Recent Union Wins Mean It’s Time for More Organized Religion | Sojourners

Recent Union Wins Mean It’s Time for More Organized Religion

Amazon worker wearing a shirt that reads "Amazon Labor Union." Photo credit to Brendan McDermid. Image via Reuters. 

In theologian and labor activist Colleen Wessel-McCoy’s book, Freedom Church of the Poor, she references a sermon Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached from his home pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1968: “We would have a better world, [if] Christians would stop talking so much about religion, and start doing something about it … But the problem is that the church has sanctioned every evil in the world, whether it’s racism, or whether it’s the evils of monopoly-capitalism, or whether it's the evils of militarism.” With some notable exceptions, King is right: Christians have a lot of “sanctioned evil” to own up to. But if there ever was a time to own up to sanctioned evil and start doing something about it, that time is now.

The new wave of union organizing has started conversations around worker power, economic injustice, and racial disparities. Christians have a new opportunity to oppose the evil and injustice that low-wage workers are currently facing.

Even in the past few weeks, we’ve seen workers win a union at Amazon’s JFK8 and several Starbucks stores around the country have also begun to unionize. Yet, even in light of these victories, it’s not immediately apparent to many Christians why they should care about the exploitation of workers, systemic economic injustice, or unions. While it’s not unusual to see progressive clergy members show up to a strike or labor action, it is more unusual to see laypeople in these environments. But what if that could change? What if we organized our churches as well as our workplaces?

Organizing our faith communities isn’t just a hypothetically “nice” thing to do. The central purpose of organizing is for regular people to use their collective power to correct injustices.

Corporations, politicians, and other monied interests are often trying to find ways to derail organizing. The failed Amazon union drive back in April 2021 is certainly a notable example of this. Yet as labor scholar and activist Jane McAlevey points out, it’s also true that the reason the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union failed in Bessmer, Ala., was because they didn’t organize and incorporate support from local faith communities. McAlevey writes, “The media often played up the faith-based aspect of the campaign, with key staff of the effort being faith leaders or people of faith themselves. But there was a near-total absence of Bessemer or local Birmingham faith organizations on the endorsement list of the campaign.”

McAlevey’s observation is that there were religious people in the campaign at Bessemer, but their churches and faith communities were absent. Of course every struggle is different, yet there’s something important to learn from McAlevey’s observation: The support of faith communities is an important component of a successful organizing campaign. In the end, it’s workers who win union elections, but community support is indispensable.

In September of 2021, I wrote an article for The Bias which made a similar point: I argued that clergy could be an important presence on a strike line. One of the key points of my argument was that part of the reason clergy have power is that they’re representatives of their faith communities. That still rings true. But working people need the support of more than just clergy; working people need the power of the entire church.

Activist clergy showing up and speaking with moral authority to the bosses and corporations disregarding the lives of workers is important and invaluable. But it’s undeniable that the power of clergy ultimately comes from the people and organizations that they work with. The labor movement needs more than just clergy to speak at rallies — it needs all Christians and people of faith to organize for the rights of workers.

Beyond a simple campaign strategy, there’s also a moral and theological imperative within Christian theology that should urge Christians to show up. The Jesuit liberation theologian, Father Ignacio Ellacuría explains this best in his essay, “The Crucified People,” which can be found in the book Systematic Theology, co-authored by fellow Jesuit liberation theologian Jon Sobrino. In the essay, Ellacuría intervenes in the theological conversation around Christian soteriologies (theories of what Jesus’s death means for our salvation). There are a handful of normative theories regarding Jesus’s death and what it means for human salvation. One example is the theory of substitutionary atonement, which posits that when Jesus dies on the cross, he takes on all of our sins, appeasing God the Father which saves humanity from the condemnation of hell.

Atonement theories are interesting and important, but the question that Ellacuría asks us is not focused on the soteriological implications of Jesus’s death, but on why Jesus died in the first place. Ellacuría writes, “We may admit that the death of Jesus and the crucifixion of the people are necessary, but only if we speak of a necessity in history and not a merely natural necessity.”

Rather than falling back on a cosmic or metaphysical rationale for the necessity of Jesus’s death, Ellacuría reasons that Jesus was crucified for the same reason that poor and working people everywhere are crucified: The powers and principalities of this world simply don’t care about the lives of the people they are exploiting. And if the people who are being exploited make trouble, then the powers and principalities attempt to silence cries for justice and protect their own brand.

In reflecting on Jesus’s crucifixion, Ellacuría reasons that there is an entire class of people who are in a situation that is similar to Jesus’s situation when he was here on this earth. Ellacuría calls this class of people the “crucified people.” Ellacuría puts it this way: “What is meant by crucified people here is that collective body, which as the majority of humankind owes its situation of crucifixion to the way society is organized and maintained by a minority that exercises its dominion …”

Jesus was and continues to be crucified because he stands with the crucified people of our modern world. These people are crucified because we’ve created entire systems that necessarily crucifies them for the benefit of a small minority of rich and powerful elites. The forces that crucified Jesus are the same forces that crucify millions of poor and working-class people in the United States and internationally.

Theological conversations and mystical explanations often make the crucifixion and its soteriological implications otherworldly. But it’s important to ground the crucifixion in reality. Think about it this way: What would you do if you saw Jesus suffering on the cross? Would you just resign yourself to the belief that it is all part of some salvific plan? Of course not! You’d weep and wail in the streets; you’d find some way to show up as a witness on behalf of the crucified. When it comes to the poor and working people of the U.S., it’s not enough for Christians to simply send their pastors and clergy to speak a good and prophetic word. Christians must show up en masse for the crucified people and participate in taking them down from the cross.

Sometimes theology leaves too much room for nuance or is unhelpfully vague in its application, so I want to make things very clear: The extreme poverty we have in the U.S. is a policy choice on the part of the most morally bankrupt politicians choosing to spend money on bombs and jets rather than on ending poverty. Our out-of-control capitalist system is rigged against us and is slowly crucifying poor and low-income people through low-wage jobs, the lack of healthcare, high rents, ecological devastation, and systemic racism. When we see workers organizing, it’s our moral duty to show up and do what we can to stop their crucifixion.

Materially, this means getting involved. Here are a few ideas of how to get involved that you should introduce to your faith community:

● Contact local labor unions and organizations in your area and ask how you can help them.
● Invite unions and workers to speak at your church or faith community gatherings.
● Write letters to your state and local politicians regarding exploitative labor laws.
● Mobilize your faith community to show up to a strike or labor action.
● Factor in giving to strike funds to your faith community’s budget.
● With guidance from local unions or labor organizations, organize phone zaps to exploitative bosses and corporations in your area.

King was right: We would have a better world if Christians talked less about religion and committed ourselves to struggle for justice. There’s a clear theological calling to confront the ways our world continues to crucify people, but it’s up to us to take that call beyond theology and into the streets.