Sunday, September 27, 2015

Binary Thinking, Prophetic Challenge

Creative Commons, David Shankbone
Are you a capitalist or socialist?

Democrat or Republican?

Are you for individual freedom or the common good?

Guns: unregulated anywhere you want, or take them away forever?

Pro-life or Pro-choice?

Bad questions? Sure.

Bad thinking?

We live in a culture trapped in binary structures: if you’re not one thing, you’re automatically the other.

Not too interested in the opposite sex? Then clearly, you must be gay.

Troubled by the death of unborn babies? Then you don’t support the rights of women.

Alarmed at the reach of global corporations? Maybe you’re anti-American.

Concerned that women, still, make 79 cents to the male dollar, and are underrepresented in positions of leadership? You must be a male-bashing feminist.

Ignore, for a moment, the sloppy way we assign value to loosely-defined terms (socialist, capitalist, feminist, Christian, American, illegal).

Think instead of our insistence on good/bad, right/wrong, this/that as a primary form of discourse.  Are  you with me or against me? My side, or the other? Let’s get that settled fast, so I can know it’s okay to hate you or defend you.

I do believe some things are good, some bad, some right, some wrong.

Yet I also believe much our current thought and discourse is misguided, simplistic, divisive, and just plain dumb: locked in an either/or perspective when wisdom would say the truth is a careful balance or blend of two values held in tension.

I was impressed last week that presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders would choose to speak at Liberty University, birthplace of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. Even more impressed that he chose to acknowledge, up front, the areas where he and conservative Christians may never find agreement, while calling for conversation on the many other areas that have so sadly been divided up between opposing political poles: 
Let me be frank.... I understand that the issues of abortion and gay marriage are issues that you feel very strongly about. We disagree on those issues. I get that, but let me respectfully suggest that there are other issues out there that are of enormous consequence to our country and in fact to the entire world, that maybe, just maybe, we do not disagree on and maybe, just maybe, we can try to work together to resolve them.
 Amos 5:24, "But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream." Justice treating others the way we want to be treated, treating all people, no matter their race, their color, their stature in life, with respect and with dignity. . .
 In the United States of America today, there is massive injustice in terms of income and wealth inequality. Injustice is rampant. We live, and I hope all of you know this, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world.
 But most Americans don't know that. Because almost all of that wealth and income is going to the top 1 percent.
You know, that is the truth. We are living in a time -- and I warn all of you if you would, put this in the context of the Bible, not me, in the context of the Bible -- we are living in a time where a handful of people have wealth beyond comprehension. And I'm talking about tens of billions of dollars, enough to support their families for thousands of years. With huge yachts, and jet planes and tens of billions. More money than they would ever know what to do with.
 But at that very same moment, there are millions of people in our country, let alone the rest of the world, who are struggling to feed their families. They are struggling to put a roof over their heads, and some of them are sleeping out on the streets. They are struggling to find money in order to go to a doctor when they are sick. . .  
 In my view, there is no justice when, in recent years, we have seen a proliferation of millionaires and billionaires, while at the same time the United States of America has the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country on Earth. How can we? I want you to go into your hearts, how can we talk about morality, about justice, when we turn our backs on the children of our country? 
I was very tempted to quote the entire speech. To me, Sander’s words are prophetic, in ways that  
echo and draw strength from the words of the Old Testament prophets.

So much so that at least some who heard him were deeply convicted. A Liberty alumni who heard the speech posted afterward:
When I heard Bernie speaking in that way, when I saw that guy on stage at Liberty University, I saw John the Baptist. I saw the wild-haired, roughly-clothed John the Baptist, eating honey and wearing camel’s hair, and crying out to the religious leaders, the Pharisees of his day, calling them corrupt and complicit with those who have all the power and all the money and all the wealth, and for abandoning the people that God loves, that God cares about. For the Pharisees, who were siding with those who already have power and wealth and saying that they will be the last in the Kingdom of God, and that the weak, and the meek, and the simple, and those who need help—they are first in the Kingdom of God. . .  
 Gospel—is that word we Evangelical Christians have based everything on. Gospel means ‘good news.’ And Jesus said “I have come to bring good news to the poor.” To restore sight to the blind, to stand with the suffering, to set the captives free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. 
 As I heard Bernie Sanders crying out to the religious leaders at Liberty University, in his hoarse voice, with his wild hair, this Jew, and he proclaimed justice over us. He called us to account for being complicit with those who are wealthy and those who are powerful and for abandoning the poor, ‘the least of these’ who Jesus said he had come to bring good news to. And in that moment, something occurred to me, as I saw Bernie Sanders up there, as I watched him I realized: Bernie Sanders, for President, is good news for the poor. Bernie Sanders for President is good news for the poor. Bernie Sanders is Gospel for the poor. And Jesus said, “I have come to bring Gospel—good news—to the poor.”  
 And lightning hit my heart in that moment. And I realized that we are Evangelical Christians, that we believe the Bible. We believe in Jesus. We absolutely shun those who attempt to find nuance and twisted and tortured interpretation of scripture that they would use to master all other broader interpretations, to find some kind of big message that they want to flout. We absolutely scorn such things. And yet somehow, we commit to the mental gymnastics necessary that allows us to abandon ‘the least of these,’ to abandon the poor, to abandon the immigrants, to abandon those who are in prison. I listened to Bernie Sanders, as he said he wanted to welcome the immigrants and give them dignity. As he said he wanted to care for the sick children, and mothers, and fathers, who do not have health care. As he said he wanted to decrease the amount of human beings who are corralled like cattle in the prisons. As he said he wanted to do justice for those who have nothing and live homeless. And I remembered the words of Jesus, who warned his disciples that there will be judgment, and on that day he will look to his friends, and he will say ‘Blessed are you, for you cared for me, for I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick, and you cared for me; I was hungry, and you fed me; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was in prison, and you came to visit me; I was homeless, and you gave me shelter.” And the disciples said, “Jesus, when did we do any of those things for you?” And he said, “If you have done it for ‘the least of these,’ you have done it for me.” 
 And those words echoed in my heart. As I listened to that crazy, hoarse-voiced, wild-haired Jew, standing in front of the religious leaders of the Evangelical movement, calling us to account, as a Jew once did before. Telling us that he intends to care for ‘the least of these.’ To clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, to care for the sick, to set the prisoners free. 
 Yes. I am an Evangelical Christian. I believe in the Bible. I follow Jesus. When I look at Bernie Sanders, and I hear the things that he’s saying, it’s like he’s ripping them out of the pages of scripture. 
That post, by an Evanglical pastor who gave his name as “Jim,” has stirred some good discussion, but also, sadly, the same kind of binary thinking that meets Sanders most places he goes. From one side: there’s no way “Jim” could be a Christian and support someone like Sanders; from the other, Christians are, by definition, racist “corporatists”, incapable of independent thought. And yes, that label to end all labels: Sanders is “the anti-Christ.”

In his speech, Sanders called attention to Pope Francis, here in Philadelphia this weekend after daring to ask the US Congress to address directly the binary thinking that fuels partisan politics and puts the platforms of parties above the needs of people.  
Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion. We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism. This means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind. 
 A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms. 
 But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. 
 We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. That is something which you, as a people, reject. 
 Our response must instead be one of hope and healing, of peace and justice. We are asked to summon the courage and the intelligence to resolve today’s many geopolitical and economic crises. Even in the developed world, the effects of unjust structures and actions are all too apparent. 
Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments, and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples. We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good. 
Pope Francis, lauded by many, has also been called a socialist. Accused of being reactionary in his approach to women and gay marriage. Praised and criticized for his pro-life views on an end to capital punishment, criticized and praised for his pro-life views on abortion. He is revered by millions; accused by others of being yet another anti-Christ.

Are we, the American people, capable of hope and healing, of peace and justice? Do we have the courage and intelligence to address even our own deep national injustice with generosity and good will?

We can pray it will be so, and pray for the wisdom to set aside our simplistic binary thinking. 
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. (James 3)

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Detested Fortresses, Vincible Walls

Suomenlinna, Helsinki, Finland
On our recent trip to Finland and Sweden, my husband Whitney and I visited three fortresses.

The first, Sveagard, (Fortress of the Swedes), now called Suomenlinna (Castle of the Finns), once rivaled the fortress on Gibralter. King Frederik of Sweden commissioned it in 1748 as a bulwark against Russian expansionism. It stretches across six neighboring islands at the mouth of Helsinki’s harbor, employed thousands of men during decades of construction, and was never fully completed.

Under siege by the Russian navy in 1808, the Swedish commander, Carl-Olof Cronstedt, surrendered without a fight. In the Crimean War of 1853–56, French and English allies bombarded the fort but the Russian defenders held fast, and the fort remained under Russian rule until Finnish independence in 1917. It served as a prison camp for members of the Red Uprising following Finland’s brief civil war, and still houses a minimum security labor camp and the Finnish Naval Academy.

Most of the extensive fortified complex now serves as parkland for the city of Helsinki. Ferries carry passengers and cars across the harbor, and small cafes nestled into the hills and courtyards provide coffee and sweets along the peaceful island pathways. Whitney and I enjoyed an afternoon wandering the trails and gardens and would have welcomed time to stay longer, exploring the cavernous chambers and tunnels, or sitting on the ramparts staring out toward the sea.

The second fortress was Tallinn, capital of Estonia, a ferry ride across the Baltic from Helsinki. The historic center of Tallinn is Toompea, a castle high on a hill constructed in the 1300s. Surrounding that is a lower town enclosed by medieval walls as well as 17th century fortifications, all amazingly well-preserved. We enjoyed the view from high in Toompea, walked the cobblestones through the central market, took an enjoyable half-hour bike-taxi tour with a very strong, knowledgeable young Russian named Maria, who showed us the walls and alleys both inside and outside the gates.

Our final fortress visit was as memorable as the others, although the fortifications were earthen, rather than stone, and encompassed just part of a small island, Björkö (“Birch Island”). The Viking stronghold of Birka was the center of commerce for the Swedish people from around 750 to 960 AD, hidden in the heart of what is now called Lake Mälaren. The archaeologist who led our walk through the bucolic hillside fort asked us to remember two things:

First, that Viking was a job description, not a people group: the Vikings were the well-trained warrior/sailors who explored and established trade routes through the Baltic to areas far beyond, including Byzantium, the island nations in the North Atlantic, and on to North America.

Second, that the Vikings never wore hats with horns. In extensive archeological digs on Björkö, and throughout Sweden, much information has been uncovered about Viking trade, battle, burials, customs – but never, not once, according to our guide, has there been found one of those hats with horns.

I’ve been reading in the book of Amos, with Scripture Union’s Encounter with God,  and was struck by repeated references to fortresses:
  • I will send fire on the house of Hazael that will consume the fortresses of Ben-Hadad. (Amos 1:4)
  • I will send fire on the walls of Gaza that will consume her fortresses. (Amos 1:7)
  • I will send fire on the walls of Tyre that will consume her fortresses.  (Amos 1:10)
  • I will send fire on Teman that will consume the fortresses of Bozrah.  (Amos 1:12)
  • I will set fire to the walls of Rabbah that will consume her fortresses amid war cries on the day of battle, amid violent winds on a stormy day. (Amos 1:14) 
 One of Tallinn's many towers
Amos is a difficult book, the prophetic word from a man God called from nowhere: a shepherd, a pruner who specialized in sycamore figs, “not a prophet or son of a prophet.” The Wikipedia description says this: “He spoke against an increased disparity between the very wealthy and the very poor.”

Thirty-some years ago, Whitney wrote his first Bible guide about the book of Amos: “Amos, Israel on Trial.” He’s been writing Bible guides ever since, and we’ve been wrestling with the words of that book in different ways across the decades.

But I’d never seen the references to fortresses. Five in chapter one.  More in chapters two and three, including this: “They do not know how to do right,” declares the Lord, “who store up in their fortresses what they have plundered and looted.”  Amos 3:10 

On Tuesday I read this: "The Sovereign Lord has sworn by himself-the Lord God Almighty declares: "I abhor the pride of Jacob and detest his fortresses" (Amos 6:8).

Detest his fortresses?

I confess, I cringe when I hear people talk about what God hates. I’ve seen that go badly, and I’d prefer to focus on what and whom God loves: all of creation. Every person he made.

But what does it mean that God has sworn by himself “I detest his fortresses?”

Check the word, Whitney suggested. Maybe he’s referring to the “high places,” the places of worship and idolatry?

Fortress: "ma`owz": place of refuge or safety; stronghold.

But the word translated “fortress”, in Amos, at least, is different:  "chomah": fortified wall; city wall; wall joined to a wall.

Amos suggests that the walls in question aren’t for protecting people, but for protecting commerce, safeguarding possessions of the wealthy, shutting out the needs of the poor: 
With a blinding flash he destroys the stronghold and brings the fortified city to ruin.
There are those who hate the one who upholds justice in court and detest the one who tells the truth.
You levy a straw tax on the poor and impose a tax on their grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins.
There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.  Amos 5:9-12

Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land
skimping on the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales,
buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals,
    selling even the sweepings with the wheat.
The Lord has sworn by himself, the Pride of Jacob: “I will never forget anything they have done.
Will not the land tremble for this, and all who live in it mourn? (Amos 8:5-8)
On Wednesday evening, watching the GOP presidential debate. I found myself thinking of the fortresses I saw, and of Amos’ accusations against the walls and fortresses of his day.
Ansgar's Cross on Fortress Hill, Birka, Sweden

Many of the candidates want walls, fences, surveillance, cameras, across the entire Mexican border.

And guns, weapons, war ships, battallions: “We need the strongest military on the face of the planet, and everyone has to know it.”

Income inequality? The growing ranks of homeless Americans? Children in poverty? Underfunded schools? Wage theft? Mass incarceration of non-violent offenders?  The complete breakdown of justice for those who can’t afford lawyers or private bail-bond schemes?

No mention.

Dig a little further on this question of fortresses: it’s one of those themes that to me carries proof that the Biblical books, written across centuries, by a wide mix of authors, carry the words of a real God who speaks:

Throughout the Psalms the word of praise well up: “You, Lord, are our rock, our stronghold. Our fortress. Our place of safety. Our strong tower. Our wall.Our place of refuge. We will not be shaken.” (9:9, 18:2, 27:1, 28:8, 31:2, 31:3, 37:39, 46:7, 46:11, 48:3, 59:1, 59:9, 59:16, 59:17, 62:2. 62:6, 71:3, 91:2, 94:22, 144:2).

In the prophetic books, God asks his people why they’ve put their trust in other things: 
Isaiah 17:10: You have forgotten God your Savior; you have not remembered the Rock, your fortress.

Hosea 8:14: Israel has forgotten their Maker and built palaces; Judah has fortified many towns.
Nahum, writing around 615 BC, a century or more after Amos, described the fall of fortified Thebes, and promised Ninevah a similar fate in a short, very vivid prophecy: 
An attacker advances against you, Nineveh. Guard the fortress, watch the road, brace yourselves marshal all your strength! ! (2:1) Woe to the city of blood, full of lies,full of plunder, never without victims. (3:1) All your fortresses are like fig trees with their first ripe fruit; when they are shaken, the figs fall into the mouth of the eater. (3:11) You have increased the number of your merchants till they are more numerous than the stars in the sky, but like locusts they strip the land and then fly away. (3:16)
Fortresses are fun to visit, interesting to learn about.

Yet history, and scripture, make very clear: fortresses fall. 

Cultures constructed around military might and consolidation of wealth invite constant invasion.

Our most invincible walls prove vincible after all.

Justice and mercy are far better safeguards.

And God alone is our one sure refuge. 
We have a strong city;
    God makes salvation
    its walls and ramparts.
Open the gates
    that the righteous nation may enter,
    the nation that keeps faith.
 You will keep in perfect peace
    those whose minds are steadfast,
    because they trust in you.
Trust in the Lord forever,
    for the Lord, the Lord himself, is the Rock eternal.
He humbles those who dwell on high,
    he lays the lofty city low;
he levels it to the ground
    and casts it down to the dust.
Feet trample it down—
    the feet of the oppressed,
    the footsteps of the poor. Isaiah 28
Suemenlinna, Helsinki, Finland

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Syria, Solidarity, Sorrow and Repentance

Syria's Nightmarish Narrative,
 I would like to live in a simple world.

Simple. Safe. With easy answers. Do-able solutions.

A world where good guys smile and bad guys sneer and the difference is obvious and justice comes riding long before the credits roll.

A world free of persistent evil and crushing human pain.

I confess, I’ve been trying hard not to pay attention to the news of Syria.

Even as my time this summer in Finland and Sweden set me thinking about the hazards of small nations caught in the path of desperate power, I’ve kept my gaze averted from the swelling humanitarian crisis.

The ongoing story of bombs, burned houses, rebels, refugees.

It’s over there, wherever “there” is.

I’m here.

I have enough to pray and wrestle with.


An on-line conversation between two friends set me reeling earlier this week. 

One friend, a young mother of two, a dear sister in youth ministry, a conscientious, caring soul, posted on Facebook:

I've been crying today over the pictures of the Syrian child washed up on the beach in Turkey. Every time I see him, I see my own children. We cannot afford to believe that the immigrant and the refugee is other than us. They could be us. That boy is my baby.

The second, another sister in ministry, somewhat older mother of two, writer, thinker, determined activist:

I'm sorry to be such a skeptic, but I am not sure our sorrow, which is heartfelt, will change anything unless we are willing to advocate for be the change. I say this not to discount your sorrow, or anybody else's, or my own, but as someone who has been writing about Syria for years and finally hardened my heart because our national indifference got to be too much to bear. Maybe I'm wrong. I want to be wrong. And forgive me if I sound arrogant or impatient.

What shook me was the sudden awareness of my own grave hardness of heart.

My own determination to look the other way.

My unacknowledged, almost crippling grief at our national indifference.

My deep sorrow and not-well-processed anger that those most determined to speak as “Christians” clap and cheer when presidential candidates use global unrest as political fodder and brag about what they’d do to shut out the homeless, tempest-tossed.

My doubt that change is possible.

I repent.

Not for the anger, although I may get there.

Not for the sorrow – although it’s probably misplaced.

I repent the hardness of heart, the determined disinterest, the doubt born of soul-deep weariness at living in this not-yet world, where injustice seems to rule the day and gentle civilians are trampled and torn by power-hungry bullies.

I’ve been repenting all week.

Praying, reading, wondering.

About causes, solutions, boundaries, borders.

Let my repentance go deeper: in my self-righteous impatience, I wondered why we, the US, don’t take up arms and stop the nonsense driving so many innocent civilians from their homes. Wouldn’t that be better than struggling to find homes for so many who would obviously prefer to live in safety in their own country?

Let me be more politically correct – I wondered why the UN Security Forces haven’t done what they were created to do: intervene. Stop the slaughter. Make Syria safe so the refugees can go home.

My first thought – in this as in so much else - is to look for someone to blame:


The UN.



Oh, sure, President Obama.

Am I missing someone?

I am, on a fairly deep level, a pacifist, yet I found myself tracking across the Internet, looking for military solutions. Surely that’s possible?

Maybe not.

I won’t try to sketch out the complexity of the issues in my targeted 1200 words.
The BBC offered a reasonable summary last March in “eight short chapters”. 

And I won’t set out, here, just war arguments, hesitations, cautions. Gerard Powers, Director of Catholic Peacebuilding Studies at the Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies , recently offered a quick overview of the just war discussion applied to Syria, and concluded:
There are no morally clear or clean answers to the moral conundrums the international community faces in Iraq and Syria.  
The United States, in particular, faces a serious moral conundrum. U.S. policy has suffered a double moral failure: it was immoral to intervene in Iraq in 2003, and in the years since, its self-serving, misguided, incompetent and sometimes grossly negligent policies have failed the Iraqi people. The first moral failure made the second more likely. These many years, many deaths, many billions of dollars, and many missteps later, we are tempted to say that we have done all we can do and wash our hands of the problem, letting Iraq and Syria be torn apart by their “ancient hatreds.” But that would be shirking our moral obligations, for the United States has become –voluntarily! – very much a part of those hatreds.  
The more serious temptation at this moment of crisis is to do what we did in 2003: pursue a quick-fix military solution justified by best-case scenarios about the good that would be achieved – peace, freedom, and democracy for Iraq and the region. But that approach lacks the realism essential to any ethic of military intervention. Because past U.S. interventions helped create the current crisis, we have a moral obligation to act. Limited military intervention might be necessary. But without a serious effort to address the larger political, economic, and cultural dynamics – to engage in nation building in two countries torn asunder, it will be no more successful than it has been until now.
Yesterday, tens of thousands marched through European city centers in solidarity with refugees who have been fleeing Syria in what has been described as the biggest mass migration since World War II. In Denmark, an estimated 30,000 chanted “Say it loud and say it clear: Refugees are welcome here!” 

Here in the US, a Facebook group Open Homes, Open Hearts is looking for ways to offer support, inviting families to post photos offering welcome. 

International groups like Oxfam and Mercy Corps are working to provide for refugees, while smaller, more localized groups, like Migrant Offshore Aid Station and Hand in Hand for Syria focus on more specific concerns.

In my thinking and praying this week, I came across a group, and video, that humbled me, challenged me, and gave focus to my thought and prayer. The video was made in 2012 – so it’s out of date. And long: 53 minutes. I almost said “too long”.

But the group promoting it, Cultures of Resistance, intrigued me.

And the title, The Suffering Grasses, reminded me of the same reality I’d seen in Finland: “When the elephants fight, the grass suffers.”

 It’s worth watching, in part for the way it brings to life the early days of the conflict in Syria.

And in part for the way it makes clear that lack of awareness, lack of interest, lack of global outcry, has made it possible for the mayhem to continue.

It offers a hope for peaceful solution: through creative resistance, digital documentation, reminder of the long history of peaceful coexistence between different clans and religions.

Watching, I found myself wondering at the courage of the video’s creators and those who filmed and spoke, where they are now, what they would say. How many are dead? How many have left Syria/

In church this morning, our sermon, first in a series on Acts, focused on Paul’s conversion. Bent on violent persecution, he encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and was forever changed.

Damascus is the capital of Syria, oldest inhabited city on earth, site of one of Christianity’s most famous conversions. I had been struggling with how to pray, and I was sharply reminded: pray for repentance, conversion, change of heart. 

As I was reflecting on that, our rector, Richard Morgan, mentioned almost in passing the experience of a Muslim woman he knew, who encountered Christ in a dream, and found her life forever changed. Pray for dreams, visions, miraculous intervention!

Our prayer leader cut through my reverie once again with a strong, compassionate prayer for the people of Syria: pray for comfort for those in distress, care for those in need, wisdom and strength for those called to offer aide.

And then, the prayer of confession, a prayer I needed, and continue to need:

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent ...

No neat solutions. 

Yet I open myself to learn more, to listen better, to pray more consistently.

To hold fast to the knowledge that God can change hearts, minds, situations, nations.


And my own.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Solidarity Forever: Love, Labor, Unions

Happy Labor Day!

Enjoy your picnic / barbeque / day off before the busy-ness of fall.

But think first, for maybe a few minutes more than you’d like, about labor, unions, and the hazards to the solitary worker in a profit-driven global economy.

First: Are unions good? Bad? Both?

I grew up in a household that was strongly pro-union. My grandfather had spent time in railroad stockyards in his very early years, had seen the kinds of injuries that come with unregulated, neglectful management, and maintained his own construction company as a strictly-enforced union shop.

I also grew up in a household that was strongly anti-union. While my grandfather was a cradle Catholic and determined Democrat, my grandmother, my primary care-giver, was a passionate Evangelical Protestant, committed Republican, and very aware of the reputation for corruption held by some of our major unions.

I found myself thinking of unions as we traveled in Finland and Sweden. Both countries have high rates of union participation: about 75% in Finland, about 70% in Sweden.

And both, according to the GINI Index, which measures income inequality, are among the most equitable nations in the world. In Finland, the highest-earning ten percent receive on average about 5.6 times more per year than the lowest ten percent. In Sweden, that number is 6.2.

Compare that to the US, where the top 10 on average make 15.9 percent more than the bottom 10%, and union membership has fallen to 11%, the lowest rate since the 1930s.
Growing Apart: A Political History of American Inequality

Here in American, worker productivity is skyrocketing, while the worker’s participation in the share of that productivity has gone steadily down.

In an interesting discussion, If Labor Dies, What'sNext? , Harold Meyerson explores the rise and fall of the US labor movement, and probes the ways that globalization, loopholes in US labor law, and a hard shift back toward laissez-faire capitalism have made it increasingly difficult for blue-color workers to survive on a weekly pay-check, and have weakened safeguards and benefits for most American workers. 

Meyerson’s discussion raises important questions about labor, liberalism, economic theory, but it doesn’t address the complaint against unions most deeply held by the US public: union corruption fueled by monopoly, patronage, and lack of transparency. An interesting piece by long-time union organizer Bob Fitch on Why Unions Can’t Organize explains the ways US labor law diverges from labor law in other developed nations and fuels both perception and reality of corruption:
Our unions act differently from European unions because they are institutionally different. In France—as in Italy and Spain—three main federations, corresponding to the three major political tendencies on the left—compete for members. In northern Europe and Scandinavia, unions sit on corporate boards. And they control labor parties that even in opposition can veto government policy. 
What distinguishes American unions from unions elsewhere is not just that they don’t have a labor party. It’s not just their weak leverage in a weak state. What really marks them is their peculiar localistic character. 
. . . Our peculiar local monopoly, boss-client system—which reminds one more of European feudalism than European social democracy—is what constitutes the true obstacle to organizing. Patronage, racial exclusion, lack of democracy, and corrupt practices don’t constitute abuses of the system. They are the system. 
So – are we better off if unions die?

Ask the army of “contingent” workers, now 40% of the US workforce: no regular schedule, no benefits, no paid-time off, no recourse when let go.

Or the army of “almost full-time” part-timer workers, unable to survive on their part-time wages, forced to work part-shifts, odd hours, on-call for little pay.

Or the many families dependent on two paychecks, with no guaranteed leave, minimal time off, terrified they’ll face unexpected pregnancy or an extended illness.

Should we support Right to Work legislation, that kicks the last legs out of faltering unions?

Or simply shrug, say “it’s not my problem,” and look the other way?

In any political, ethical, economic discussion, I find myself centering back to the age-old question: who is my neighbor? And what does it mean to love that neighbor?

Catholic teaching on “solidarity” historically insists that love of neighbor extends to concern about working conditions, living wages, equitable distribution of the fruit of labor.

Baptist theologian Melissa Snarr, like Catholic theologians before her, argues in All  You that Labor that “solidarity” is rooted in Christ’s solidarity with suffering humanity. She describes the ways labor solidarity has sometimes excluded workers “who, because of their race, citizenships status, or gender, were seen as not furthering the immediate interests of dominant union members,” and points toward a solidarity that goes far beyond this:
 By contrast, religious conceptions of solidarity find their origin, ground, and end explicitly in the more inclusive love of God and God’s vision for the world. . . Ultimately, proponents of theological solidarity contend, “We are all really responsible for all.” . . . God’s deep, equal valuing of each person invites followers to embody God’s love by loving the neighbor through solidarity.
Solidarity, labor, unions: we hear those words from the angle of our own experience, our own political perspective, the slant of our own national story. Sometime we nod in agreement. Sometimes we cringe and turn away.

We are like the rich young ruler, approaching Jesus in hopes of a simple one-time solution, and invited instead into a narrative rich with complexity, a command that call us to love our neighbor not just with a quick handout or a pleasant smile, but with all our economic, physical, political strength and mind.

Loving the neighbor in this case means wrestling with the complexities of labor law: affirming the importance of unions, while asking for political solutions to legislation that enforces institutional dysfunction or undermines effectiveness.

Loving the neighbor also means affirming and embracing creative solutions, like President Obama’s announcements this week regarding eligibility for overtime and re-definition of "independent contractor." 

And loving the neighbor means steering our own spending dollars towards businesses that seek to treat employees fairly, and away from companies that have led the way in treating workers like underpaid, disposable cogs in a highly profitable machine. 

In his first Apostolic Exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis addressed at length the social dimensions of the Christian faith, and the dangers of allowing economic interests to reign supreme:
203. The dignity of each human person and the pursuit of the common good are concerns which ought to shape all economic policies. At times, however, they seem to be a mere addendum imported from without in order to fill out a political discourse lacking in perspectives or plans for true and integral development. How many words prove irksome to this system! It is irksome when the question of ethics is raised, when global solidarity is invoked, when the distribution of goods is mentioned, when reference in made to protecting labour and defending the dignity of the powerless, when allusion is made to a God who demands a commitment to justice. At other times these issues are exploited by a rhetoric which cheapens them. Casual indifference in the face of such questions empties our lives and our words of all meaning. Business is a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life; this will enable them truly to serve the common good by striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all. 
204. We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market. Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programmes, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality. I am far from proposing an irresponsible populism, but the economy can no longer turn to remedies that are a new poison, such as attempting to increase profits by reducing the work force and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded. 
205. I ask God to give us more politicians capable of sincere and effective dialogue aimed at healing the deepest roots – and not simply the appearances – of the evils in our world! Politics, though often denigrated, remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good.[174] We need to be convinced that charity “is the principle not only of micro-relationships (with friends, with family members or within small groups) but also of macro-relationships (social, economic and political ones)”.[175]