Faith and Social Justice

Yongho Kim
March 11, 2004

Anthropology Internship: Faith and Social Justice
Prof. Sonia Patten

Finding Common Grounds: Religious Morality as a Catalyst for Economic Justice

What Faith Groups Say About “The Right to Organize”, by the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice (NICWJ), brings together the strongest arguments made in alliance with the workers’ rights for a fair wage and organizing by the Roman Catholic Church, various Protestant denominations, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Throughout the texts runs the theme of religious morality as a reason for seeking economic justice in the world.

The Roman Catholic Church has been consistently stating its posture since 1965 (and possibly earlier?). The Second Vatican Council affirmed that “human persons.. taking part freely in the activity of these unions without risk of reprisal” (Pastoral Constitution on the Church, in NICWJ 1). In the paradigm-setting Economic Justice for All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops affirms “human dignity comes from God” (16) Such dignity consists of the right to work (25), to fair wages, and decent living standards (24). The National Conference calls upon Catholics to bring together the way what they believe is applied in the community and in the marketplace (19) and that such view should be based in a Christian view of the role the poor play in society – economic decisions should be based in terms of what they do for, to, and “what they enable the poor to do for themselves” (27).

In a 1989 book focused on economic reform and based on Catholic Social thought, Daly and Cobb observe that a purely capitalistic economic system has inherent contradictions with Catholic values: the division of labor denies autonomous personality in the worker, denying community to her or him. (For the Common Good, 16). And this position is not new: Pope John Paul II’s 1981 encyclical On Human Work affirms that “[unions].. are an indispensable element of social life”. (NICWJ 1)

Jewish organizations have a similar say: the Preamble to the Workplace Fairness (1993) by the Central Conference of American Rabbis notes that “permanent replacement of striking workers … destroys the dignity of working people” (NICWJ 2). National economic justice movements involving Drawing parallels from the Pentateuch, Jewish religious organizations are strong in pointing out that all constituents of society are responsible for economic injustice, and not just those directly involved. (Rabbi Jack Moline, “Labor on the Bimah”, Labor on the Bimah, ed. by NICWJ) Economic injustice not only has wide community implications, but also multivocalic resonances in the reading of Jewish religious texts; Rabbi Mordechai Liebling describes the lack of living wages in terms of “oppressing a neighbor, stealing, and oppressing the poor” besides the direct violation of not paying wages promptly, as prescribed in Deuteronomy. (“The Commandment for a Living Wage”, Labor on the Bimah).

Protestant Faith Groups is a bit receptive to the issue, but supports organizing and unionism in various resolutions (American Baptist Churches Resolution, 1981; Principles of Vocation and Work, General Assembly PCUSA, 1995; Resolution of the ELCA Church-wide Assembly, 1991; Collective Bargaining, Social Principles of the United Methodist Church).

Interfaith Economic Justice organizations have long recognized these shared views on the rights of workers for fair wages and standards of living. The NICWJ observes this and then calls upon the various religious communities to “educate, organize and mobilize… [to] improve wages, benefits, and working conditions for workers, especially, low-wage workers”. (NICWJ, 2). In a more recent encounter, the Twin Cities Religion and Labor Network (TCRLN) called religious organizations to support the ATU Local 1005 bus drivers’ strike by appealing to the justice sought by Isaiah in times of persecution (Living Wage Jobs and Livable Communities, TCRLN) while also requesting creative ways to provide alternative transportation for community and congregation members. Religious morality that served in the ancient times as catalyst for social and economic justice is still alive and well today.