I watched recently as a team of workers at a fast-food store coordinated their efforts to create my meal just as ordered.
They worked intensely and quickly, standing above hot and dangerous stoves as they’d been doing all afternoon long. It was fascinating, really, to watch the choreography of food production.
I chatted with the cashier and admired their teamwork. His smile seemed strained as he handed me my food and change.
The food was fine, but it was hard to swallow. For the realization had struck me that these hard, faithful workers were being paid something less than a living wage.
No one was forcing them to work there, of course. They were free to quit any time they wanted. But where else would they go? And how might they equip themselves for a better job while the landlord clamored for this month’s rent?
I’m not an economist. Nor am I a sociologist. I am a human concerned about the lives of other humans whose children are just as precious as my own, whose cars fill up at the same expensive gas pumps as mine and break down more frequently than mine, humans whose dignity is surely damaged when they work all week long with overtime and barely take home enough to squeak by and who still must grovel at a charitable agency for their children to have Christmas gifts.
I recently heard a national religious leader argue that the primary work of the church is not about speaking to justice issues of our day, but rather about “saving souls,” to get people’s heavenward direction assured.
Only then should attention to social justice be tolerated, he said.
While I appreciate this leader’s concern with the next-world future of others, his priorities have skewed the Bible’s understanding of words like salvation, deliverance and redemption. They also ignore our sacred stories and moral mandate.
The result is a church that has dropped the mantle of social justice in favor of a religion of future rewards.
And we wonder why young people are leaving the church in droves.
And is it any wonder that the church is largely missing this present moment?
The church should have been prepared to join the charge of the Occupy movement, the group that has picked up the mantle of social justice dropped by a large portion of the church, offering up our stories intended to shape us as a people.
Like the story of Pharaoh, symbol of the monopoly of wealth held by the few, and what happens when his fear of scarcity leads him to take the Israelites as slaves.
Pharaoh didn’t wake up one day and decide it would be entertaining to enslave the people.
Rather, Pharaoh monopolized the food as a way to assuage his fears of not having enough. The people needed food too, of course, so he gave them food in exchange for their work.
When their work didn’t produce a real living wage, they found themselves bartering away their land to Pharaoh. Then their cattle. Then their freedom. When the strong constantly exert power over the weak, eventually the system becomes sick. Slavery is human sickness.
The fast-food workers who prepared my meal aren’t slaves. No one whips or chains them. And yet they find themselves enslaved in a system from which they cannot escape and can only barely live.
They have no other legal options but to continue working for a system designed to minimize their work hours in order to increase company profits.
The living-wage jobs of the past disappeared, replaced by machines or by the transfer of jobs to other nations with cheaper work forces.
It’s not so mysterious, really. Like Pharaoh, the corporate deciders were merely making the reasonable decisions in order to maximize profits and secure their future.
Can you blame them? That’s their job – to make a profit. The jobs disappeared but the money didn’t disappear. It’s in the storehouses of the pharaohs of our day.
But what happens when the relationship between employer and employee is so vastly skewed that the employees have no power at all – no ability to move, grow or gain much beyond a basic subsistence?
What happens when corporations, like Pharaoh, control every legal and political option? What happens when systemic greed is legalized in favor of the few while quietly destroying the common good?
Does not a new form of slavery emerge?
No corporate head woke up one day and decided it would be devious fun to turn employees into slaves.
But with unchecked power, they were free to make decisions to maximize profits despite its effect on the common good.
Deciders kept the shareholders in mind, but not the faithful employees who actually did the literal work that produced the wealth.
The result is that low-end wages no longer meet the cost of living in our world today. If you doubt this, try living for a sustained period of time on the wages of a fast-food worker.
The response to slavery in the biblical story was divine intervention.
“Let my people go,” says Moses, but since he stars in so many stained-glass windows, I fear we miss the radical reordering of the social structure behind his demand.
The response of today’s Occupy movement may seem less divine, at least from our close-up point of view.
But I wonder if, from a distance, say from heaven, the demands for justice don’t look a lot like those old, old stories.
A minister in Louisville, Kentucky, for 21 years as pastor of Highland Baptist Church, Phelps is now Justice Coordinator for Earth and Spirit Center. He leads, along with Kevin Cosby, EmpowerWest, a black-white clergy coalition calling for recognition, repentance, and repair of injustices to black Louisvillians.