Featured Reviews, VOLUME 3

Featured: A Worker Justice Reader [Vol. 3, #44]

“Fair profits, Fair Interest and Fair Prices

A review of
A Worker Justice Reader:
Essential Writings on Religion and Labor

Reviewed by Stephen Lawson.

A Worker Justice Reader: Essential Writings on Religion and Labor
Readings provided by Interfaith Worker Justice and compiled by Joy Heine
Paperback: Orbis, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Over the past few years, it seems that Evangelical Christians have discovered poverty. Perhaps this discovery is the result of long overdue reflection upon the arguably dualistic core of Evangelical theology–spiritual rebirth. Perhaps, these Evangelicals read Scripture and were shocked to learn that the God who saves their souls is the same as the God who creates. Or, perhaps, in the morass of modern media, they cannot escape the guilt that the physicality of images evokes. (Certainly, this newfound concern with societal justice has its influential detractors–an infamous conspiratorial pundit is a characteristic example of this detraction.)

Now that these Evangelicals know about poverty the question remains as to how it is to be confronted and transformed. There is a desire to do something beyond donning an activist bracelet, emailing form-letters to congress, or changing the color of avatars, but no one seems to be quite sure what that should be.[1] Perhaps this is because poverty is often an ethereal concept–an idea–untouched by the dirt and dust of actual human existence. Poverty as an idea is a clear problem (lack of money and opportunity) with a clear answer is (charity and free market expansion). Not only does this idea label the symptom (lack of money and opportunity) as the underlining cause (lack of justice), it also is entirely abstracted from actual existence. What is needed is for Evangelicals to find concrete, local ways to act.

Since the economic catastrophe of 2008, the national unemployment numbers have risen dramatically. For most of this past year, they have hovered between 9-10% nationally (compared to 4.8% in 2006). Those who are lucky enough to have a job, are experiencing pay cuts and freezes at the same time that prices for basic necessities rise. Perhaps the most natural and local opportunity for Evangelicals to express their newfound regard for the poor is in the area of worker justice.

A great resource for this is the recently-released A Worker Justice Reader compiled by Interfaith Worker Justice (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2010). There is no need for Evangelicals to reinvent the wheel and act as if they are the first to connect their Christian faith with the desire to see justice embodied in concrete ways among the working (and unemployed) poor. Certainly, in every local embodiment, the struggle for justice must take on a different shape and color–an accent, if you will–but there is much to be learned from others who have fought parallel battles in other times and places.

Consider, as representative, this reflection: “[The capitalist] needs to learn the long-forgotten truth that wealth is stewardship, that profit-making is not the basic justification of business enterprise, and that there are such things as fair profits, fair interest and fair prices. Above all, he must cultivate and strengthen within his mind the truth…that the laborer is a human being, not merely an instrument of production; and that the laborer’s right to a decent livelihood is the first moral charge upon industry” (46). These words that appear to be such a timely charge were penned by US Roman Catholic bishops in 1919. This book is rife with reminders such as this one that the work toward justice has been going on for a long time, and we have much to learn from it (from past failures as well as successes).

For those trying to work for justice in the midst of various traditions (Christian as well as non-Christian), this book provides helpful resources from an array of traditions. The most visible deficiency of the book, the pittance of representation from any Protestant free church, Evangelical, or Anabaptist perspectives, is the result of both a significant oversight by the compiler and a significant oversight by these traditions. For, while there have been many movements for justice within them (which Joy Heine seemed unconcerned with highlighting), there have not been nearly as many as there should have been. We can only hope that this changes in the years to come. Let us all delve more deeply into our traditions and speak with our own particular accents. Perhaps we will discover that, even though we are not all saying the same thing, we can come to one accord, not about an ethereal idea of justice enacted on a hypothetically universal stage, about justice enacted on the only stage there actually is–the concrete, the local.

[1] Malcolm Gladwell reminded us that “Social media can’t provide what social change has always required” in his October article “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not be Tweeted” in The New Yorker available here: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/10/04/101004fa_fact_gladwell

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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