Wednesday, February 23, 2011

On renegotiating the contract, or Who Would Jesus Fire?,-p-,06,-p-,35-Workers-Rights.aspx

This is the official position of my church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, on labor and collective bargaining. Before going further, I should explain that the ELCA is an extremely diverse "mainline" denomination. It was created a little over 20 years ago when the Lutheran Church in America merged with the American Lutheran Church to create the single largest body of American Lutherans. The divisions between these groups were to some extent ethnic, but they also reflected ideological and political rifts that remain and fester. Thus, for the past 20 years, the ELCA has generally been quite careful not to step on anybody's toes.

At least that's my perception. I know that many conservative members of the ELCA feel very antagonistic toward the national leadership, which they believe does not speak for them or their concerns. This exploded a few years ago when the ELCA agreed to ordain and bless people in committed same-sex relationships. The denomination's honest striving not to disrespect anybody's views was reflected in the qualifying statement that no congregation would ever be forced to do either. That's more or less how we stay together, despite the friction.

The above position statement on labor, though, is unusually clear for an ELCA document, and I want to suggest why. The idea that the poor and down-trodden have a particular claim on God's favor is central to the Gospel, as is the denunciation of wealth and the power it gives to its possessors. It is very hard for anyone who has read the New Testament to believe that Jesus, were he to appear suddenly in Madison, WI, wouldn't call on both sides to tone down the rhetoric and then give a lecture on the impossibility of serving both God and Mammon.

I've written recently that there seem to be two completely irreconcilable views of where American is now and where it is going. I'm now going to make the bold statement that, no matter what Glenn Beck may think, Jesus was always on the side of social justice. That's why he began his ministry in the Gospel of Luke by reading from Isaiah, saying that he had come to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor (when all debts would be forgiven) and to bring good news to the poor. Jesus understood these concepts well. He had never heard of capitalism. It's fair to say, though, that in a lot of the stories he told, people with a lot of economic power don't come out looking very good.

Does that mean a Christian can't be a capitalist? Of course not. After all, most Christians wear zippers in their pants. There's a lot about the modern world that could not have been anticipated in 1st century Palestine. What I will say unequivocally, though, is that capitalism is like a cancer; it eats away at the souls of those who catch it, and they must undergo frequent sessions of spiritual chemotherapy in order to remain alive.

When I look at what is going on in Wisconsin, I see excesses on both sides. The people participating are, after all, human. I'll even concede that some public sector unions have developed their own kind of institutional cancer that requires some drastic treatment as well. However, I also see a budget crisis that was created by lowering taxes on the richest citizens, and I see hard-working teachers and their supporters trying very hard to retain some sense of dignity as their own voices are marginalized, giving those wealthy people even more control over their lives. To extend the analogy above, the cancer the rich people have is being allowed to grow freely, while the cancer the hard-working teachers have is being removed by blunt instruments and without anesthesia.

Now here's the catch - as long as this continues, both patients will die. Any hope for recovery requires an acknowledgment that there is cancer on both sides, and a mutual willingness to enter treatment together. In short, it calls for sitting down at a table and doing some collective bargaining. If, in the process, all the people involved come to have a deeper respect for the humanity and integrity of those on the other side, there may yet be some hope.


  1. My understanding is that the unions involved in the Wisconsin protests have offered to sit down with the governor and give him everything he wants, economically speaking, so he can balance the state budget, just so long as they retain the right to bargain collectively. It is also my understanding that the governor has refused this good-faith offer. So that leaves me wondering to what extent the "cancer" exists on both sides.

  2. By the way, I didn't know--or had forgotten--that the ELCA had a social statement on collective bargaining and rights of workers to organize. Thanks for bringing this to my attention!

  3. Don, you can thank Diana Butler Bass, who posted this yesterday.

  4. Don just invited me to look at a FB thread started by one of his "friends" about this issue. The level of hatred and ignorance being displayed there is almost beyond belief. It truly baffles me that there are so many hate-filled people who will make damning comments about others whom they don't know, assuming absolutely the worst about them with no evidence whatsoever. It is in this context that I am trying to offer a voice of reason on this blog.

    Frankly, though, I'm also scared. Some people who have commented here have suggested that Americans have always been this rude and hateful to each other, and I'm only just starting to notice it more. In a strange way, I almost hope they're right. If I dropped in from Mars today and took a look around me at political debate in America, I would conclude that we have lost our collective mind.

  5. "Some people who have commented here have suggested that Americans have always been this rude and hateful to each other, and I'm only just starting to notice it more."

    As one of those people, Robin, I have to point out that you're male, white, straight and from a well-educated family. If you had grown up black in Oak Ridge, you would have seen plenty of rude and hateful behavior. Ask some of our gay high school classmates how they heard homosexuals described by others in our high school.

    The public targets of rudeness and hate have shifted, but the use of rudeness and hate as tools of expression haven't diminished noticeably in my experience.

  6. As you must know, Joel, I got my share of rude, hateful behavior in high school and junior high. I wrote about the experience on Facebook last fall after the well-publicized suicides of several gay teenagers. I *completely* understand what they went through, because when I was that age there wasn't a day when I didn't think about doing the same thing. I know hate. I grew up with it, despite being all the things you say. I actually have talked to some of our gay classmates about what they went through. At least one of them was appalled by how much worse my experience was. I believe I can trade horror stories with anyone.

    That's why seeing hatred out of control in the public sphere bothers me so much. Having been bullied within an inch of my life as a child, I cringe when I see, hear and read the things that are being said publicly today. I didn't (barely) survive my adolescence and struggle with the demons it left behind for much of my adult life in order to take a back seat when I see the same raw hatred being directed at others.

  7. Well, Robin, I knew all these things, which left me wondering why you seemed to react as though things are somehow different now. If you are frightened now by rudeness and hate, why were you not similarly frightened 30 years ago.

    I'm not inured to hate and rudeness per se. I think I shrug it off more easily when it is directed at me because I'm not personally threatened by it, and so I see it for what it is--weakness.

    When it happens to others, I'm certainly disgusted. But other than donating to the causes aligned with my views, voting at every election and trying to embody my ideals in word and deed, there's nothing I can do about it. We're always surrounded by hate, and those who are rude and hateful don't react constructively to unsolicited advice.

  8. It's not that I think things are somehow different. It's that every time this kind of political rhetoric flares up, it takes me back to my childhood and the utter, humiliating helplessness I felt then. That's why I literally can't listen to people like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. I even realize that their hatred is not directed at me, because they simply have no idea of who I am or what I have had to endure in my life. Nevertheless, seeing such unthinking hatred directed at anyone makes me sick. And scared.

  9. I'm also pretty sure the dividing line was 9/11. Before that, I thought I pretty much understood the terms on which our social contract was negotiated. Even Rush Limbaugh didn't bother me much back then. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, though, I felt more isolated and despised than at any previous time since junior high. It seemed as though most of the rest of the country - liberals and conservatives alike - had simply gone insane. Ever since then, I'm still seeing the insanity everywhere. Maybe that demon can never be bottled up again, but I hope against hope.

  10. Robin, the thing to pay attention to is the economy. If the US enters a period of 20+% unemployment and hyperinflation, I think we will have much to fear. Until then, I think most Americans will be content to defer to their billionaire overlords.

    Just to be very clear: I believe that we all have the potential to be Nazis. What prevents us from realizing this potential is context.

  11. "Just to be very clear: I believe that we all have the potential to be Nazis. What prevents us from realizing this potential is context."

    I think that's pretty much true, although it doesn't explain the emergence of courageous individuals willing to resist evil even at the risk of their own lives. I think there will always be Dietrich Bonhoeffers in the world, and what someone like him went through in the decision to march back into the inferno of Nazi Germany and toward his death is something I can only begin to imagine.

  12. There will be saints among us. I don't claim to one of them.

  13. Here's the most clear-headed analysis I've seen yet of what's really going on in Wisconsin and elsewhere.