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Three major groups comprise the current American labor profile: the secure, the working poor and the unemployed.

All three levels have been with us for a century and a half. The Gini Index reports income inequality is at its highest in 50 years.

Capitalism has created enormous wealth, but society has only partially committed to achieving distributive justice.

Labor defines the lives of millions who are paid wages for their efforts. Wages pay for necessities – food, shelter, clothing, education, health/disability insurance and retirement.

Money is essential. Economics is the foundation for life. Our jobs occupy more of our time and energy than anything we do; they sustain physical life.

For the fortunate, jobs provide dignity of independence, a sense of achievement and a source of friendship. For the working poor holding two or three jobs, labor is a burden.

Minimum wage is not a living wage. Unemployment breeds despair. Work is essential to human well-being.

The economics of the modern age have been defined by the Industrial Revolution, which applied newly invented machines and newly harnessed energy, especially electricity, to manufacture goods on a never-before-seen scale.

The machines required laborers who moved to cities in increasing numbers.

This revolution advanced in Britain and the U.S. during the 19th century (see Alan Greenspan and Adrian Wooldridge, Capitalism in America, Penguin Books, 2018).

Capitalism flourished. Owners organized businesses and grew enormously wealthy. But laborers traded the power of their muscles and brains for meager wages.

At a disadvantage, with no power to bargain, workers took whatever wage was offered but struggled to support families, living in unhealthy tenements, working 60 to 70 hours per week without insurance.

Responses came from the workers themselves, government, novelists and churches. In the 1880s, the U.S. government did not intervene in economics.

Laborers formed unions and threatened or engaged in strikes in order to win benefits. Novelists like Charles Dickens and Upton Sinclair stirred consciences.

The political mood changed by the 1900s, and inspired by Progressivism, government intervened to regulate monopolies, reduce working hours, require safety measures and end child labor.

How did the churches respond to robust capitalism?

Many ministers supported the line of argument labeled by Andrew Carnegie as “The Gospel of Wealth.” Carnegie admonished people to earn as much as possible and then donate.

Others took a new approach called “Social Christianity” or “Social Gospel,” arguing the current economic system was unfair and should be changed.

Jesus’ concept of the Kingdom of God called for redemption of society, not just individual salvation.

F.D. Maurice (1805-1872) challenged capitalism in England, declared human beings were created for cooperation (the Christian worldview) rather than for competition (the economic worldview).

Washington Gladden (1836-1918), a prolific American journalist-minister, reminded readers of the Golden Rule and admonished practicing love of others as much as love of self.

Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) was a third major voice to address the church and the economy.

As a young minister in New York City, he knew firsthand the suffering of laborers. With friends he published a journal that addressed labor problems. As a professor, he wrote books that awakened church leaders to economic problems.

Social gospelers provided convincing analyses. However, they had no power to create just distribution of goods. But they did exercise indirect power of persuasion by appealing to conscience and biblical precedents.

In Prayers of the Social Awakening, Rauschenbusch interceded for common people struggling in ordinary vocations.

In Rauschenbusch’s prayers, Christian empathy is abundant, as seen in the following quotations of prayers pertaining to labor.

  • For children – “Suffer not their little bodies to be utterly sapped … Grant all employers of labor stout hearts to refuse enrichment at such a price. … save us from killing the sweetness of young life by the greed of gain.”
  • For women who toil – “God, we pray thee for our sisters …. Save them from the terrors of utter want.”
  • For workingmen – “God … we pray thee for our brothers, the industrial workers of the nation … Grant the organizations of labor quiet patience and prudence in all disputes and fairness to see the other side.”
  • For employers – “We invoke thy grace and wisdom, O Lord, upon all men of good will who employ and control the labor of men. … Since they hold power over the bread, the safety, and the hopes of the workers, may they wield their powers justly and with love.”
  • For public officers – “We pray thee for all who hold public office and power, for the life, the welfare, and the nurture of the people are in their hands to make or to mar.”
  • For writers and newspaper men – “… whose calling it is to gather and winnow the facts for informing the people … inspire honest work. … Cause them to realize that they have a public function in the commonwealth, and that their country may be saved by their courage or undone by their cowardice and silence.”
  • For the idle – Here Rauschenbusch prays for those who “have no place to labor and are turned away in humiliation and despair.”

Social gospelers voiced the hope that Americans would not sacrifice people for material goods and that we would strive for the goals of brotherhood and cooperation.

Churches have increased charitable work in this time of increased need, triggered by a global pandemic, but are there additional paths to a more comprehensive distributive justice?

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week for Labor Day. The previous article in the series is:

Don’t Let Anxiety Fatigue Claim the Victory | Elizabeth Denham Thompson

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