***The following is a shortened and redacted version of my sermon from yesterday, the full audio of which can be found here.***

Today is Labor Day here in the US. It’s the day set aside to acknowledge the social and economic achievements and contributions of the American worker. It was first promoted in the late 19th century by American labor unions that were working to ensure proper working conditions and fair wages for American workers. And yet, the sad irony is that many of us will bombard our stores this weekend to take advantage of sales and buy goods at discounted prices made by workers who do not enjoy the protections that American workers have fought hard for. Outsourcing has shipped manufacturing jobs to countries in which the wages are lower and the working conditions are often worse — but at least it keeps our prices low. If you had a piece of fruit for breakfast this morning, chances are it was picked by someone who wasn’t paid fairly to pick it. Chances are it was picked by a migrant worker who is undocumented and for whatever reason can’t get documentation and must subsist by being paid under the table. He does not have benefits. She does not have a regulated work day. He’s not even given sunscreen to protect him. And her “employer” doesn’t have to pay taxes on her or provide her with any protections or benefits because, again, she’s undocumented.

Speaking of the American workforce, consider for a moment that slavery was never truly abolished. The 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Which means that those who are serving sentences in American jails and prisons are fair game. That may seem fair and appropriate to some, except when you consider that the American prison population over 30 years has increased by 500%. The United States of America makes up 5% of the world’s total population and 25% of its incarcerated population. This is not due to an increase in crime. Violent crime has actually decreased in our country. What we’re doing is sentencing more and more non-violent offenders and putting them in institutions that are run by private companies.

For-profit prisons are one of the fastest growing industries in this country. Governments have been incentivized by the companies who run these prisons to keep them filled. Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, Victoria’s Secret, Whole Foods, Aramark — all companies who either use prison labor or sell or use goods that were produced at little cost by inmates who make as little at $.35 an hour. And to keep feeding that machine, we lock up people for crimes that would have gotten them probation or community service years ago. We’re taking them away from their families, their communities, and any chance they have to right their wrongs. We’re spending more on their incarceration than we are on their education because we can make more money off of them if they’re in jail. If they’re educated and working, then we have to pay them fairly! What’s more, most of whom we’re locking up are black, brown, and poor, which only perpetuates the cycle of poverty and further widens the income gap between whites and people of color.

And we’re still painfully slow to raise the minimum wage to a living wage.

We have created an economy that is sustained by the poor and must therefore keep the poor poor. And then we turn around and criticize them for being poor. We’ve said it was because they’re lazy or unambitious. We’ve accused them of living off our tax dollars whenever they shop for cereal with their EBT cards. We’ve let people with trust funds tell us we can pull ourselves up by our boot straps. We have bought into philosophies, ideologies, and even theologies that absolve us of our responsibility to our fellow human beings. And God is hip to all of it. Too bad we aren’t.

Those of us who preach from the Revised Common Lectionary were confronted yesterday by texts that bear witness to a God who is displeased with partiality and who cares about how we treat the poor. We retold the story of the Syrophoenician woman — whose descendants are now displaced from their homes by war and subjected to all manner of xenophobic opposition — and her dogged insistence that she, her child, and everyone else like her matters. Americans recoil at the images from Hungary-Austria border, but it should remind (and convict) us of what’s occurring at our own border.

I’m encouraged by the outrage and heartbreak invoked by what we’re seeing unfold in Europe, but I’m also worried. I worry that our tendency toward the downtrodden is either repulsion, indifference or fetishism. We either build up their cause to buttress our own sense of altruism, or we do everything we can to avoid them. We rend our garments for people halfway across the world, perhaps because they are just abstract enough. We’re less inclined to show the same regard to the day laborer we just drove past because, well, he’s too real. Equally real is the returning citizen whose 10th job application was rejected because of his criminal record, despite how the economy has already benefited from his labor. We create causes and cases out of what are living, breathing, human beings — sisters and brothers to us.

When and how does our faith turn into works? What more can faithful people do to promulgate a just economy that benefits the poor, rather than one that benefits from the poor? What can we do to help our Syrian brothers and sisters in the struggle, and how can we let them teach us about the struggles we’ve been too quick to ignore around us?

4 thoughts on “The Pastoral is Political: Labor Pangs

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