“…How many are there in this Christian country that toil, and labor, and sweat, and have it not at last, but struggle with weariness and hunger together? Is it not worse for one, after a hard days labor, to come back to a poor, cold, dirty, uncomfortable lodging, and to find there not even the food which is needful to repair his wasted strength?
You that live at ease on this earth, that want nothing but eyes to see, and ears to hear, and hearts to understand how well God hath dealt with you, is it not worse to seek bread day by day, and find none? Perhaps to find the comfort also of five or six children crying for what he has not to give!“
— John Wesley (Founder of Methodism, writing in the mid 1700s)
While writing the sermon that became this blog, a Google search led me to the perfect Labor Day metaphor. I vaguely recalled the above quote, and figured if I searched the words “John Wesley” and “Labor Day” it would lead me to it.
Wesley was a tireless champion of the poor and forgotten of his day. England of his day suffered from a terrible social stratification. Wesley railed against systems that forced working people into working long hours, in poor and miserable conditions. Religious reformers like him helped create the political environment that, eventually, led to labor laws and Labor Day.
And, sure enough, about the seventh or eighth listing on the first page, I found what I was looking for. But it wasn’t the first listing on the page.
When you search the words “John Wesley” and “Labor Day” the first listing that pops up is a link to “Specials at the John Wesley Inn,” a bed and breakfast in Cape May, New Jersey.
They’ve got some great Labor Day deals going on now…
What a metaphor.
Even our religious connections to a day that should celebrate the value and importance of honest work has been reduced to a cut-rate at a bed and breakfast.
But faith still has something to say to our present day. And we are in a big mess right now. The unemployment rate is over 9 percent; which translates into 14 million human beings. (Including, very likely, people reading this…)
But it’s far worse than this. When you factor in those who want to work full time but can’t find jobs, or those who’ve simply quit looking, that rate leaps to near 20 percent. 25 million people.
And that’s even before you start taking a hard look at those who do have jobs. In our nation today, fully 30 percent of the workforce are working at, or near, minimum wage. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, an average person making this kind of entry level wage would have to work 89 hours a week just to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment.
A decade ago, writer Barbara Ehrenreich told this story in her book: “Nickled and Dimed: On Not Making it in America.” She hit the road, traveled the country, to see what life would be like for the working poor in our country today. For months, she lived in various American cities, working low wage jobs, just to see if it was even possible to get by. She worked as a maid. She worked as a waitress. She worked at Walmart (now, the nation’s largest employer, btw…)
Her experience confirmed what the NCH found: that she had to work two jobs, simultaneously, just to make ends meet; just to afford a meager apartment, and semi-decent food. She could not afford a car, had to rely on public transportation. And, she was tired all the time.
So on Labor Day this year, it’s hard to sing joyfully about the honor in “labor” when there is so much wrong with the labor markets.
Faith calls us to talk about these things.
Faith calls me, as a preacher, to do something that likely some will likely find crazy: To call the government to do more, and to confess that the Church, alone, is likely at the limits of what it can do.
Government is called to do good for people
People will say, “Eric, why as a preacher do you have any concern at all for what the government does or doesn’t do? Isn’t that a mixing of church and state?”
The reason is because I believe in an incarnational God. I believe in the God of Christmas, who comes to earth to powerfully show us that the world is not god-forsaken, but God-loved. I believe in the reality of God present in and through the workings of the world.
And if God is truly incarnational, then God also works through the government, as well as the Church. The Good News is that God is also works through all sorts of other people and other professionals, and not just through what we do in church. (Thanks be to God for that!)
Consider this for a moment…
What do we do when we’re facing surgery? We pray for the surgeons. (“Dear God, guide the surgeon’s hands and be with the nurses…”)
What do we do on the first day of school? We pray for teachers. (“Dear God, be with my son’s new teacher…”)
But, what do we do when it comes to government workers, who are also in helping professions?
Do we pray for them? Do we imagine that God can work through them?
If not, why not?
So…God works through your surgeon’s hands, but not through the hands of the Social Security clerk who helps a widow get benefits?
…God works through your kid’s teacher, but not through social workers signing-up single mothers for WIC?
…God works through Sunday School teachers, but not through “Workforce” employees who help the recently-laid-off understand what resources and assistance they might get?
God can work through all these people in all these times and places, precisely because God always works incarnationally in all times and places.
And this has implications for what we believe about government and government workers:
If we are to truly grasp the depth and breadth of God’s incarnational working in the world, then we’ve got to stop believing government is incompetent, and incapable of helping change society for the better.
The idea that government is incapable of ever helping has become almost “gospel” for some. For more than thirty years, we’ve been told that, not only is government not a part of the solution, “government is the problem.” As the years roll by, more and more people have come to believe this lie, as if it was true.
Please hear me: I am not saying government programs are always holy, blessed, and blamelessly awesome. Far from it.
But I am saying this: Government programs have the potential for being a vehicle that God uses brings about positive change in our world. It is theologically and spiritually necessary for us to believe this, if we believe in the God who came to earth at Christmas.
No, government is not perfect. Yes, there is waste and fraud. (Probably massive, even…) Government programs are messy. But Jesus was born in a backward stable too, with bleating animals all around.
Incarnation is messy.
But beyond recognizing that God can work through government programs, there’s another reason for people of faith to support the government and to challenge it to do more with respect to the un/under-employed…
The Church cannot do what the government does at the scale the government does.
The reality is that if you look back at 100 years of charitable giving, as a percentage of income, it rarely fluctuates more than a few percentage points up or down. In the best economic times or the worst ones. Given that factual reality, there is no concrete evidence, whatsoever, that churches and non-profits can take over all, or even most of the social services offered by the government.
100 years of data on charitable giving speaks to this truth.
There are some problems so big that only the government can really step in to help. And in those instances, people of faith must challenge our government to create policies and programs that truly serve working people, and the working poor.
The Prophet Amos encouraged people to seek good and not seek evil. He is pretty blunt about what seeking evil entails:
“You trample the poor and take from them levies of grain….you take a bribe and push the needy in the gate.“(link)
The Book of James in the New Testament (one of the most important books in the New Testament, imho…) make the same point in blunt terms:
“Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?”(link)
Even in Biblical times, the poor were taxed at unfair rates, and wealth flowed up the chain, away from the poor and middle class, and to the rich. Even in Biblical times, even those who were the “faithful” showed too much partiality to the rich, and not enough care for the poor.
In Wesley’s time too. In fact, there’s another pretty amazing quote, where he even lambasts his own “Methodist” people on this point…
“Most of those in England who have riches love money, even the Methodists; at least those who are called so. The poor are the Christians. I am quite out of conceit with almost all those who have the world’s goods.”
— John Wesley
Clearly, justice for the poor and the needy is what God wants, not just help for the wealthy and the powerful. And it’s equally clear that those of us who have been blessed with financial resources are called by God to share of our abundance.
The phrase “God helps those who help themselves” is not in the Bible. (link)
The phrase “To whom much is given, much is required” is. (link)
But here’s just how insane things are today: You can’t even make these points without somebody accusing you of socialism or “class warfare.”
Thank God Billionaire Warren Buffett is not afraid to tell the truth, when he said this: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
Can we even hear this?!
Instead, we continue to hear that government is evil, and that taxing the wealthy to help the poor is evil. Yet even if we take theological meaning out of it, and analyze things statistically, we must admit that we had far greater prosperity when taxes on the wealthy have been much higher.
Tax rates on our wealthiest citizens have been falling since World War II. Ten years ago, we cut them again. Theoretically, according to what “we are told,” tax breaks always mean the economy improves, companies create more jobs, etc, etc…
So, if that’s the case, then the last ten years should have been blissful, since tax rates on the wealthy are at their lowest point in almost 50 years.
But it hasn’t been, has it? The clear evidence shows that as the wealthy are taxes less, our economy has gotten worse, and we’re in the most challenging financial downturn in 70 years.
They say insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.
So, how much longer will we continue to believe the insane lie that tax cuts for the wealthy always lead to prosperity?
It’s getting mean out there too, with regard to the poor. There are a lot of bitter folks, mad about the economy in general (they should be mad at the rich), but taking it out on the poor instead.
For example, more than once in recent weeks I’ve heard it said that the poor are getting some great, free ride. The whisper campaign goes like this:
“Did you know that half of Americans don’t pay any taxes?”
The unsaid grumble here is that half the country is getting a free ride, finding “loopholes” that keep them from oweing any taxes.
You know…apparently the poor have GREAT accountants.
Let’s be clear about this, there is only one major loophole that keeps a human being (as opposed to a corporation) from paying any taxes: being poor.
Which leads to an obvious and self-evident truth: If half of America really is not paying taxes, then what that tells us is that half of America has fallen into the ranks of the desperately poor.
The ranks of the poor are exploding. So are the ranks of the super-rich. It’s the middle class that’s getting squeezed, and getting smaller and smaller.
So we come back to that great quote from Mr. Wesley.
“…How many are there in this Christian country that toil, and labor, and sweat, and have it not at last, but struggle with weariness and hunger together? Is it not worse for one, after a hard days labor, to come back to a poor, cold, dirty, uncomfortable lodging, and to find there not even the food which is needful to repair his wasted strength?“
It’s a rhetorical question, of course. Yes, of course it’s worse to live like that. To have to have work two and three jobs, just to put food on the table. Thirty-six percent of American families that get food from charitable food banks have at least one working adult in their household(link).
People are working hard, and not getting by. We can do better. And we must.
President Obama is about to deliver a major speech on jobs and job creation. I must say, I am deeply disappointed in what he had done so far. I personally believe that, like at other crucial times in our history, the government is the only agency large enough to really make a difference in the area of jobs.
I give President Obama VERY VERY poor marks so far in what he had done with respect to jobs. Yes, he inherited an economy that was collapsing all around. OK, so we had to prop up big banks. Fine. But then, what?
I am glad that there is a major jobs speech coming, but it was needed two years ago.
Here’s what I’m hoping for. I hope and pray that President Obama will announce plans for real job creation. One place to start would be jobs that help us repair some of our failing infrastructure. We’ve got water mains breaking all over the place, bridges about fail their inspections, roads crumbling beneath us.
We need another WPA-like program to help turn the economy around.
I’ve heard a lot of talk about tax breaks for small business that actually add jobs to their payrolls. Probably also a decent idea.
Whatever programs are suggested, they will cost money, and require additional spending. Nobody should be horrified, shocked, or call that irresponsible.
It is ABSOLUTELY going to take MORE government spending and more taxes on the wealthy in our society to give what is wrong right now. Let’s be absolutely clear about this.
I realize the debt is important. But we are not in debt because we help the poor and jobless too much.
We are in debt because, for the first time in our history, we fought wars (two, not just one) without a tax increase.
Please hear this: Never before in the history of America have we done this. We are in debt because of the tax cuts of ten years ago that cut revenues, right as we began spending for those costly wars. (link) That had a predictable result. Whether you fully support those wars or oppose them, fighting wars takes sacrifice, and we have yet to sacrifice, financially, to pay for those wars. THAT, and the tax cuts of ten years ago, have created the vast majority of our debt.
Warren Buffett has written another new essay in which he makes this same point:
“Our leaders have asked for “shared sacrifice.” But when they did the asking, they spared me. I checked with my mega-rich friends to learn what pain they were expecting. They, too, were left untouched.
While the poor and middle class fight for us in Afghanistan, and while most Americans struggle to make ends meet, we mega-rich continue to get our extraordinary tax breaks…
Last year…what I paid was only 17.4 percent of my taxable income — and that’s actually a lower percentage than was paid by any of the other 20 people in our office. Their tax burdens ranged from 33 percent to 41 percent and averaged 36 percent.
If you make money with money, as some of my super-rich friends do, your percentage may be a bit lower than mine. But if you earn money from a job, your percentage will surely exceed mine — most likely by a lot…
I know well many of the mega-rich and, by and large, they are very decent people. They love America and appreciate the opportunity this country has given them. Many have joined the Giving Pledge, promising to give most of their wealth to philanthropy. Most wouldn’t mind being told to pay more in taxes as well, particularly when so many of their fellow citizens are truly suffering…
My friends and I have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress. It’s time for our government to get serious about shared sacrifice.”
Our debt did not come from helping the poor and jobless. But even if it did, more support and more spending is what is needed now.
If all this sounds too political, I would remind you that Wesley once said “there is no holiness except social holiness.”
On this Labor Day, the church must use it’s moral persuasion to push our nation’s leaders to act. The Church must advocate for the working poor and jobless, and stop, as Warren Buffett and Book of James both say, “coddling the rich.”
We must care for the poor, the unemployed, and the underemployed.
Government alone has the size and ability to create programs of a scale that can truly make a long term difference. It must use its power to generate additional income (taxes) and devise programs that can help us out of this mess.
The Church has the prophetic role to challenged the government to do so.
We must challenge the government to help the laboring poor who “struggle with weariness and hunger together.”