Freedom

Seeing Through 'Right-to-Work' Laws

WHAT’S NOT TO like about a law called “right to work”?

It is a label that invokes the best of our U.S. national persona: a dedication both to individual freedom and to the important role that our labors play in developing personal character and community prosperity. When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed a so-called right-to-work law in early March, making his state the 25th in the country to adopt such legislation, he did so on a desk emblazoned with a bold sign saying “Freedom to Work.”

The problem with right-to-work laws is that they are a lie.

For generations, legislation drafted under this label has been promoted by people and organizations whose priorities are not to enhance the autonomy and welfare of our nation’s workers, but to crush them. Aimed at weakening collective bargaining rights, these laws trace their origins beyond the 1980s union attacks led by Ronald Reagan, past the 1940s Southern strategy to beat blacks out of the labor force, to a 19th century “Northern strategy” that equated “collective bargaining with the enslavement of free white men,” according to sociologist Cedric de Leon.

Right-to-work laws prohibit a company and its workers from agreeing that workers who benefit from a union-negotiated contract should pay fees to that union. The only “right” protected is the privilege of workers to benefit from union advocacy without paying for its cost. The goal is to drain the resources of those unions, smothering workers’ ability to collectively bargain for better wages and working conditions.

In addition to the pitch for “individual worker freedom,” right-to-work laws are sold as providing a boost to local economies. “We now have given one more big thing on that checklist to say that Wisconsin is open for business,” Walker said before signing the new law.

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Comcast's Net Neutrality Shell Game

THE BATTLE over net neutrality keeps getting stranger and stranger.

For years the lines were clearly drawn. On the “pro-” side were the content-providing companies (Google, Netflix, Amazon, etc.) and the public interest and consumer groups that want to preserve equal access to a potential audience of billions. Arrayed against them was Big Telecom (Verizon, Time Warner Cable, Comcast, etc.), which wanted the internet to work more like cable TV, where consumer choice is limited to the menu the provider offers.

But now the idea that internet service providers should be prohibited from charging content providers for faster downloads has become so popular that even its sworn enemies claim to favor it. They’ve even rounded up some of their most fervent supporters in Congress to push “net neutrality” legislation, which may come with a rider proclaiming that “war is peace.”

Comcast, the nation’s largest cable and broadband provider, pioneered this Orwellian strategy. For several months now Comcast has run print, TV, and online ads hailing its support for net neutrality—no “blocking” of sites, no “throttling” of download speeds, and no “paid prioritization” giving faster speeds to the highest bidder. Not only does Comcast support those principles, it says, but it is in fact the only internet service provider that has made a legally binding commitment to abide by them. And, by the way, if the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would just approve Comcast’s merger with Time Warner Cable, it would extend those protections to all Time Warner customers, too.

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In Over My Head: Freedom and LGBTQ Inclusion

Head contour with rainbow flag in the shape of a heart. Image courtesy bymandesi

Head contour with rainbow flag in the shape of a heart. Image courtesy bymandesigns/shutterstock.com

I am in over my heart on the LGBTQ situation and the church. I am also in over my head. As a Christian ethicist who believes Scripture is the measure for matters of faith, doctrine, and conduct, I have to say my head hurts to the point that it aches. It aches because I know that how evangelicals have taught me about loving LGBTQ Christians is myopic, and we need to think through many questions anew.

There are themes I am clear on: the place of love, the importance of family, the image of God, the mystery of bodies, the centrality of children. When it comes to faith, doctrine, and conduct, I plan to occupy myself for a long time on these themes to engage the questions that I am still unclear on. These include: What is the ideal marriage? Who is deemed family? What kind of sex reflects the character of God?

A few years ago, my then 7-year-old son was flipping through a children’s Bible during church when he came to a picture of Jacob and Rachel. He looked up at me and challenged, “What’s this? One wife? Where are the rest of them?”

Clearly the illustrator had an interpretive lens for choosing not to portray the messiness of the patriarch’s family and children. Our world simplifies and sanitizes marriage and sex to the point that we evangelicals endanger the kind of complex thinking on family structures that Scripture itself narrates.

Fortunately I am in a church where questioning over your head is okay. Formed by people who first called themselves Mission Friends, the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) was birthed as a renewal movement in the late 1800s. We affirm our freedom in Christ to breathe life into our faith and ground our wisdom in the midst of complex ethical questions. The New Testament’s word on freedom sets the tone. John’s gospel tells us that if we continue going back to the word, we are his disciples. Those who receive Christ and have faith in his name are free to become children of God (John 1:12). Paul emphasizes that those who love Christ are new creations (2 Cor. 5:17). Galatians reminds us that freedom to live a new life is evidenced by such fruits as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:16-25). The letter to the Philippians promises that what God has begun will eventually be completed (Phil. 1:6).

In the midst of this celebrated freedom, the ECC acknowledges that it is a fragile gift. One of our forebears called this gift of freedom in Christ a “turtle without a shell” — how free it is to live unencumbered, yet how vulnerable to lose one’s protective layer. While I don’t want to say we Covenant evangelicals always use our freedom well, we do have historical precedent for thinking in morally complex ways.   

Bondage, Freedom, and #TomatoRabbis

Here come the #TomatoRabbis / Photo via T'ruah

Closer to home, one of the messages that many of us often hear is that there is slavery in the supply chains of the products that we buy every day: cotton, chocolate, produce. This can be paralyzing when we go to the mall or the grocery store. None of us want to purchase something that originates in an extreme human rights violation. But the solution cannot be simply to buy a different product. When we talk about labor trafficking, we must keep the focus on the worker who is enslaved rather than the product we consume.

As a rabbi, I know that is not my tomato or banana that is created in the image of God—it is the person who picked that product. Fighting for food justice means ensuring the human rights and wages of workers, and doing so in a way that places the needs, dignity, and expertise of the workers at the head of the table. This last piece is crucial: no one can tell us how best to solve human rights abuses in supply chains, including modern slavery, more than the workers who have the most at stake...

We must raise up the leadership of those most affected by forced labor and support their efforts to create new futures for themselves. Since 2011, T’ruah has taken more than 50 rabbis to Immokalee to learn from the CIW. The stories they hear—and the transformation they see—inspire them to go home and turn their congregations into more than just educated consumers. They become activists: they write letters to corporations urging them to join the Fair Food Program, stage protests, take Hebrew school students to meet with managers, write op-eds, and deliver sermons. Our #TomatoRabbis have become part of the larger movement of Fair Food activists, urging corporations to live up to their professed values and join the new day dawning in the Florida tomato industry that is the only proven slavery-prevention program in the U.S.

We Need to Talk About Modern-Day Slavery

Freedom concept. Image courtesy frank_peters/shutterstock.com

Freedom concept. Image courtesy frank_peters/shutterstock.com

In his annual State of the Union address last week, President Obama began his foreign policy focus by saying, “If there’s one thing this new century has taught us, it’s that we cannot separate our work at home from challenges beyond our shores.” 

Unfortunately, an insidiously prevalent challenge and hugely profitable crime facing the world — modern slavery and human trafficking — was not mentioned in the President’s list of current global concerns facing the U.S. on Tuesday night. To be fair, he has given a major address on the topic before. But no president has ever raised the issue in his big annual address.

That needs to change.

Incidentally, the President just finished a multi-day trip to India, home to almost one-half of the world’s enslaved people. In a surprise and welcome development, he brought up the topic in his last speech there — a pointed one on human rights — saying, “Together, we can stand up against human trafficking and work to end the scourge of modern-day slavery.”  

Raising the issue in this context is an important step in naming the problem. Indeed, one of our country’s most effective tools for fighting slavery — the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report — consistently pulls its punches specifically on India, declining to hold them fully accountable for the massive level of human exploitation there. Given India’s size and wealth, our larger foreign policy apparatus deems it more important to avoid “risking” other geopolitical concerns with the diplomatic fallout that could come from telling the truth on slavery. 

New and Noteworthy

Paternal Insights
Father Factor: American Christian Men on Fatherhood and Faith offers diverse perspectives from men under 40 who are rooted in a broad spectrum of Christian traditions, ethnicities, and backgrounds. Edited by R. Anderson Campbell, this is the fifth volume in the I Speak for Myself series. White Cloud Press

Sing Freedom
In Nothing but Love in God’s Water: Volume I, Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, gospel music scholar Robert F. Darden explores the sustaining and revolutionary power of sacred song in African-American history. Penn State Press

In Between
The documentary Life on the Line follows 11-year-old Kimberly Torrez as her family await the visa that will allow them to return to the U.S. after circumstances trap them in Nogales, Mexico. An accompanying online project shares the stories of other young people affected by immigration issues. finelinefilms.org/lifeontheline

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Finding Hope in South Africa

SOUTH AFRICA has meant a lot to Sojourners over the years. In the 1980s, I was invited to come to South Africa by key church leaders there, including Beyers Naudé, the first white minister defrocked by the Dutch Reformed Church for opposing apartheid; Desmond Tutu, the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town; theologian and preacher Alan Boesak; and Frank Chikane, a Pentecostal minister who came up through the ranks of the movement to lead the South African Council of Churches.

They became my “comrades,” as they say in South Africa, for six weeks that happened to fall during Lent—it was a powerful season for me of seeing and feeling the pain of that beloved country while looking for the hope that comes from people who make costly commitments. Together we worked on a strategy between South African and U.S. church leaders to end apartheid.

Ten years later I returned to witness the victory of that hope in the miracle of Nelson Mandela’s inauguration as South Africa’s first black president, and later came back for an international reunion of anti-apartheid activists.Those formative years in the South African movement for freedom helped give me my theology of hope—which I learned means believing in spite of the evidence and watching the evidence change.

This August, I returned to South Africa for a speaking and book tour, and I decided to bring my family to show them the country that had changed my life. I had come originally as a young man, blessed to be thrust into this historic struggle with a heroic generation of South African leaders. This time, I came as an older man, blessed again—by making deep connections with a new generation who are finding their own agenda and mission for helping to build a new South Africa.

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The Party of Pink

Illustration by Ken Davis

WHEN MARK TWAIN supposedly said “reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” he didn’t know he was establishing a tweet for the ages. (He didn’t use Twitter. He was more of an Instagram guy.) It still stands as the best rejoinder to those who insist on seeing things for what they aren’t.

Politically speaking, pundits and legislators alike were guilty of prematurely identifying the cold carcass of the tea party last spring when establishment Republicans defeated their right-wing rivals in several primaries. Then came Eric Cantor who, as a Jew, never really fit the profile of an evangelical Christian, the preferred qualification for tea party membership. But as majority leader of the House, he was powerful and occasionally clear-spoken, two other characteristics not often found in tea party favorites.

Nonetheless, Cantor went down to defeat at the hands of an underfunded college professor whose only apparent advantage was a more-evangelical hair style. But his secret weapon was his intolerance for undocumented workers, a favorite position for tea party Americans whose food is harvested almost exclusively by undocumented workers. But let’s not quibble. People are entitled to their opinions, even if the food on their plates sits in mute repudiation of those beliefs. (Luke said “the stones will cry out,” but I’d be happier if a bowl of vegetables would just stand up and say a few cryptic words before dessert.)

So now Eric Cantor’s political career is over, and he moves on to the pitiable life of a wealthy lobbyist who, through no fault of his own, must replace a deep sense of social responsibility with a couple really nice cars. Better that than the consequences for Cantor’s pollster, who predicted a 34 percent victory for his boss. (“Clean-up on aisle 12.”)

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Choosing Freedom

A United Nation. Image courtesy VectorShots/shutterstock.com.

A United Nation. Image courtesy VectorShots/shutterstock.com.

Listening to several Fourth of July discussions last week, I was struck by how many people think of freedom as the ability to do whatever they want. They think there should be few, if any, restrictions on what they choose to do or what they want to own.    

Pentecost and the Freedom to Be in All the Wrong Places

Sneakers on asphalt road and "Do Not Cross" sign. Image courtesy igor.stevanovic

Sneakers on asphalt road and "Do Not Cross" sign. Image courtesy igor.stevanovic/shutterstock.com

Pentecost celebrates the giving of the Holy Spirit and reminds us that our story isn’t static but dynamic, alive, and unfolding. In the same way that the disciples moved out from Jerusalem after Pentecost, we are to move out of our places of comfort and complacency as we join God in the world he is making.

 

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