Friday, February 25, 2011

Unemployed Need Not Apply

You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt.

Deuteronomy 24:14-15

The Bible has a clear vision about work: it is a good thing. It is good to work and it is good to earn a living. And workers should be paid a fair wage.

Work is not just an economic necessity; it is a spiritual necessity.

And therefore unemployment is not just an economic problem; it is also a spiritual problem. In biblical terms, the purpose of work is not simply to provide for the worker and the family of the worker. Work knits the fabric of society together. Work adds to the common good and the commonwealth. Work builds community.

As the country (and the world) drags its way out of the great recession, we still face one of the highest unemployment rates since the Great Depression. Around the country, the average unemployment rate is a little less than 10 percent. Some economists estimate that when we add those who are technically unemployed (out of work and actively looking for a job) to those who are significantly underemployed and those who have become so discouraged in the job search that they have given up, the real number is closer to 20 percent. In some neighborhoods and among some demographic groups, it is much worse.

Writing in the New York Times, Bob Herbert tells of a forty-six year-old teacher from Charlotte, Vermont, who wrote to his Senator, Bernie Sanders. “I am financially ruined,” he wrote. “I find myself depressed and demoralized and my confidence is shattered. Worst of all, as I hear more and more talk about deficit reduction and further layoffs, I have the agonizing feeling that the worst may not be behind us.”

Another writer, a woman with two teenagers wrote about her husband, a building contractor for many years, who cannot find work: “I see my husband, capable and experienced, now really struggling with depression and trying to reinvent his profession at age 51. I feel this recession is leaving us, once perhaps a middle-class couple, now suddenly thrust into the lower-middle-class world without loads of options except to try and find more and more smaller jobs to fill in some of the financial gaps we feel day to day.” And she concludes, “All we want to do is work hard and pay our bills. We’re just not sure even that part of the American Dream is still possible anymore.”

But the spiritual dimensions of the problem are most evident, not in the stories of the unemployed themselves, but in the attitude that some potential employers have taken toward them. If you Google the phrase, “unemployed need not apply,” you will get an avalanche of appalling stories. No one uses that precise phrase, but one manufacturer posted a job announcement with the declaration that “No Unemployed Candidate Will Be Considered At All,” and a Texas electronics company that announced online that it would “not consider/review anyone NOT currently employed regardless of the reason.”

Last year a research project at Rutgers University found that 70 percent of those responding to a national survey had either lost a job, or had a relative or close friend who had lost a job. What I want to know is, who are the other 30 percent? I thought everybody had a “close friend or relative who had lost a job."

In the current economic climate, blaming the unemployed for their unemployment is cruel, and discriminating against them is just plain wrong. It ought to be illegal.

Selfishness motivates those who “have” to separate themselves from those who “have not.” But one of the tragic lessons of this great recession is that the “haves” are often not that far from joining the “have nots.” The people who seem securely employed today may find themselves unemployed next year are next week.

Writing about the Christian community which came together in the Confessing Church in opposition to Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts the spiritual dimension of work in context:

“In a Christian community, everything depends upon whether each individual is an indispensable link in a chain. Only when even the smallest link is securely interlocked is the chain unbreakable. A community which allows unemployed members to exist within it will perish because of them. It will be well, therefore, if every member receives a definite task to perform for the community, that he may know in hours of doubt that he, too, is not useless and unusable. Every Christian community must realize that not only do the weak need the strong, but also that the strong cannot exist without the weak. The elimination of the weak is the death of the fellowship.”

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Collective Bargaining

Neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.
I Corinthians 3:7-9

Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
I Corinthians 15:58

Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.
Galatians 6:2

As you read about and watch the demonstrations and disputes in Wisconsin, you may wonder where the church stands in this.

The history of the Church in relation to labor is less than perfect. And that is particularly true for Protestant Churches.

Historically Protestants have tended to line up on the side of the employers. There was a natural affinity because the factory owners were often Protestant, and the workers were often Roman Catholic.

A partial exception to this pattern is found in the many Methodist Churches that sprang up in mill towns across New England. In the classic pattern there is a large majestic Congregational Church on the village green, and then down a side street and across the river by the factory there is a little Methodist Church. But even in those churches, which were sometimes supported and maintained by the mill owners, the preaching on economic issues was kind to the employers and skeptical of the workers.

In spite of that history, most Protestant Churches adopted a Social Creed around the turn of the last century. And most of those Creeds supported the rights of workers to organize and engage in collective bargaining. The Methodist Church adopted a Social Creed in 1908 and has consistently affirmed the rights of workers.

The original Creed called for the “abolition of child labor, the suppression of the “sweating system,” and “for the protection of the worker from dangerous machinery, occupational diseases, injuries and mortality.”

And then there is this remarkable statement. In that document from over a hundred years ago, the church declared its support “For the highest wage that each industry can afford, and for the most equitable division of the products of industry that can ultimately be devised.” In our “winner take all” economics of today, we probably need a footnote that makes clear they meant the workers and not the owners. The goal of responsible Christians, they believed, was for workers to be paid as much as possible within the limits of a given industrial context. And for the benefits of industry to be equitably (not “equally”) divided for the benefit of society.

None of this gives us specific direction in Wisconsin. It gives broad context and it gives us a general direction. There is room for argument in the details of pensions, health insurance payments, salaries, and working conditions. And we may disagree on the definition of “afford.”

But within the details there is a critical principle which is in danger, and that is the right to collective bargaining. Without the right to collective bargaining, labor is at an overwhelming disadvantage.

In spite of Jesus’ concern for those at the bottom of the economic scale, Christians in the United State have raised little objection to the vast income redistribution from the bottom to the top over the past thirty years. The elimination of collective bargaining is one more way to make that shifting permanent.

The issues today are complex and controversial, just as they were in 1908. The original Social Creed ends with the declaration that the Methodist Church stands "For the recognition of the Golden Rule and the mind of Christ as the supreme law of society and the sure remedy for all social ills." By saying that, they did not mean that we should write Jesus's teachings into our laws. They meant that as we write our laws and confront the issues of our time, we should remember who we are and whose we are.
(The Methodist Social Creeds from 1908 and 2008 are printed below)

1908 Methodist Social Creed

The Methodist Episcopal Church stands:
For equal rights and complete justice for all men in all stations of life.

For the principles of conciliation and arbitration in industrial dissensions.

For the protection of the worker from dangerous machinery, occupational diseases, injuries and mortality.

For the abolition of child labor.

For such regulation of the conditions of labor for women as shall safeguard the physical and moral health of the community.

For the suppression of the "sweating system."

For the gradual and reasonable reduction of the hours of labor to the lowest practical point, with work for all; and for that degree of leisure for all which is the condition of the highest human life.

For a release for [from] employment one day in seven.

For a living wage in every industry.

For the highest wage that each industry can afford, and for the most equitable division of the products of industry that can ultimately be devised.

For the recognition of the Golden Rule and the mind of Christ as the supreme law of society and the sure remedy for all social ills.

2008 United Methodist Social Creed

We believe in God, Creator of the world; and in Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of creation. We believe in the Holy Spirit, through whom we acknowledge God’s gifts, and we repent of our sin in misusing these gifts to idolatrous ends.

We affirm the natural world as God’s handiwork and dedicate ourselves to its preservation, enhancement, and faithful use by humankind.

We joyfully receive for ourselves and others the blessings of community, sexuality, marriage, and the family.

We commit ourselves to the rights of men, women, children, youth, young adults, the aging, and people with disabilities; to improvement of the quality of life; and to the rights and dignity of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities.

We believe in the right and duty of persons to work for the glory of God and the good of themselves and others and in the protection of their welfare in so doing; in the rights to property as a trust from God, collective bargaining, and responsible consumption; and in the elimination of economic and social distress.

We dedicate ourselves to peace throughout the world, to the rule of justice and law among nations, and to individual freedom for all people of the world.

We believe in the present and final triumph of God’s Word in human affairs and gladly accept our commission to manifest the life of the gospel in the world. Amen.

(It is recommended that this statement of Social Principles be continually available to United Methodist Christians and that it be emphasized regularly in every congregation. It is further recommended that "Our Social Creed" be frequently used in Sunday worship.)
From The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church - 2000. Copyright 2000 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Used by permission.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Did You Hear the Joke About the Gay Guatemalan?

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
Psalm 51:1-2

Confession is not easy. But it is necessary.

(Before I go any further I need to confess that I am pointing out a speck in someone else’s eye when I have a log in my own eye. When it comes to inappropriate remarks, I have made my share. But the awareness of may own failings has never stopped me from pointing out the failings of others, so here we go.)

At a luncheon with business leaders in Providence last week, my State Representative and the House minority leader, Robert Watson, made headlines with a sarcastic remark. He was criticizing the legislature for spending too much time on questions about the medical use of marijuana, illegal immigration, gay marriage, and authorizing more gambling at Twin River. And this is what he said:

“I suppose if you are a gay man from Guatemala who likes to smoke pot and gamble, you probably think we’re onto some good ideas here.”

It got a good laugh.

The Guatemalan community was outraged. The gay community has heard a lot worse and took little notice. (Please think about that . . .)

At a news conference in Providence, David Quiroa, president of the Guatemala American Alliance called on Watson to apologize. He also said that he was disappointed in the people in the audience for laughing at the remark. Watson responded that the audience appreciated the remark for what it was, a non-insulting comment about misplaced priorities.

In a phone interview with the Providence Journal, Watson explained, “I apologize when appropriate and/or necessary,” and he concluded, “I identify this situation as representing neither circumstance.”

And he explained, “I was highlighting the misplaced priorities in [the State House] this year. I was using political sarcasm to make my point. Sometimes, political sarcasm or levity can make a point more forcefully than serious sober commentary. . . . Social issues are important, and I know we can walk and chew gum at the same time. But we’re in fiscal financial collapse here in Rhode Island.… We’ve got cities and towns on the brink of bankruptcy. We’ve got unfunded pension funds that are ticking time bombs. And we’re preoccupied by issues that do nothing to solve those problems.”

As James Carville famously advised candidate Bill Clinton, “It’s the economy, stupid!”

And there is a truth there which transcends narrow political gains and losses. Jesus talked about economics almost all the time. The Bible has something like 6,900 verses (not my personal count!) about how we treat the poor. Issues of economic justice are at the very center of Jesus’ portrayal of what the Kingdom of God will be. I might not agree with Representative Watson on the solutions to our economic problems, but I do agree on the priority of the issues.

But social issues are important.

And when it comes to minority rights, those who enjoy the privileges of the majority will always be tempted to think of those rights as secondary to more important matters.

In terms of Representative Watson’s remarks, I see two issues. First, he does need to apologize to the Guatemalan community, and to the gay community, for using them to make a joke. And second, he needs to see that although issues of marriage equality and immigration have little effect on his personal life, they do matter to real people.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Out of Egypt

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’
Luke 17:20-21

When Jesus was asked about signs of the Kingdom, he said that we will not be able to point and say, “Look, there it is!” Because it is, in fact, among us, and around us, and even within us.

Christians talk a lot about the Kingdom of God coming among us. We pray for it, and on our best days we even work for it. And when we look at the vast sweep of world history, we can see that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Still, it is not often that we can actually see it bending in front of us.

But when Omar Suleiman announced that Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak was leaving after thirty years of rule, and Tahrir Square erupted with shouts of “God is great,” we could say with our Muslim sisters and brothers, “Amen.” In 18 days, without weapons, the people of Egypt overthrew a dictator. It is an astonishing achievement.

Just to be clear, I know that Egypt is not the Kingdom of God. And we all know that nations are not built without struggle. The balance is fragile right now.

It is not over. And the future is uncertain. We don’t know what will happen as a military council takes “temporary” control. The road from overthrowing a dictatorship to establishing a stable democracy will be difficult. But this is a stunning moment.

Jesus presented an alternative to the Empire. The Romans also believed in peace, but they believed that peace was only possible through conquest, “peace through victory.” Jesus’ non-violent alternative was “peace through justice.”

When modern Christians read what Jesus said about the Kingdom of God, our tendency is to think that it is not realistic. It is, we tell ourselves, an impossible ideal.

It is naïve. Non-violence, we tell ourselves, does not work in the real world. We see it as a description of what ought to happen, but in our hearts we do not believe that it is possible.

Maybe we need to expand our concept of “possible.”

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Thoughts on Gay Marriage

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Matthew 5:11-12

Yesterday I went to the State House to testify in favor of a bill to legalize same sex marriage. I was there from 3:30 until about 11:30, but it seemed a lot longer than that.

The people against same sex marriage, representing the National Organization for Marriage, were mostly polite, although a few shouted loudly and incoherently. But they made it clear that they were certain that homosexuals were going to hell for their “chosen lifestyle,” and those who supported them would go to hell with them. And they made it clear that they were the real “victims” in all of this. They were the ones who were being marginalized and oppressed.

I will never cease to be amazed at the capacity of those who have privilege to feel like victims when even the smallest part of that privilege is questioned.

As the evening wore on, I changed my testimony in order to answer some of the issues raised by opponents, but this is the statement I originally intended to make:

My name is Bill Trench and I am pastor of the East Greenwich United Methodist Church. In our United Methodist tradition the pastor does not speak for the church. My calling is to speak to the church and to the world on behalf of the Gospel.

As a matter of civil rights, I believe that Gay and Lesbian persons are entitled to the same rights and responsibilities as heterosexuals, and that includes the right to marry the person with whom he or she is in love.

As a Christian, my support for Gay Marriage is rooted and grounded in the theology of marriage itself. Marriage is a covenant between two people; a promise made before God and the community to love one another forever. We make this commitment in spite of the fact that we know that forever is not ours to give; it belongs to God. And the fulfillment of the commitment is never just a human effort; it is always a gift of grace.

The great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that when we see people making the commitment of marriage, knowing it is a leap of faith, it should make us proud to be human beings. He also wisely observed that it is not love that keeps us married; it is marriage that keeps us in love. For years we have criticized what we have seen as the promiscuity of the Gay community, without offering a real alternative for faithful commitment.

As a pastor, I have been celebrating the covenant of marriage with couples for the better part of four decades. When we meet to talk about marriage, we spend a session talking in depth about their relationship, and I ask them a series of questions. We talk about their plans and expectations. Somewhere in that process, I ask them, “What is your greatest fear for your marriage?” We talk about all sorts of things; money, children, illness, death, infidelity, addiction, and boredom. But in all those years, no one has ever said, “Pastor Bill, my greatest fear is that if gay people are allowed to marry, I won’t feel the same way about our relationship.”

As a pastor, I know that the greatest threat to marriage is a lack of commitment. Marriage can also be threatened by a lack of communication or trust. But neither my marriage nor yours can be threatened by the longing of others to enter into that same commitment. At a time when heterosexual commitment seems to be in short supply, I find it incredibly moving to see Gay and Lesbian couples lined up at city halls to promise their love to one another.

As a student of the Bible, I am well aware of the verses and passages that are used to condemn homosexuality (curiously, they only condemn male homosexuality). But I also know that when the devil came to tempt Jesus, he quoted Scripture. And I know that the overwhelming thrust of the biblical Word, from Creation to Revelation, from the Exodus to Resurrection, from the Prophets to Paul’s Letters, from Torah to the Gospel, is a story of grace and liberation.

When the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, condemned slavery over two hundred years ago, he did so knowing that the Bible offered more than ample verses and passages indicating that slavery was permissible. Wesley knew, as other Abolitionists knew, that the Spirit of the Bible was leading them beyond the letter. That was true again in issues of women’s rights. And it is true now as we address the issues surrounding the rights of Gay and Lesbian persons.

We stand now on the brink of an historic opportunity to extend the rights and responsibilities of marriage to our Gay and Lesbian sisters and brothers. I believe it is truly a gift of grace.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Day the Music Died

And in the streets: the children screamed,
The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed.
But not a word was spoken;
The church bells all were broken.
And the three men I admire most:
The father, son, and the holy ghost,
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died.
Don McLean

There are people screaming in the streets of Cairo, but for a few minutes I’m thinking about the Midwest instead of the Middle East. And the past rather than the present.

Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and J. P. Richardson (the Big Bopper) died fifty two years ago today in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa.

They were on a tour called "The Winter Dance Party," which was scheduled to cover two dozen Midwestern cities in three weeks. The logistical challenges of transporting several bands by bus to so many cities in such a short time were significant. When they got to Clear Lake, Holly suggested to his band mates that they charter a plane to take them to the next stop in Moorhead, Minnesota.

They made arrangements for a 21 year-old local pilot, Roger Peterson, to fly them in a 1947 Beechcraft Bonanza. The plane seated three passengers in addition to the pilot. Because he had developed a case of the flu, Richardson asked Waylon Jennings if he would agree to give up his seat on the plane. When Holly heard about it, he told Jennings he hoped the “ol’ bus freezes up,” and Jennings responded in jest, "Well, I hope your ol' plane crashes". Those words would haunt Waylon Jennings for the rest of his life.

The plane crashed shortly after take-off, caused by a combination of bad weather and pilot error. Because he was unfamiliar with the instruments in the Beechcraft, the young pilot may have thought the plane was ascending when it was actually going down.

I was too young to really notice when it happened. I was not old enough to care about Rock and Roll. But I feel a melancholy sadness looking back.

The music didn’t really die. In fact, you can argue that it got better. But I cannot listen to Buddy Holly without thinking that something wonderful was lost. The music was special.

On this day I am reminded (if I need reminding) that life is fragile and precious, and that every day is a gift.

Everyday it's a gettin' closer,
Goin' faster than a roller coaster,
Love like yours will surely come my way,

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Our Children Will Lead Us

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
Isaiah 11:6

On Monday Barbara Bush appeared in a video supporting marriage equality.

No, not the original Barbara Bush, her granddaughter, one of the twin daughters of George W. and Laura Bush.

Perhaps the best thing about this is how little excitement it has generated. No one is surprised. In a television interview this past May, Laura Bush responded to a question about gay marriage by saying, “When couples are committed to each other and love each other” they should have “the same sort of rights that everyone has.” Cindy McCain and her daughter Meghan have been even more outspoken in support of marriage equality. Which makes some of us wonder whether the male politicians in those families hold the same views in private that they espouse in public.

There is a gender divide on this issue, but even more significantly, there is a generational divide. For younger people it is simply a non-issue. This is a place where our children will lead us.

The Barbara Bush video, and the lack of response to it, carries a sense of inevitability about it. This sense of inevitability can be a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that it encourages us to trust the future. The curse is that it may cause us to forget that we still have a role in shaping that future.

As Martin Luther King said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” He took that idea from another great preacher. Theodore Parker was a 19th century Unitarian preacher in Boston, an abolitionist and a fierce champion of social justice. In 1853 Parker said, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eyes reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

The Barbara Bush video reminds me that God is still at work, and Theodore Parker was right.