UNIFIED WE ARE A FORCE: How Faith and Labor Can OvercomeAmerica’s Inequalities. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2016. Xvi + 176.
Many years ago Reinhold Niebuhr was a pastor of a Christian congregation in Detroit, Michigan. He was known to complain that his fellow clergy were hesitant to invite labor leaders to address their congregations. In large part that was due to the fact that industry leaders often sat on the boards of those congregations. You don’t want to bite that hand that feeds you. But:
If religion is to contribute anything to the solution of the industrial problem, a more heroic type of religion than flourishes in the average church must be set to the task. I don’t believe that the men who are driven by that kind of religion need to dissociate themselves from the churches, but they must bind themselves together in more effective association than they now possess. [Niebuhr, Reinhold. Leaves From The Note Book Of A Tamed Cynic (Kindle Locations 898-901). Read Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.]
Things are different today than in the 1920s, when Niebuhr was serving a Detroit congregation and challenging is colleagues to stand with labor, and yet maybe not.
We live at a time when wages are stagnant and the gulf between the wealthiest and the poorest is getting larger by the year. There is great frustration with the way things are. The economy is good, and yet the vast majority of people don’t seem to be sharing in the benefits. So what should we do, and what role might the faith community play in changing the status quo?
We often hear about the need for wealth redistribution, which often comes down to tax policy, but perhaps there is another way. Perhaps the way forward is to re-value work and labor, and that would require a bottom up approach to changing the laws and rules that hinder people from receiving their due compensation for work done. That, according to Joerg Rieger and Rosemarie Henkel-Rieger, requires a partnership between faith and labor, two communities that often stand apart (as seen in Niebuhr’s comments). Too often workers who are people of faith believe that their religion has nothing to say about their working conditions. Perhaps this is not true.
Joerg Rieger is a theologian and United Methodist minister teaching at Southern Methodist University. His spouse, Rosemarie Henkel-Rieger is a community and labor organizer. In this book they bring these two worlds together so as to encourage faith communities and labor to join together in pursuing a just world. They remind us that most of us spend a majority of our waking hours working. They also remind us that our faith traditions, including Scripture, offer support for working together. Indeed, throughout Scripture God is understood to be a worker.
In an age when labor and religion seem to be losing their influence, the Riegers remind us that the two forces have worked together in the past and have achieved important results. Indeed, labor unions helped bring about the 8-hour work day, weekends off, vacations, pensions, and more. Faith communities advocated against slavery and child labor. For the faith community, partnering with labor is a reflection that work is not simply about material concerns. Work is also a spiritual concern. As they note, "in the Abrahamic traditions, no such easy separation exists" (p. 5).
Central to the conversation in this book is the question of whether religion is only concerned about what we do with the hours when we’re not at work. Now, as a pastor I work for a church, so my labor could be considered "spiritual," but what about the checker at the local grocery store? Is her labor spiritual as well? Is God only present in the church and thus absent from other forms of labor?
The book begins with a chapter titled "basic issues." In this chapter we are reminded about the centrality of labor to our lives and our communities. We're reminded about how organizing is essential to achieving true freedom. They also bring religion into the conversation, remind us as they do throughout the book of the possibilities of working together for the common good. We who preach are called to reflect on our faith from the perspective of the 99% rather than the 1%.
Then in chapter two, the authors speak about the challenges posed to labor -- attacks such as wage theft and wage depression. These are abetted by laws such as "Right to Work" laws, like the one recently implemented in Michigan, laws designed to weaken unions and disrupt organizing. They remind us that corporations believe that they are responsible not to workers, but stockholders. Profit is often gained at the expense of workers. As for the complaint about unequal distribution, they suggest that the focus should be placed on valuing work and production: "If work and production are not valued appropriately, that is to say if working people are not compensated comprehensively for their work, no amount of redistribution will be able to change things in the long run" (p. 51).
So, what should we do? We could advocate on behalf of workers, and that is a start, but it's not enough. In chapter three, the Riegers speak about the importance of deep solidarity. This is important as a way of counteracting attempts to divide and conquer. We see this happen all around us, as attempts are made to pit black and white workers, or migrants against "native born" workers. If you can get people fighting each other rather than organizing, you've won. So, instead of simply advocating for change, they call for deep solidarity. That means recognizing that we're all in the same boat. This is where faith communities can be of great support, for most church members are workers, but we often give little support to them in their labors. The good news is that faith communities have rich resources to build solidarity with. There is the story of Mary, who sings of partnering with God to transform the world. There's Moses, who takes up the task of freeing the slaves. There's the story of Jesus, the tekton or laborer. Again, remembering that we're all in this together, Joerg Rieger claims his own white privilege and rather than claim guilt chooses to use this privilege to stand in solidarity and make use of whatever power is accorded to bring change.
This is a book about radicalizing things, and by radicalizing they mean getting to the root of things. On one hand labor can help radicalize religion, by drawing it into the struggle, and allowing religion to reconnect with important themes and callings. Living as they do in Dallas, they note that the vast majority of workers in Texas are religious people. But, little connection is made between faith and labor, with many Christians feeling that faith and labor are opposed. But that need not be true, for there are, as we noted earlier many stories within the Abrahamic tradition that brings the two into partnership. They suggest that in the struggle against injustice great themes of the faith can be reclaimed. If labor can radicalize religion by taking it back to its roots, so religion can do the same for labor. To do this, however, labor must not treat religion as a "cheap date." Religious communities can't be just places to "mobilize warm bodies." Faith communities and traditions can provide important resources for valuing labor. The authors note that it is helpful to remember that God didn't start with the elite, but with the lower classes. The stories of faith all point to the fact that the key leaders and founders were working people! Even our key celebrations, like Passover, Christmas, and Ramadan, speak to God's concern for the worker. Indeed, God takes sides, and thus so might the faith communities.
The Riegers close their book with a discussion of ways in which faith communities and labor can work together to organize and build a movement. They once again push us to move beyond mere advocacy, where the faith community helps out, but instead claims deep solidarity with one another, building bridges that will create power and thus change. Deep solidarity involves recognizing our own self-interests and how those interests are linked with those of others. When we recognize these concerns we can then join in support of one another in the pursuit of justice and the common good. This won't be easy because there is much push back, but if we stand together good things can happen. But that requires building trust where there is often a lack of trust. That involves building relationships.
In their conclusion the Riegers write: "If we are correct, religion is not primarily about lofty ideals, flat morality, or merely what people do on weekends. Religion is about building relationships, community, and deep solidarity" (p. 151). If we believe that inequality is something to be addressed, it will take a partnership between faith and labor. For the faith community that means doing the hard theological work of connecting the spiritual and the material. This makes for a most important book. It is a book for our times. It is a book that can, I believe, help the people of faith connect with our own story, a story that emphasizes a God who works and stands with those who work—as demonstrated in the incarnation.