Time for Lent: Economic Justice II


(system) #1

In Part 1 we established that the Jewish prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus and the early church were concerned about the economic life of the community.[1] In light of Ellen White’s statement that economic injustice would be an on-going scourge, Wednesday’s task was to begin listening to the cry of the oppressed.

We begin Part 2 by focusing on this cry and choosing an attitude that will guide our response. When explaining the rationale behind the call to justice in Exodus 22:21-23, Aryeh Cohen, a professor of rabbinic literature, compares God’s (Exodus 2:23-25) and Pharaoh’s (Exodus 5:15-18) responses to the Israelite’s cry of oppression in Egypt. Cohen says to the Jews:

You were in Egypt. You know that there are two ways to react to the cry of the oppressed. You can react like God and hear the cry and bring about redemption, or you can react like Pharaoh and ignore the cry and bring God’s wrath upon yourself. Exodus 22:20-23 puts the choice of justice in its starkest form—you can choose to imitate God or to imitate Pharaoh.[2]

This decision is ours as we look at today’s economic justice issue—workers’ rights. Discussing this topic is difficult given the best conditions and is even more challenging at a time when the economy has faltered and many readers are unemployed.[3] However, it just may be that God’s wisdom regarding economic justice is even more critically important now than ever.

“Workers’ rights” is an expansive topic, so I’m narrowing the discussion to wages of those at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, both in the U.S. and abroad. What are fair wages? What is a living wage? Who decides? I hold two perspectives in tension. First, I have taken enough economics courses to gain some degree of trust in the market forces of supply and demand to determine various economic variables such as wages, prices, and production. At the same time, experience has shown that the invisible hand of the market can easily oppress. This is because at least one factor is missing from the supply and demand equation: power.

An example of the role of power can be seen in Congress. Senators and Representatives regularly vote themselves raises. This is not because wages need to increase in order to induce more people to run for office. There is no supply shortage of politicians. Yet leaders raise their pay because they have the power to do so. Because power is not always this obvious, it seems wise for us to deliberately consider latent power dynamics when analyzing the market forces of supply and demand.[4]

You and I may appreciate our “free” market context, but as Christians we understand the difference between maximizing profit (the market’s goal) and maintaining justice (the right use of power resulting in shalom for all members of society). We understand that because some stakeholders (e.g., laborers and even the environment) often lack voice and power, we do not blindly presume that the most obvious consumption options presented to us by marketing and production managers represent all of the choices required for economic justice.

I believe we need to acknowledge that our economy and our standard of living have been built on the backs of those at the margins, just as other empires before us have done. In our quest for ever cheaper products, we have given certain desperate and powerless workers subsistence wages while those arranging the system have grown rich. The market may excuse the widening gap between the rich and poor, but we saw in Part 1 that God isn’t buying it.[5]

Since paralysis in guilt is not an adequate response, what tangible actions can we take? First, we can accept the grace God gives us despite how the unintended consequences of our actions have hurt others. Second, we can look for ways to offer this grace and freedom and hope to others through our economic decisions. This is today’s assignment. We cast a single vote for a president once every four years, but we vote for tomorrow’s world with every dollar spent today. Let us learn to vote well. For example, we can:

  • Join our local co-op and encourage management to pay vendor laborers what we believe is a Living Wage. We can demand that our prices reflect a just exchange.
  • Search for Fair Trade merchandise. We can learn what is available and where to purchase it.[6]
  • Learn the True Cost or Full Cost of our most commonly purchased products.[7]
  • Research common (and uncommon) brands and learn which ones are socially responsible and environmentally friendly.[8]
  • Make loans to entrepreneurs in developing countries through Kiva.[9]

***** [1] Ash Barker looks at the nine Hebrew words for oppression on pages 33-35 of Make Poverty Personal: Taking the Poor as Seriously as the Bible Does (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2009).

[2] Or N. Rose, Jo Ellen Green Kaiser, and Margie Klein, eds., Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice (Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2009), 145.

[3] My wife and I were once collectively unemployed for some 15 months, so I have at least some measure of empathy for those currently out of work.

[4] Two other examples of power are labor unions (unions do not change the medium- or long-term supply of labor, but they do increase worker power) and the military (Major General Smedley Butler, USMC, recognized this is 1933—speech excerpt). Lobbying could arguably be included as well.

[5] The CEO-to-worker wage ratio in the U.S. in 1980 was 42. In 2008 it was 319 (http://www.aflcio.org/corporatewatch/paywatch/pay/). This report analyzes the numbers differently -- http://www.stateofworkingamerica.org/swa08-exec_pay.pdf -- and includes an inter-country comparison. Also, see a longitudinal chart that shows the ratio of CEO:worker pay at http://www.epi.org/economic_snapshots/entry/webfeatures_snapshots_20060621/. Compare this trend with the real purchasing power of minimum wage at http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0774473.html. As with all statistics, these numbers are open to discussion, and there are multiple methods of looking at income levels, for example tax brackets. One may say that the economic tide raises all boats, but it seems to me that this effect is less than satisfactory. When roughly a billion people live on 1 dollar a day and more than another billion live on 2 dollars a day, this analogy doesn’t seem to hold water. I doubt that this phrase means much to the 25,000 to 30,000 children who die every day from poverty-related causes (http://www.globalissues.org/article/715/today-over-25000-children-died-a... & http://www.doh.gov.za/docs/news/2003/nz0708.html).

[6] Consult http://www.transfairusa.org/content/WhereToBuy/. Consider buying gifts for others from 10,000 Villages or go all out at ADRA or World Vision.

[7] Learn more at Utne or Adbusters.

[8] Possible websites to start the search include the National Green Pages, Corporate Critic (UK), Ethical Consumer (UK) and Get Ethical.

[9] For additional ideas, see The Revolution (Zydek, 2006, pp. 51-66), Zealous Love (Yankoski & Yankoski, 2009, pp. 207-234), Everybody Wants to Change the World (Campolo & Aeschliman, 2006, pp. 11-32), and How to Make the World a Better Place (Hollender & Catling, 1995, pp. 203-248).


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2233