By Miguel De La Torre
Even before the economy crashed we were using oxymoronic terms like “a living wage” or “the working poor.” Shouldn’t all wages sustain a life? Should those who work remain poor?
Somehow we have moved away from the biblical principle that not paying a living wage is stealing, for we steal from our employees when we extract a full week of labor and refuse to compensate them with the basic necessities to live a full week.
Full-time workers who are paid the legal minimum hourly wage still fall thousands of dollars below the poverty line, thus proving that in this country, hard work can no longer lift the poor from poverty.
Jesus teaches us that the employer has certain responsibilities toward the laborer. Take the biblical parable in Matthew 20:1-16.
One early morning a vineyard owner set out to hire laborers. He found willing workers, negotiated a fair day’s wages (a denarius) and sent them to his fields. Several hours later, he employed additional workers and also sent them to his fields. This process was again repeated at noon, and in the mid and late afternoon. At the close of the day, the vineyard owner first paid those who were hired last and only worked a few hours, using the wage scale offered to those first hired. Some worked all day, some just a few hours, yet everyone got the same amount of money.
Reading this parable from a position of middle-class privilege leads to a spiritual interpretation that reduces the meaning of the parable to symbolism. The denarius signifies grace, which all receive equally regardless as to when they come to the Lord.
Jesus, however, preached this message to the poor of his time, fully understanding that poverty prevented those who were created in the image of God from participating in the abundant life he came to give.
A literal reading of this text reveals that Jesus attempted to teach us economic justice.
These workers had no control over when they would be hired to work. Regardless of when they were chosen, they needed a denarius to meet their basic needs: food, shelter and clothing.
To be chosen to work for only half a day and to be paid half a denarius was insufficient. Half a denarius meant that several family members would not eat that day. Only an uncaring and unmerciful heart will declare it just that these laborers leave without being able to meet their basic needs.
The biblical teaching is that those who are economically privileged, like the vineyard owner, are responsible for those who are not, while laborers are responsible to provide a full day of work unless prohibited by circumstances beyond their control.
Jesus defines justice as ensuring that each worker obtains a living wage, regardless of the hours worked, so that all can share in the abundant life.
Contrary to U.S. capitalist paradigms, it did not matter how many hours a laborer worked. What mattered was that at the end of the day, she or he took home a living wage so that the entire family could survive for another day.
When we consider that Jesus spoke more about money and its use then he did about grace, salvation, heaven or any other topic, we are left asking why churches ignore or avoid dealing with unjust economic arrangements. To continue ignoring economic injustice, or worse justifying it in spiritual terms, threatens our very democracy.
The collapse of the middle class can usher in the collapse of our democratic ideals as the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few imposes their will (through, among other ways available to them, political action committees).
While some of my colleagues of the cloth, from the safety of middle-class privilege, provide some excellent textbook analyses that justify the maintenance of our present economic system, the fact remains that such classroom theories simply collapse when applied to the economic realities of the disenfranchised.
While such pundits may see the cause of poverty to be laziness or buying too much tobacco and alcohol products, the poor realize they are trapped in an economic structure designed to keep them impoverished.
For our economy to work at top efficiency, an “acceptable” unemployment rate is required. Corporate America needs a reserve army of under-skilled and under-educated laborers to keep wages depressed. Not surprisingly, these under-skilled and under-educated laborers are usually people of color.
Full national employment means companies are paying too much to attract and retain employees, which negatively affects their profits. Our economic system is designed to prevent segments of our population from keeping part of God’s Third Commandment, “Six days you shall labor.”
During the ’80s and ’90s, the United States experienced the greatest growth in wage inequality among Western nations, contributing to the smallest (proportionately) middle class among 17 industrial countries. This wage inequality means that the richest nation in the world has the highest percentage among other industrial nations of its residents living in poverty, of which 14.5 million are children. Among all industrial nations, the U.S., at 14.8 percent, has the largest rate of child poverty!
How can this be? During the booming economy (1990 to 1995) when most corporations reported profit increases of up to 50 percent, the average CEO’s pay rose from $1.9 million to $3.2 million, while the average worker, during that same time period, experienced a pay drop from $22,976 to $22,838.
Yet as the doomed middle class continues their downward spiral, do they look toward the economically privileged segments of our society as the cause of the economic plight? No, because they blame downward.
Job loss is attributed to scapegoating (i.e., affirmative action and undocumented immigrants stealing “our” jobs are the culprits du jour) who are offered up as sacrifices to the gods of capitalism, redeeming the privileged of their sin of hoarding.
No wonder the words of the prophet Jeremiah are ignored by “Christian” capitalists today, “Woe to the one who builds their palace by unrighteousness, their upper rooms by injustice, making their compatriots work for nothing, not paying them for their labor.”
To make matters worse, we have moved away from any resemblance of true capitalism as this present economic crises continues the strategy of socializing losses while privatizing profits. The sight of corporate leaders of the automotive industries sitting before Congress asking for a bailout best demonstrates this point.
Their bailout, through the use of taxpayers’ funds, spreads corporate losses among all of us. Yet to suggest that any profits they might eventually make also be spread among the taxpayers would raise accusations of communism. Why is socialism acceptable when we talk about bailouts but not profits?
It is inconceivable for me to understand how any minister who reads the biblical text, specifically the message of the prophets to assist society’s most vulnerable members (the widow, the orphan, the alien), can choose to make a preferential option for the rich by accepting another’s suffering as necessary for the general good. But I must be patient. For you see, I too once fused and confused fancy abstract economic theories with religiosity to justify my own privilege.
For 13 years I ran a real-estate company of 100 agents. I founded it when I was 19. I paid the minimum wage to my seven-year secretary while company earnings soared to six figures.
I shook my head in disbelief when she used her 18-percent-interest-rate credit card to pay for her son’s medical bills (I refused to provide health care).
Supply and demand justified my stealing of her labor, based on the fact that desperate and plentiful replacements gratefully sought the chance to catch scraps from my bountiful table.
May the Lord forgive the sins of my youth, for even though I was a deacon at my Baptist church, it wasn’t until I made a preferential option to be in solidarity with the poor that I found my own salvation. My penitence is to fight for economic justice for those who lack voice.
Please join me in the call for a living wage, even in these difficult economic times, so that the words of Jesus could be fulfilled, “The worker is worth their keep (Mt 10:10).”