Tomorrow is Labor Day here in the U.S. (that’s Labour Day to UK and Commonwealth readers). This responsive prayer is written by my friend, Rev. Ken Sehested, one of the pastors of Circle of Mercy congregation in Asheville, NC. Ken, who for nearly 2 decades was Executive Director of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, wrote this prayer as part of his new book, In the Land of the Living: Prayers Personal and Public. We prayed it responsively in church today.
Creator God, we give thanks this day for work:
for work that sustains; for work that fulfills;
for work which, however tiring, also satisfies
and resonates with Your labor in creation.
As part of our thanks we intercede
for those who have no work,
who have too much or too little work,
who work at jobs that demean or destroy,
work that profits the few
at the expense of the many.
Blessed One, extend your redemptive purpose
in the many and varied places of our work.
In factory or field, in shelterd office
or under open sky, using technical knowledge
or physical strength, working with machines
or with people or with the earth itself.
Together we promise:
To bring the full weight of our intelligence
and strength to our work.
Together we promise:
To make our place of work a place of safety
and respect for all with whom we labor.
Together we refuse:
To engage in work that harms another,
that promotes injustice or violence,
that damages the earth or otherwise
betrays the common good;
or to resign ourselves to economic
arrangements that widen the gap
between rich and poor.
Together we affirm:
The rights of all to work that both
fulfills and sustains; to just wages
and to contentment.
Together we affirm:
That the redeeming and transforming
power of the Gospel, will all its
demands for justice and its promises
of mercy, is as relevant to the workplace
as to the sanctuaries of faith and family.
We make these promises,
we speak these refusals
and we offer these affirmations
as offering to You, O God–
who labors with purpose and
lingers in laughter–in response
to your ever-present grace, as
symbols of our ongoing repentance
and transformation, and in hope
that one day all the world
shall eat and be satisfied.
I wanted to return to theological posts, today. Although outraged by so much around the world, I wanted a break. I wanted to talk about other things. After all, my interests vary widely and I haven’t written on science fiction, detective fiction, family (my eldest daughter graduated from Middle School today!), friends, theology, biblical hermeneutics, moral theory, etc.
But then I made the mistake of checking the internet and finding out that idiots on “Morning Joe” (the conservative morning show on the otherwise liberal MSNBC), including Adam Sorkin of the New York Times made the ABSURD claim today that there are no profitable unionized companies. I am freakin’ FED UP with the constant attacks on organized labor in this country. When the U.S. had its largest middle class, we had a workforce that was 33% unionized. Now that our middle class is evaporating (and was even before the recession), we have only 12% unionized workforce. Even in the midst of the current crisis, unionized companies are saving more jobs and companies than otherwise.
And for the ignorant, here’s a BRIEF list of “profitable unionized companies” in the U.S.–just in case you ever get asked to pontificate on “Morning Joe.” (No wonder Joe Scarborough couldn’t cut it as a Congresscritter from FL–inconvenient facts kept getting in his peabrain way!):
United Parcel Service, global leader in small package shipping. The pilots are members of the Independent Pilots ‘ Association and most of the rest of the workers are members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. (Full disclosure: I am a Teamster and have worked part-time for UPS for 8 years–with fulltime union benefits.)
Kroger grocery stores are unionized and have remained profitable during the recession. (You’d think Joe Scarborough would remember this one, since Kroger is headquartered in FL.)
Southwest Airlines, the pilots are members of SWAPA (Southwest Airlines Pilots Association).
All six (6) major Hollywood studios.
A T & T and Verizon
Costco stores is unionized in some divisions, but not in others.
At least the following railroads: CSX, BNSF, and Norfolk.
Caterpillar (many union disputes, but the earth machinery company still has unions even though it wishes otherwise–and it remains profitable).
General Electric (which owns NBC and MSNBC which pays Scarborough ridiculous amounts of money so he can badmouth the union workers which are paid much less to put his idiotic voice on the air!)
The National Football League, the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League.
Boeing (profitable despite being undermined by John McCain!)
Disney (still profitable in 2008)
Harley-Davidson (which went bankrupt and was going to go out of business until the union, United Steelworkers, took over and now run the company profitably; the United Autoworkers are talking with United Steelworkers so that they can learn how to apply those lessons to Chrysler, in which they will now have a majority stake)
News Corp (Yes, Rupert Murdoch’s mega-corporation which includes the rightwing noise machines, Fox News, The New York Post, Wall Street Journal, etc. is highly unionized.)
Exxon is unionized in its refinery operations
This partial list should help dispel the notion that organized labor is, by itself, a cause of any firm’s unprofitability.
One of the few signs of hope for working people in the U.S. last week was the triumph of the workers at Chicago’s Republic Windows and Doors. For those who didn’t follow the story, let me give a brief summary before noting the arrogant sense of entitlement of our nation’s wealthy elite–an arrogance which apparently has neither limits nor shame. Republic Windows and Doors is one of those places in America that is dwindling: A factory that actually makes things, useful things rather than military hardware or fluff, not part of the ever expanding service industry of low paid drudge work or the financial sector whose fraud keeps impoverishing more and more people globally. The Wall Street Bailout of $700 billion was supposed to help companies like Republic by freeing up the credit markets for payroll loans, credit lines, etc. But Bank of America sat on the money that was supposed to already go to Republic. As a result, Republic had to close its Chicago factory, putting all the workers out of work.
Federal law requires that workers be given six months notice before any plant closing, but the workers of Republic Windows and Doors received only 3 days warning! They got no severance pay or back pay or pay for vacation days not taken, etc.–all in violation of both their union contract AND the law. The workers of Republic decided not to cooperate. They staged an old-fashioned sit-in, occupying the factory in shifts, supported by their union and several other unions, the neighborhood (churches and synagogues and other groups brought meals to workers and marched in their pickets). They targetted not only their bosses at Republic, but Bank of America. Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D-IL), yes, the same jerk who is now indicted for trying to sell Obama’s open senate seat to the highest bidder, among other corruption charges, did the right thing this time: He not only stood with the workers, he told Bank of America that if they didn’t honor the workers’ claims, the state govt. of Illinois would not do ANY more business with them.
Bank of America caved and the workers won a partial victory. They didn’t get their jobs back, and a working factory, but they DID get the back pay, etc. owed to them–which will help them until they (hopefully) can find other jobs in this poor economy. This is the good news. But the rest of the story is beginning to unfold: Bank of America has given at least a partial explanation of why it hesitated to honor the workers’ claims:
Republic’s CEO demanded that Bank of America use money designated for the workers, against both law and morality, be used first to pay the CEO’s car payments on his BMW and his Mercedes-Benz. The arrogance and sense of entitlement is staggering: this rich guy who will be fine without his factory is demanding that money that he OWES to his workers go to pay for his two luxury cars!
Similar remarks have been heard throughout this economic time of troubles: A CEO of one failed finance company saying that he was still owed his multi-million dollar year-end BONUS because if he had not been CEO the company would have done WORSE! The executives of the failed insurance giant AIG used federal bailout money (taxpayer dollars) to fund a luxury resort conference! Citigroup (which owns Citi-Bank) had to receive $10o billion in taxpayer money, but it still felt entitled to use several millions to have its name placed on a sporting stadium and to be a corporate sponsor of the Rose Bowl and Tournament of Roses Parade!
All this is a result of the “Greed is Good” culture fostered by Reaganomics. The actor, Michael Douglass, said the line, “Greed is Good” playing a greedy Wall St. tycoon in the 1980s movie, Wall Street. In interview after interview to this day, he has remarked that he always believed he was playing the villain–but would have young businessfolk come up to him and say how that film inspired them to go into finance! But, according to people like Senators Richard Shelby (R-AL), Bob Corker (R-TN), Jim DeMint (R-SC), Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX), Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and, in a horrible bi-partisan moment, Blanche Lincoln (D-AR)!, it is the labor unions which are the problem! Right.
Hear that sound: It is the deep rumbling of populist economic anger. When it shortly reaches the level of a roar, the arrogant elites of this nation will be in DEEP trouble.
Let me be clear: Most Americans are not closet Communists. They do not resent the wealthy for BEING wealthy, especially if they have earned rather than inherited it (or stolen it by means of corruption). The majority of Americans have no desire for everyone to make the same money. Sarah Palin to the contrary, we are well aware that we have elected Barack Obama as president–an economic centrist and NOT a Lenin or a Ropespierre or a Che Guevera. Most Americans admire those with wealth who do good things with it, such as Bill Gates (If his business practices were better known, he might be less admired), or (especially) Bernard and Audre Rappaport.
The building populist anger (and we in the churches need to be sure this is directed in nonviolent ways) is aimed at the corrupt and those who seem to hate the poor and the middle class, those who object to good wages and benefits for blue-collar workers, but see ANY attempt to bring responsibility to the wealthy as communistic. That anger, that outrage, is long overdue. Anger at injustice has a proper place in the work of love and justice. The anger is dangerous, however, and might erupt in harmful ways. The rich should heed the warning, now, before it is too late.
A great discussion on the SBL site on whether to prefer U.S. or British Ph.D. programs. As for me, I considered a British degree in Christian ethics, but money was a big issue. I did get to do 6 months at Regent’s Park College, Oxford University and loved it.
My “Preparing for Seminary” column (below) was focused on helping those who anticipate going to a theological seminary or divinity school and studying for ministry to be academically prepared for the experience. I didn’t focus on other kinds of preparation, e.g., being a person who has cultivated good habits of prayer and biblical study; having experience as a layperson in visiting the sick or shut-ins, or helping folks with problems; short-term volunteer missions projects; hard work outside the professional classes, especially farm work or or union labor; practice in sharing one’s faith with others in a natural way, etc.–It could be argued that such experiences are as important, if not more so, in preparing for success in ministry–if not in seminary–than the academic preparation I stressed.
But many of the comments on that post, especially the disagreements over the importance of the biblical languages, were more about what should or should not be in a seminary/divinity school curriculum rather than what would be good preparation for the seminary experience as most such programs now exist. I think these disagreements about what should/should not be emphasized in seminary curricula in preparation for pastoral ministry are rooted in disagreements about what a pastor should be. It seems to me that several rival models are currently in vogue–at least in the U.S. scene I know best. (International readers could enlighten me as to the rival models in their contexts. I am always trying to get beyond the “U.S. blinders” I know I have–and currently my opportunities to travel abroad are quite limited.)
- The pastor as counselor or “cure of souls.” Most, maybe all, of these images have biblical precedents, but this model took on much of its current shape in the Middle Ages–with modification since the rise of modern psychology. If this is our dominant image of a pastor, then we want ministerial preparation to emphasize the skills of pastoral counseling, of visiting the sick and shut-ins. We want seminary curricula to have tough requirements in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) and we want ministers to know when they are in over their heads and need to refer counselees to others–depending on our theologies those “others” could be anything from exorcists to psychiatrists.
- The pastor as evangelist-in-chief. Now, far too many churches want their pastors to do ALL the evangelism of the congregation/parish. I am going to assume readers agree with me in rejecting that idea. I am also going to assume, given “Paul’s” advice to “Timothy” (this is how the text portrays things and I am bypassing debates over authorship for the purposes of this post) that most people take for granted that “the work of an evangelist” is part of pastoral identity. But in this model evangelism is, perhaps, THE major function of the pastor and leading/empowering the congregation to be better evangelists as well. Churches with this model often quize potential ministers for statistics on how many lives they have “reached for Jesus.” (Since it is impossible to look into people and see how many have “really been converted,” they use other stats–numbers of baptisms, increased church attendance, numbers of new members added, etc.) If this is the model we adopt, then we want pastors who have been trained to be effective evangelists and effective at leading congregations to be evangelistic.
- The pastor as worship leader. Depending on theological tradition, this model can focus on the pastor as priest/celebrant of the sacraments, or the pastor as “cheerleader” (for lack of a better term) in focusing the congregation’s praise. But regardless of worship “style,” if this is the model, one obviously wants seminary education to focus on liturgical theology and on preparing the pastor to be a worship leader, to celebrate the sacraments/ordinances and to shape the congregation/parish as a worshipping community.
- The pastor as C.E.O. This model is usually adopted by mega-churches and applies to the “SENIOR” pastor of a large staff of ordained and unordained ministers, plus office and support staff. As my college friend “Fish” remarked in an earlier comment, there are business aspects to any church. I have served on finance committees (never my favorite task and my wife, Kate, is so much better–which is why she is in charge of the family finances!!) and I have been involved in drafting (or, later, modifying) articles of incorporation for a congregation. Though a church is a non-profit (or, rather, the profits aren’t the kinds of things that accountants or the Internal Revenue Service can measure), it does have to make ends meet. Ministries need money and buildings need repair, staff must be paid, church school curricula have to be purchased (in most cases), etc. So, one wants ministerial preparation that includes business or accounting courses, courses in management and leadership style, and such matters. But, the “pastor as CEO” model, it seems to me, overemphasizes the similarities of a church to a business–divides the laity from the “professional” staff, and tends to concentrate far too much power into the hands of the Senior Pastor. Power tends to be from the top downward and, at least in the Free Church ecclesiology to which my own Baptist loyalties are part, that is wrong. The laity ARE the church and the leadership are to be servant-leaders. The business and professional aspects of the church’s identity are real, but do not require anything like the CEO model for the church.
- The pastor as social change agent. Few pastors are called to be prophets in the same way as the Hebrew prophets. The minister as prophet usually has to function from the margins of traditional ministry, even as did the biblical prophets function largely from the margins. And there is a corporate prophetic ministry for the church as a whole, apart from an individual charism. But this model sees the pastor leading the congregation in a socially prophetic role–in engaging social injustice and working to correct it. If this is our model, then we want ministerial preparation to emphasize the skills of community organizing as well as public speaking, and even skills in negotiating with people in power.
- The pastor as community leader. A variation of the above model sees the pastor not so much as a community organizer, but as a public intellectual. This model happens especially in smaller communities where, no matter who the elected or corporate figures are, the religious leaders of the community wield informal-but-real power to influence public opinion. Here the pastor is likely to serve on several local committees or even the Chamber of Commerce, or, perhaps, has a column in the editorial section of the local newspaper. If this is our model, we want a ministeral education that emphasizes the ability to articulate core values to wide audiences and, especially if the congregation is of a religious minority (e.g., a Pentecostal church in a heavily Catholic area; a Christian church in a Muslim nation, etc.) the pastor must know how to be the visible presence and “first interface” of the church with the wider culture. But even in contexts where the town/community has a large overlap with the church’s membership, the pastor as community leader is still articulating the faith of the congregation in a more “public” or even “pluralistic” way than in other models.
- The pastor as scholar. The Christian church did not grow from the Jewish temple, but from the synagogue–an institution which developed in the Diaspora, that is where Jews were NOT the majority. In this context, where they were aliens in strange lands, the rabbi was the interpreter of Torah, helping them learn to be faithful and follow the Law in conditions for which the Law was not designed. The rabbi had to be a scholar. So, likewise, from the beginning, Christian pastors have had to be interpreters of Scripture–including, after it was written and collected, the writings we call the New Testament. Since, prior to the eschaton, we are permanently in Exile, ALWAYS aliens in strange lands (and the minute a Christian congregation thinks it is part of a “Christian nation,” it has begun to lose its identity), a major function of the pastor must be in aiding the congregation to know and live out the Story. If this is our model, then we want ministerial preparation to incorporate habits of study and skills of interpretation. I am not saying that every pastor needs to be a brilliant biblical scholar who could be published, e.g., in The Journal of Biblical Literature, or a brilliant theologian who will write the next Church Dogmatics, brilliant philosophers, or even brilliant church historians. I do note that most of the great theologians have spent time as pastors (or missionaries, hospital chaplains, etc.) and that pastors who work at any theological discipline and enable the congregation to be, in their own way, disciple-theologians are a great service to the Church universal.
The difficulty for seminaries and for ministerial students, it seems to me, is that too many churches want pastors who are all of these things, in equal measure, all at once. No one can do it all–which is an argument for plural ministry and empowered laity.
From time to time I, as a seminary graduate, get asked what someone should do, especially in undergraduate studies at university, to prepare for a seminary education. It’s not easy to answer, but I thought I would put a few thoughts down here and invite feedback, especially from other seminary alumni. PLEASE REMEMBER THAT THIS IS ADVICE ON PREPARING FOR SEMINARY. Disagreements over what belongs in a seminary curriculum is another discussion.
These are general guidelines. Every student is different, every seminary or divinity school is different, and denominations have their own individual requirements for ordination, etc. Investigate them thoroughly.
These pieces of advice apply most to:
- Students who feel called into ministry and are seeking the standard ministerial degree, usually the Master of Divinity (M.Div.) in the U.S. context.
- Students who plan on studying in a U.S. seminary or divinity school–things vary elsewhere and this advice may not apply.
With those provisos in mind, here is my advice, such as it is.
- The best preparation for seminary/divinity school is a well-rounded education in the liberal arts. As a great example of this, I give the undergraduate program at the St. John’s Colleges (Annapolis, MD and Santa Fe, NM). This is a highly selective program and admission isn’t easy. There are no majors or minors. All students take the same curriculum which is centered around the Great Books of the Western World. There are 4 years of seminars, four years of language study (2 in Ancient Greek; 2 in modern French), 4 years of math, 3 years of laboratory science, and one year of music. Seminar readings include great works of literature, theology, philosophy, political science, and history. The approach is roughly chronological, beginning with the ancient Greeks in the freshman year and reaching the 21st C. by the senior year. You can see the reading lists here. There are no survey textbooks. One reads the authors of the Great Books themselves. This program is so rigorous in general liberal arts education, that it would prepare someone well for any graduate school, from an engineering degree at M. I. T. to Harvard Law School, to Johns Hopkins Medical School, to almost any seminary or divinity school program. I wish I had known of this program when I was applying to college. I am now trying to use their guidelines to continue reading through the Great Books. For online video introductions to the program, see here.
Not everyone can get into the St. John’s Colleges and it is a very text-based and student directed program. Some places have a similar emphasis on the Great Books in an Honors Program, though usually not as intense as with the St. John’s Colleges. If you attend a college or university with majors and minors, what should you take?
First, you do not need an undergraduate degree in Bible, religion, etc. at a church-related college or university. There may be good reasons to go to a church-related college or university, stressing a Christian worldview in education. But there is nothing particularly helpful in majoring in Bible, theology or religion as an undergraduate. You could find yourself taking many of the same courses at seminary. Also, if you should find that seminary is not for you, such an undergraduate degree is not very marketable. At most, a course in world religions or comparative religions, would be helpful.
However, a strong familiarity with the contents of the Bible is very helpful. Most seminaries or divinity schools expect you already to know the broad outlines of Scripture. If you do not, begin reading the Bible through as many times as possible. Familiarize yourself with the contents from Genesis to Revelation, but don’t worry greatly about deep interpretation.
- English, or Classics. A degree in English with an emphasis on literature will get you used to concentrating on the interpretation of texts and that is very helpful in seminary. Also, one will have plenty or opportunity to see the enormous impact of Christianity on Western literature and to make connections between faith and imagination. A degree in Classics also gets one into interpreting texts, but also has you study ancient Greek and Latin. If one can read ancient Greek, the koine Greek of the New Testament is usually fairly simple. Latin is less helpful in a standard seminary curriculum, but it allows you to read many important theological classics in the original and you will recognize many phrases which have become technical terms in theology. Christian theology emerged from the encounter of the biblical texts with Classic philosophy and a course in classics will help you make those connections easily.
- History. A history major, especially with an emphasis on Western civilization (rather than U.S. history), will be of great help. Historians also have to spend time interpreting texts. Also, many Christians have been raised to study the biblical texts in a devotional manner also with seldom any historical context. Training in historiography prepares you for the historical-critical study of Scripture. “History is the laboratory of ideas,” said the great H. Richard Niebuhr. To think historically is an enormous help to a theological student.
- Philosophy. Philosophy teaches one to think, to ask hard questions and not expect easy answers. A major in philosophy will be very helpful as background to a theological education.
- Other helpful majors include psychology, sociology, or languages. But any major, biology, physics, geology, etc. is fine as long as placed in a context that includes broad exposure to the liberal arts.
What about Hebrew? Most seminary degrees require students to pass koine (New Testament) Greek and biblical Hebrew. Some denominations require this for ordination. Some degree programs allow you to skip this, but don’t take them if you plan on becoming a pastor. Any pastor who cannot read the Bible in the original languages is in sad shape and needs to take remedial steps immediately–and, no, I do not care if she or he is a brilliant preacher, great pastoral counselor, visits the sick, is an excellent evangelist, is great at leading the church to tackle social problems creatively, etc. One of my big educational convictions is that proficiency in NT Greek and Biblical Hebrew should be basic for all pastors.
But seminary courses in these languages, unfortunately, tend to be rather fast-paced. Some students have trouble keeping up, especially in Hebrew since Hebrew is a different kind of language than they have likely studied before. If your undergraduate college offers courses in Hebrew, take them. Audit them if you fear for your GPA. If your undergraduate college or university does not offer such a course, check with a nearby synagogue or Jewish cultural center. They often offer remedial Hebrew courses–and these are often open to the public. If there is nothing like this handy, but a nearby pastor or retired OT prof. will allow you to study with her or him, try that.
If you cannot prepare in this fashion, but you suspect you will have difficulties with Hebrew (or Greek for that matter), take a reduced load in seminary during the times you have those classes. Get study partners and practice daily. Try to attend a Sabbath service at a synagogue to get a feel for the pronunciation of Hebrew. But you may have done all you can to prepare.
If you know prior to seminary that you plan on doing graduate (Ph.D.) work, then you might want to take some courses in French or German, now, especially German. But this is not necessary to prepare for the basic seminary (M.Div.) degree unless you are studying in a French or German speaking country!
It is also useful to have experience outside one’s own country, in a different culture. If you have opportunities to study abroad or to go on mission trips, etc., take them. Why? Because, maybe especially in the USA, one has a tendency to read the Bible through American eyes and to think “our way is the way its always been done back to Jesus and Paul.” Get exposed to other cultures. If you cannot arrange to study abroad for a time, try hanging out with the international students at your college or university and learn all you can about their “life back home.” I was always disturbed in seminary by the numbers of students who “felt called to foreign missions” but knew little about ANY other culture and avoided contact with the international students! They were convinced they had much to teach others, but arrogantly assumed they had nothing to learn. I pray to God they were turned down by mission agencies or, failing that, changed their minds and learned humility!
Take some sciences. Learn the scientific method. Take a course in the history of science and/or the philosophy of science. That should cure you of ridiculous pseudo-scientific warped theologies such as “creation science,” or “intelligent design.” However, unfortunately, most universities teach history of science (if at all) in history departments and philosophy of science (if at all) in philosophy departments. It is, sadly, quite possible to earn magnificent science degrees at major universities without ever knowing the history or philosophy of the disciplines! Church-related colleges often have different problems–seeing science as “the enemy” and wanting to inoculate you against evolution, etc. Neither way is helpful for ministry.
That’s all the advice I have. I await feedback on whether or not it is helpful. Remember that every student and every program is different. These are very broad guidelines.
This is May Day, the international workers’ celebration of Labor (Labour) and its importance. In the U.S., not much is made of May Day because the government in the ’30s feared that Labor was “going Communist” and instituted the fake holiday of “Labor Day” in September. The effect was to cut off the struggles of U.S. Labor from global struggles for economic justice and to weaken Labor in America and make it more vulnerable to the capitalist exploiters.
So, I sing a chorus of “Internationale” and I go to a rally this evening for workers trying to unionize. Solidarity in the struggle, folks.
The Baptist Center for Ethics and other faith groups have been participating in the Wake-Up Wal-mart Campaign to convince the world’s largest retail company to reform its business practices: to start paying workers here and overseas living wages, quit working against labor unions, quit exploiting workers in the developing world, and to work in more ecology-friendly fashion. At the center of the faith-based part of this campaign has been my friend, Rev. Dr. Joe Phelps, Pastor of Highland Baptist Church, Louisville, Kentucky. See his video, here. To support the campaign, click here.
The following op-ed by Joe appeared in The Louisville Courier-Journal.:
Would Jesus Shop at Wal-Mart?
By The Rev. Joe Phelps
Special to The Courier-Journal
I accepted a unique invitation to appear in a 30-second “Wake Up Wal-Mart” commercial. It will appear across the nation on major television networks this Thursday and Friday.
“Wake Up Wal-Mart” (wakeupwalmart.com) is a national campaign that challenges the country’s largest retailer to clean up its act on multiple fronts, particularly in matters that adversely affect its 1.4 million employees.
Why would a minister appear in such an ad campaign?
I accepted the chance to speak to millions of Americans because of my pastoral role of evangelist — one who announces the message of God’s agenda as seen in the life of our Savior, Jesus.
The Bible is full of God’s passion about the livelihood and welfare of workers, their families, and their communities. At the same time, God also expresses grave concern for employers who exploit their workers. For the God of the Bible, words like peace and truth aren’t abstract ideals; they are to be lived out in how we interact with God and each other, not just on Sunday, but every day.
And so my long-standing concerns about Wal-Mart as an employer, a community leader, and a global force prompted me to join those trying to “Wake Up” (the campaign’s name) the retail giant to do the right thing. I want Wal-Mart to honestly review if their profit-making has deteriorated into greed and exploitation.
I also want to “wake up” the American consumer, especially those with Bible values, to the reality that our buying power has real power to effect a lot of people around the world. Everyone wants lower prices, but not at the expense of neighbors who work for Wal-Mart, or people around the world who make their products. Our purchasing choices are the crucial link in granting companies like Wal-Mart our tacit permission and our financial support to continue practices that exploit the young, the vulnerable, and the working poor.
There are two sides to the Wal-Mart debate, of course. Google “Wal-Mart defense” and you’ll find plenty of opinions about how Wal-Mart is good for workers and for our country. Wal-Mart has a major marketing initiative, backed by millions of dollars and a staff of 70, to convince consumers that it is a benevolent corporation. Their arguments remind me of the lawyer reacting to Jesus’ instruction to love your neighbor, “But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, `And who is my neighbor?'”
On the other side is a vast collection of data from workers, consumer watch organizations, and investigations that reveals a pattern of exploiting workers in order to cut costs and hike profits.
Those who care will weigh the arguments on both sides, pray, discern and act.
In the ad I ask, “Would Jesus shop at Wal-Mart?” It’s admittedly a haughty- sounding question, but one that must be asked. I don’t claim to know the answer for everyone. I do, however, think it is a question worth posing.
Some will be offended by the question, or at least by its implication, especially if they draw different conclusions from the evidence. Or if they are staunch supporters of unfettered capitalism. Or if, like me, they’ve shopped at Wal-Mart in the past with no guilt about finding a desired product at a low price — especially if its the only store in town, as is often the case in small towns across America.
Others will be annoyed at the idea that there are connections between the store’s low prices, the effect of their employment practices in America, and the effect on the overtime worker in China who earns $3.45 a day making Wal-Mart products.
Still others will wonder why a minister would worry about Wal-Mart’s business practices instead of sticking to the task of saving souls.
A century old Baptist in my church’s stained glass windows faced a similar challenge. Walter Rauschenbusch concluded that it was hypocritical for the church to try to save the souls of factory workers if it didn’t also support living wages for the workers’ families. For him, the two were intrinsically connected.
For me, the answer to “Would Jesus shop at Wal-Mart?” is: Probably not at the present, not with its current business practices. I believe it is an insult to God to say we believe the Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and then purposely ignore the implications of our shopping choices. What we buy matters to others and to God.
And so in the ad I ask viewers to “search your own heart.” For me, once I know, I have to say no — especially at Christmas, when we recall Mary’s song at the news that she would bear the Savior.
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly.
Your heart may be at peace with shopping at Wal-Mart. Each of us must follow the Spirit’s leading. I’m not qualified to tell you what the Spirit says to you. I can only bear witness, wherever I can, to what the Spirit says to me.
Joe Phelps is Pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.
This campaign is not just about Wal-mart. The giant Arkansas-based company has become so successful financially that other retailers are copying its “business model” of caring nothing for economic and ecological justice as long as prices are low. The questions about whether communities and the planet itself pay huge costs for these low prices are not getting asked by enough people. If we can change Wal-mart, perhaps we can change the entire business model.
Baptist clergy who want to sign onto the pastoral letter asking for Walmart to become a “Golden Rule” company should click here.