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    workers at a glass factory

    What Would Jesus Pay Workers?

    Jesus clearly says workers deserve a living wage.

    By C. Don Jones

    May 1, 2024
    • Joerg Fritsch

      This is very timely and serves as an effective counterpoint to an article we found last week in Mere Orthodoxy on 23 April 2024 “To Praise Ambitious Men”. Both articles present different views on the implications of Christian ethics in the workplace. In my opinion, however, both lack focus on the broader impacts of work on creation, such as the environment and animals. At a time when attention is shifting to the whole of creation, it is no longer sufficient to only ask “Am I well paid?” or to focus solely on demonstrating vocational excellence. These approaches are inward-focused. The times we live in demand that Christians focus outward. An interesting publication in this regard is the encyclical “Laudato Si” by Pope Francis. It explicitly calls for a more integrative approach to solving environmental problems, one that includes respecting the dignity of both people and the planet. For me, being paid fairly and having fulfilling secular work are part of “the dignity of people.” The Pope criticizes the modern approach to business and the economy which, in his view, often exploits both workers and the environment. He emphasizes that true Christian stewardship involves caring for all of creation. Again, I believe that Christian ethics should extend beyond personal or even communal benefits to include the whole of creation. In the Bible, there are numerous references to the stewardship of Earth that support the idea of caring for creation. For example, Psalms 24:1 ("The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it") underscores the notion that everything belongs to God, reinforcing the duty to respect and care for the environment.

    I will call her Joan. She was night shift leader at the company I worked for, which specialized in making fabric markers. The company had sent Joan to one of our client facilities to help them begin using a new machine that would replace the human fabric cutters in their factory. The machine promised to be more productive, more efficient, and, most importantly, cheaper than human beings. A skilled worker could cut about a hundred and twenty layers of denim fabric at a time. The new machine, it turned out, could not. A box of broken blades and continuous slowing of the machine were grim testimony to how inefficient the device was in practice. But management wanted the new investment to work. Joan began making longer markers, which wasted more fabric. She sat there for more than twelve hours each day trying to help the engineer from the machine’s manufacturer make it work. She was in an impossible situation. By the end of the second day, Joan was so stressed out that she was periodically stopping her work to vomit into a nearby garbage can.  

    In economics, labor is considered one of three factors needed for production, alongside natural resources and capital. There was a time when labor centered on the efforts of human beings. With industrialization, however, labor became an extension of the machinery, just another form of capital. By the 1990s, it became common and acceptable to describe labor as “human capital.” Now, with even more advanced automation and artificial intelligence, many human laborers risk being left out of the equation entirely, with economics – and work itself – reduced to the interaction of managers and machines.

    Working is a part of being human. Ethically speaking, having work, and working hard and well, gives people dignity – just ask someone who is unemployed. But it makes a difference whether others value and appreciate one’s work. For generations now our culture has suggested that the goal of life is to escape manual labor. College degrees have become the ticket out of the working class into the managerial class. And despite the biblical injunction to earn our living “by the sweat of your brow,” many Christians, too, have actively promoted higher education and white-collar jobs as ideals. Seeking a better life than your parents, understood as a less physically arduous career, has somehow become a Christian virtue. This seems laudable at first – after all, what parents wouldn’t want their children to live comfortably? But if we believe in the dignity and virtue of all labor – and know that someone needs to the manual work – why do we encourage young people to escape it?

    The answer is simple, and we can see it in Joan’s story: our present world does not value manual labor, nor does it value the people who perform it. Many workers know this intuitively; they recognize that they are not respected. And that disrespect has deep roots in American history – and bad theology.

    As capitalism took root in the United States, many churches upheld industrialists as role models, regardless of how they treated their workers. Of course, this varied – working-class Roman Catholics may well have been union members, while mainline Protestant professionals tended to confuse their prosperity with divine favor. Radical labor leaders like Eugene V. Debs attacked anti-union and anti-socialist clergy as “pious pickets of capitalism” who “prostitute religion in the service of mammon.” Other labor leaders of the time recalled that churches had propped up slavery – suggesting that “wage slavery” apply described the conditions of many modern workers.

    These criticisms were not entirely unjustified. Some churches in the southern United States have the dubious track record of opposing trade unions as well as upholding slavery and maintaining racial segregation. Even today, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10) continues to be used as a cudgel against helping the unemployed poor. But what about those who work hard every day and are still poor? New Testament texts such as Colossians 3:23–24 – “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward” – were regularly trotted out during my youth as evidence that God is primarily concerned with the state of the laborer’s soul, not his or her paycheck.

    workers at a glass factory

    Photograph by Susan Sheldon / Alamy Stock Photo.

    I came to see things differently. Through my own experiences at work and through stories I heard as a labor activist, I realized that the conditions in which many of our fellow citizens labor are a profound problem for Christianity. Not everyone agrees. A member of my congregation once challenged me to justify advocating for workers made ill by cleaning up a coal ash spill nearby: surely that wasn’t part of a pastor’s job description. I explained that I had been a union member and felt a sense of solidarity with working-class people. He thought about this for a moment and then said, “I am glad you are doing that.” Clergy may have to take a lead in undoing the historic anti-labor attitudes of their churches, by modeling this kind of involvement and roping in their congregations.

    Not only can we do this, I think we must. Judging by the fullness of scripture, God actually cares a great deal about a worker’s paycheck. In the Bible, one principle comes up repeatedly: “the laborer deserves his wages.” In Luke 10:7, this is in the context of Jesus sending out seventy-two disciples on mission throughout Israel. But the people of Jesus’ time obviously recognized this as a proverb of great wisdom; Luke seems to see it as beyond question. Matthew offers a variation, “for the laborers deserve their food” (Matt. 10:10). In 1 Timothy 5:18, it is coupled with Deuteronomy 25:4, which commands: “You shall not muzzle the ox that treads out the grain.” Paul evokes the same law in 1 Corinthians 9:9 to explain why those who plow and thresh must have a share of the harvest. The starting assumption of the gospels is that those who work deserve to receive support from those who have benefited from their work. The fact that they are doing the work makes the workers deserving. Paul’s advice to the church in Thessalonica, “to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one,” demonstrates that work is important and honorable and should not be evaded (1 Thess. 4:11–12).

    Ancient laborers, whether free or enslaved, worked for their daily food and drink with little reward. “Give us this day our daily bread,” in the Lord’s Prayer is a plea for sustenance that many hungry workers would have made in their lives. At the time, to be a laborer was virtually synonymous with being poor. It’s not all that different today. Despite paychecks being weekly or monthly, many workers with a steady job nonetheless find themselves in poverty or unsettlingly close to it. At one food bank I found myself serving retail employees from a local big-box store, still wearing their smocks and badges, who found their income wasn’t sufficient to feed their families. Their wages may well have been perfectly legal. But injustice remains a feature of working life, and even where there are legal protections, employers can and do ignore them, safe in the knowledge most workers lack the power to hold them to account.

    Our present world does not value manual labor, nor does it value the people who perform it. 

    The Bible is unambiguous about God’s attitude to this kind of exploitation. We are instructed: “You shall not oppress a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns. You shall give him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets (for he is poor and counts on it), lest he cry against you to the Lord, and you be guilty of sin” (Deut. 24:14–15).

    The dignity and goodness associated with labor is turned inside out if workers must become beggars, with no hope of receiving a fair share in what they have made. The Lord sees the situation for what it is; he bears witness to the cry of the workers: “Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (James 5:4).

    When we exploit workers, we degrade labor itself, which should be honorable and dignifying. Another aspect of labor is lost too: working should bring joy. Labor does not need to be something we simply endure, it can be something we can take pride in and even enjoy doing.

    Nor are we the only ones who should benefit. In Ephesians we’re told, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Eph. 4:28). Our labor enables us to help others without condescension or deceit. The one who once stole now gives generously, remembering what his life was like before he had an honest livelihood.

    Work is good, and we affirm this by giving workers dignity, not least by paying them enough to live on. As Jesus says, the laborer is worthy of his wages.

    Contributed By C Don Jones C. Don Jones

    C. Don Jones is a United Methodist minister serving in East Tennessee. He is a former factory worker and union member.

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