Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Workers: A Missing Link in the Theology-Economics Debate

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Workers: A Missing Link in the Theology-Economics Debate

Article excerpt

Theology and economics: two different worlds? That is the question, supremely so in this era of economic globalization. And the way we in the churches deal with it could just possibly make a significant difference.

Right now, as broadly evidenced in the preaching, teaching, and practice of everyday ministry in our churches, the answer, sad to say, is yes. Yes, theology and economics are two different worlds, and not only have we church folk made the assumption with little questioning, so has the society of which we are a part. In contemporary life, as Archbishop Williams stated in his presentation to the Trinity Institute conference, "economic motivations, relationships, conventions, and so on are the fundamental thing and the rest is window-dressing. . . . The language of customer and provider has wormed its way into practically all areas of our social fife, even education and health care."1 But even when we preach about the evils of consumerism and lavish lifestyles - or even decry the enormous and growing gap between rich and poor in our country - we hold back from questioning the economic system itself: that globalizing twenty-first-century capitalist engine that permeates our economic and social fife down to tiie village level.

How do we begin raising the question of "the economy" in a way that is both theologically grounded and involves our churches in "on the ground" solutions? A crucial and often overlooked aspect of this question is to recognize that no economy - from global down to local - can function without workers. Workers of all sorts and conditions: manufacturing workers who create cars and houses and computers; service workers, such as janitors, hotel and restaurant workers, health care personnel, gardeners, drivers, air traffic controllers, retail clerks, office staff, and the like, are the indispensable hands-on sustainers of the economy, wiüioiit whose contribution it could not function. The closer we can get to the actual lives of these workers, to see the world from their perspective, and to understand the issues that confront them, the more we can at least partly see where we need to go, both theologically and practically, in order to address seriously the question of "the economy."

So we start with a question: Of what significance are workers on the job to the whole capitalist system?

The long-reigning assumption in capitalism is that workers are a commodity. The seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes expressed it succinctly: "A man's labor is a commodity exchangeable for benefit as well as any other thing."2 But should we allow this definition to stand unquestioned? Our Baptismal Covenant has a contrasting view. There, we draw upon the deep biblical tradition of human beings as created in God's image, a God who calls us to "strive for peace and justice among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being."3 That is our theological baseline. It should apply to all working people.

To understand this contrast better from a work perspective, I offer three examples of how the churches, together with working people and the community, have effectively attempted to do just that: bring the dignity and respect of a living wage to struggling workers.

Example one: The campaign to persuade the City of Los Angeles to enact a living wage ordinance

Living wage ordinances in our cities generally began to be passed in the mid-1990s in response to the increasingly obvious wage gap between the ever richer top tier and the working poor - a gap now put at almost 400 to 1.

In Los Angeles in early 1996, 1 was part of a small group of activists from the community, organized labor, academia, and the religious community who came together to push the city to pass such an ordinance. Companies receive generous subsithes and tax breaks from the city as enticements to do business there, said the coalition. In return, their wage policies must substantially improve the wages and benefits of the workers they employ. …

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