve”; yes, even sweeping sidewalks, cleaning toilets, washing dishes.

There’s an intrinsic value in work – even the simple tasks express our care for our environment, our homes, our families, our world. Sir Wilfred Grenfell, a turn-of-the century medical missionary to Newfoundland, put it this way: “The service we render to others is really the rent we pay for our room on this earth.”

But work goes beyond mere “rent”.  It connects us with the world in a way that builds confidence, community, a sense of having something to contribute. I worry about those who have only money to contribute, who see everything in terms of points, dollars, some future reward that has little to do with the give-and-take of daily interaction.

Some of our family’s happiest times have been in preparation for an extended family gathering: everyone helps clean, everyone helps set up, everyone jumps in to prepare stuffed mushrooms, pies, homemade breads, gourmet salads, whatever else is needed. From the time our kids were small they had jobs to do and were happy to do them, happy to grow into harder jobs, happy to teach the simple jobs to whoever was next in line. Washing dishes afterward, returning tables and chairs to their normal places, we review our time together, giving thanks for a family that can work and celebrate together.

Through work we discover our gifts, express our creativity, share our values, engage with the world. And through work, sometimes the most simple, physical, commonplace work, we make God’s love visible. Mother Theresa described caring for the poor in the streets of Calcutta, and said “Let us touch the dying, the poor, the lonely and the unwanted according to the graces we have received and let us not be ashamed or slow to do the humble work. “ 

I like that line: “let us not be ashamed or slow to do the humble work.”

There’s something twisted that happens when we think some work is beneath us. It changes our interaction with the world around us, but it also allows us to look down on those who do the work we refuse to do, as if they’re somehow less than us, worth less than us.

Which brings me to the other reason I’m troubled at my long years of disinterest in Labor Day.

While most of us have been thinking about other things, workers in the US and throughout the world have seen their work devalued, their wages shrink, their rights diminish. I’m not an economist, but it looks like workers have been losing ground for the last forty years. Real income is down, minimum wage hasn’t kept pace with inflation, benefits have been cut. Workers are expected to be more productive, work faster and longer with less compensation and less say in how their work is done. There is more unemployment, more underemployment, less job-security. The global economy and the race to the lowest price have not only hurt workers in the US but have threatened workers around the globe, and have led to the highest level of human trafficking in centuries.  

I can find statistics for all of this, but I can also see it in the day-to-day lives of people around me. When I was first married in the late seventies, it was the norm for young couples to survive easily on one salary, while the other studied, or stayed home with small kids. That seems almost impossible now.

It was also the norm for full-time jobs to carry full health benefits, for the employee and his or her family. When did that end? I’ve been hearing from many young people I know that they have to pay a significant share for their own benefits, and spouses often aren’t covered.

And since when is a job at Target a welcome option for a college graduate? More and more young adults are landing at home with no jobs in sight, or moving home because it’s impossible to pay even part of an apartment with wages from the jobs they’ve found.

Yes, there’s a recession. But look at these two simple graphs. They tell a story I’m still struggling to understand.

While a congressman in the 1840s, Abraham Lincoln jotted some notes about trade that would be helpful reading for our congressmen today. He had some strong things to say about the importance of buying and selling locally, and about the need for protectionist policies to encourage local commerce. Then this:  

No good thing has been or can be enjoyed by us without having first cost labor. And inasmuch as most good things are produced by labor, it follows that all such things of right belong to those whose labor has produced them. But it has so happened, in all ages of the world, that some have labored, and others have without labor enjoyed a large proportion of the fruits. This is wrong, and should not continue. To secure to each laborer the whole product of his labor, or as nearly as possible, is a worthy object of any good government. 

Of all people, Christ’s followers should be first to advocate for fair pay, fair conditions, equal benefits for workers. Historically, churches, and people of faith, have stood with unions on behalf of workers. Whatever their failings, for the past century and a half unions have been the strongest advocates for fair pay, safe workplaces, reasonable hours. Without unions, workers in mills, mines, factories would still be pushed to work twelve hours a day, seven days a week. Unions helped win workmen’s compensation, workplace safety standards, child labor laws. I’ve been stunned at the attacks this summer on public workers, surprised to learn how far unions have been pushed back in both the private and public sectors. No unions have been perfect, and power and money always leave the door open to abuse, but all of us, union workers or not, owe a great debt to the work of unions.

And I've been surprised and saddened to see so many Christians apparently siding with large corporate interests and financial institutions in political positions that undermine labor, cut needed jobs, and make it increasingly difficult for workers to live on a full-time wage. 

The world is so complicated it’s hard to see how to stand on the side of justice for workers. The first step in that direction might be a deeper respect for the value of work, and a more focused attention on who profits from the dollars we spend. I’ve moved toward buying fair trade products whenever I can. I buy as much as possible from local farmers, or local businesses that treat their employees fairly, and I’m doing my best to find worker-owned companies and cooperatives: Cabot Creamery, Land O’Lakes, Equal Exchange, REI, Ocean Spray.

I’m also doing what I can to avoid companies that have a record of poor treatment of their own workers, or of disinterest in the working conditions of their suppliers. And in the current stand-off between Verizon and its workers, I’ve written in support of the union and their right to collective bargaining.

In 1963 Martin Luther King said “all life is interrelated . . . somehow we're caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”

Hard to believe that my actions, here, can impact workers around the globe. Yet, as history has shown, individuals choosing wisely, speaking justly, hold the key to that “garment of destiny” that affects us all.  

 Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments