Liberal religion and unions

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2013 Daniel Harper.


The first reading comes from a booklet titled “Final Plans for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” prepared for the August 28, 1963, march:

Why We March

We march to redress old grievances and to help resolve an American crisis.

That crisis is born of the twin evils of racism and economic deprivation. They rob all people, Negro and white, of dignity, self-respect, and freedom. They impose a special burden on the Negro, who is denied the right to vote, economically exploited, refused access to public accommodations, subjected to inferior education, and relegated to substandard ghetto housing.

Discrimination in education and apprenticeship training renders Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and other minorities helpless in our mechanized, industrial society. Lacking specialized training, they are the first victims of racism. Thus the rate of Negro unemployment is nearly three times that or whites.

Their livelihoods destroyed, the Negro unemployed are thrown into the streets, driven to despair, to hatred, to crime, to violence. All America is robbed of their potential contribution. …

The Southern Democrats came to power by disenfranchising the Negro. They know that as long as black workers are voteless, exploited, and underpaid, the fight of the white workers for decent wages and working conditions will fail. They know that semi-slavery for one means semi-slavery for all.

[The second reading was a copyright-protected reading by Martin Luther King, Jr.]

Sermon — “Liberal Religion and Unions”

Today is the day before Labor Day, and Labor Day is the holiday on which we celebrate the contributions that working people, trade unions, and labor unions have made to the United States. So this morning, I thought we should talk about the relationship between labor unions and liberal religion.

Organized religion in general has had a strained relationship with organized labor. Some people in organized labor have felt that organized religion keeps people from addressing the unfairness they face in day-to-day working life by offering hopes of heaven in a life after death. But our liberal religion, Unitarian Universalism, teaches that we must address the problems facing us in our lives here and now, not waiting for some heaven in a life to come. Yet even so, we have tended to spend less time on the problems of working life than on other problems like racism, sexism, looming environmental disaster, and so on. What I propose to do is to talk about why we should be spending just as much of our time and effort on labor issues as we spend on our preferred issues.

And I’m going to start by reading you a story that comes from the Western religious heritage, more specifically from the Christian tradition, the 65th chapter of the Gospel According to Thomas. This is supposed to be a story that Jesus told:

“A […] [person] owned a vineyard. He gave it to some farmers so that they would work it (and) he might receive its fruit from them. He sent his servant so that the farmers might give him the fruit of the vineyard. They seized his servant, beat him, (and) almost killed him. The servant went (back and) told his master. His master said: ‘Perhaps (they) did not recognize (him).’ He sent another servant, (and) the farmers beat that other one as well. Then the master sent his son (and) said: ‘Perhaps they will show respect for my son.’ (But) those farmers, since they knew that he was the heir of the vineyard, seized him (and) killed him. Whoever has ears should hear.” (1)

What a strange and controversial story, like many of the stories told by that Jewish teacher we know as Jesus of Nazareth!

It is a controversial story because later Christians interpreted this story as an allegory. After Jesus had been executed by the Roman Empire, these later Christians remembered this story he had told, and they interpreted it to mean Jesus was foretelling his own death. They turned the story into an allegory, where the person who owns the vineyard is God, and the vineyard itself is Israel. God sends prophets to Israel, prophets who are treated badly; then God sends Jesus (whom Christians think of as God’s son); and the people of Israel kill God’s son. Some later Christians even interpreted this story to mean that Jesus’s fellow Jews executed him; which is a silly and faulty interpretation of what actually happened, since it was the Roman Empire which was responsible for executing Jesus. Because of this silly and faulty interpretation, this story has become controversial.

But let’s ignore that silly old interpretation of the story. Let’s take this story at face value. What happens in the story? Some person owns a vineyard; he is obviously an absentee landowner, since he must send someone else to see what’s going on in the vineyard. This absentee landowner finds some farm workers to farm his land for him. Then he sends servants and his son to get his rent from the workers. But the farm workers are so angry at the absentee landowner that they beat his servants, and kill his son.

Biblical scholar Dominic Crossan suggests that this is a “deliberately shocking story of successful murder.” (2) The story causes us to ask: Why would farm workers resort to murder? What would make them so angry? And here we stumble across an interesting problem. The text of the Gospel of Thomas comes from a manuscript that is some sixteen hundred years old, discovered in the Egyptian desert in 1945,. In places, this old manuscript is damaged. I said that a person owned the vineyard, but there is an actual literal hole in the manuscript just before the word “person”; the missing word might “kind,” making this a “kind person,” or it might be a word for “usurious,” which would make this person one of those absentee landowners that were hated by the farmworkers of that time and place. (3) It is not too much of a stretch to say these landowners resembled the white landowners who had black sharecroppers working the land in the Southern states following the Civil War.

If we assume that the landowner is keeping the farm workers in a sort of semi-slavery, then we can understand why the farmworkers might want to murder the landowner’s son. The usurious landowner was charging the farm workers injurious rents, so they were unable to make a decent living from their work. In Jewish law and custom, such practices were discouraged and even forbidden. Indeed, in Jewish custom, the true owner of the land was God; no human being could own the land. This helps us to understand why the farm workers would beat the slaves, and murder the son; while the murder is deliberately shocking, it helps us see that the farm workers believed the landowner was trying to take some of God’s power and authority to himself.

This is an important point, and I’d like to take a moment to talk a little bit about this Jewish understanding of the land. In the Torah, in the book of Exodus, that book that tells us about freedom and escaping from tyranny, God says to Moses:

“For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard. Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your homeborn slave and the resident alien may be refreshed.” (4)

Because humans do not own the land, God tells them, humans cannot exploit the land to draw from it every last bit of profit. The land must be allowed to rest. Not only that, but humans cannot exploit other humans to draw from them every last bit of profit. Workers, too, must be allowed to rest, and the poor must be allowed to have whatever the land offers up — or really, whatever God offers up — on this seventh year, this sabbatical year.

Elsewhere in the Torah, we learn that God requires other things of humans during the sabbatical year. In another book of the Torah, the book of Deuteronomy, God tells humans that during the sabbatical year, all slaves must be set free; no one shall be tight-fisted towards persons in need; and, God admonishes humans, in the other six years, humans had better be nice to one another in anticipation of the sabbatical year, lest they risk God’s wrath. (5)

Not only are we humans to celebrate a sabbath day every seven years, and a sabbatical year every seven years, but God says humans should observe a Jubilee Year every seven-times-seven years. In the book of Leviticus, God tells humans: “You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you…” This is a sort of super-sabbatical year, during which humans shall return to the land which their families traditionally lived on, no matter who ostensibly owns it now. (6)

Given this background, we are less surprised that the farm workers were angry at the absentee landowner. They felt they were being cheated; they felt the landowner was denying them their God-given rights; they felt the landowner was infringing on God’s pre-eminent ownership of the land.

This, by logical association, brings us to the historic March on Washington, which was held fifty years ago, on August 28, 1963. African Americans, particularly in the Southern states, were being kept in a state of semi-slavery by unjust laws set up by white European Americans. The African Americans who organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom were religious people, often religious liberals — so, for example, Martin Luther King, Jr., was a liberal Baptist minister, and Bayard Rustin was a Quaker — and they knew what the Bible said about freedom, and fairness. They knew that the Bible explicitly states that slaves and semi-slaves must be set free, that the land belongs to God and not to any humans, that humans are commanded by God to be fair and just to one another.

More than that, their religion helped them to understand how all humans are interconnected. We heard in the first reading this morning the way the organizers of the March on Washington analyzed the economic situation of their time. They believed that the plight of white workers and minority workers is tied together; that semi-slavery for minority workers meant semi-slavery for white workers, too. Their economic analysis comes straight out of the standards of justice and freedom that Christians inherited from the Jewish tradition, by way of the Jewish teacher, Jesus of Nazareth.

This opinion was held by many European American religious liberals fifty years ago, including by many Unitarian Universalists. If you know your Unitarian Universalist history, you know that although we are a tiny and predominantly white denomination, we provided disproportionate support for the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960s. In fact, our Palo Alto Unitarian Universalist congregation sent its senior minister, Dan Lion, to the Mississippi Summer Project in 1964, and to the march on Selma in 1965.

Yet while we Unitarian Universalists were great supporters of the Civil Rights movement, somewhere along the way we lost sight of the fact that the Civil Rights movements was about jobs as much as it was about ending segregation. We Unitarian Universalists have never been particularly strong supporters of any kind of labor movement. Historically, many Unitarians were mill owners and factory owners and business owners, and they saw themselves as being in direct opposition to labor movements. Historically, many Universalists worked in the skilled trades or middle class jobs, and so were not particularly sympathetic to more broadly-based labor movements.

And from a theological point of view, we Unitarian Universalists have been strong individualists. We like to think that we live life as individuals, on our own terms. This goes back at least as far as Ralph Waldo Emerson — who started his career as a Unitarian minister — and his essay “Self Reliance.” We glory in the theological ideal of self reliance; and this, I suspect, is why so many of us are atheists today, because we have little interest in a theological idea that affirms we humans are dependent on another being greater and more powerful than ourselves. Certainly, many of us have felt that we should rely on our own efforts, not on labor unions.

For these and many other reasons, we Unitarian Universalists have not been very sympathetic to labor movements. And so, when we talk about the 1963 March on Washington, we readily talk about how it was a march for racial freedom and equality, but we pass over the fact that it was just as much a march for jobs and labor rights.

I would like to suggest to you that we need to rethink our attitude towards labor movements. And I would like to suggest that the story I told at the beginning of this sermon gives us a theological reason to rethink our attitudes.

What we learn from that story is that ancient Jews did not believe in exploiting the land to the utmost; they believed in letting the land rest every seventh year. And for the same reason, those ancient Jews believed that one human should not exploit other humans.

In our own theological language, we would say that all human beings, and all other beings, are bound together in an interdependent web of existence. We got the term “interdependent web of existence” from the theology of Bernard Loomer, who was a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley. Loomer said that when Jesus talked about the kingdom of heaven, what he really meant (in our language) was the interconnected web of life; he was making the point that we are all interconnected. (7) This helps us towards a better understanding of the story of the absentee landowner and the farm workers: the absentee landowner ignored the interdependent web of all existence. He attempted to extract the maximum profit both from the vineyard, and from the human beings who worked in the vineyard. The point Jesus made by telling us this story is that ignoring our connectedness to other human beings and to all other living beings must lead inevitably to violence, hatred, and waste.

Now — we Unitarian Universalists today tend to interpret the interconnectedness of all existence as applying only to environmental issues; thus we say that we must halt global climate change because we are harming the web of existence. But to speak of a web of existence in which all creatures, and all inorganic things as well, are interconnected, means that we are connected not just with polar bears and whales, but also with all other human beings. The implications of this are profound: we do not own polar bears or whales; nor can we own other human beings; nor can we own the products of another person’s work, any more than we can own a polar bear’s pelt.

This is the theological point of ancient Jewish law: to say that God owns the land, and the fruits thereof, is simply another way of saying that all things belong to the interconnected web of all existence, and that nothing can really belong to any individual organism which is a part of the web of existence. By the way, you don’t have to believe in a literal God to affirm this statement; indeed, it would not be too much of a stretch for us to say that God is nothing more, or less, than the interdependent web of existence.

This is a very challenging teaching for us religious liberals. We are accustomed to thinking that we are in control. We are accustomed to thinking that we are most important as individuals. But what our religion is actually teaching us is that what is most important is our connections with other human beings, and with other non-human beings.

And this at last brings me to labor unions and religious liberals. Considered in light of our theological understanding of the interdependent web of all existence, a labor union is very similar to an environmental organization like the Sierra Club, or Bill McKibben’s; a labor union is also theologically similar to organizations that fight for racial justice like the NAACP. Of course all these organizations have their failings. But these are all organizations that affirm the ideal of the sanctity of the interdependent web of all existence. These organizations affirm, as do religious liberals, that we should not exploit other beings, whether human beings or any living beings. These organizations affirm that we cannot live our lives as if we are radical individualists, for to do so tends to separate us from the interdependent web of all existence. And these are all organizations that challenge us to criticize our current economic system of unbridled competition and individualism, in which the highest values are money and, let’s be honest, greed.

We religious liberals know that our highest value must be the interconnectedness of all beings. And so it is that we should place a higher value on the ideal of labor unions (8) — the ideal of people working together for a higher cause, the ideal of fair wages and economic justice, ideals which were a part of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom; the ideals that come with the realization that we are all bound together in our interconnected network of mutuality.

With these ideals, as Martin Luther King said fifty years ago, “we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony.” And so, in the words of the ancient Jewish prophet Amos, may “justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” (9)



(1) As translated in Stephen Patterson, J. M. Robinson, the Berlin Working Group, The Fifth Gospel (1998).
(2) John Dominic Crossan, In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus (1992), 96.
(3) “But what does this ancient Christian parable mean? Its interpretation is complicated by a troublesome lacuna, or hole in the papyrus, in its very first line. The missing word is an adjective which would have modified the word ‘person’ in some way. The extant letters around the edges of the hole permit a reconstruction of the word ‘good,’ so that one could speak here of a ‘good person’ who rented the farm to ‘evil’ tenants, just as one finds in the synoptic versions of the story. But the extant letters also permit the reconstruction of the word for ‘creditor’ or ‘usurer,’ which would make this person one of the absentee landlords so much hated among the land-poor peasants of Galilee. One wonders, in the rural areas of Palestine and Syria among the dispossessed and poor — the tenant class — how this parable would have been heard. Were these evil tenants, or were they brave tenants?” — John S. Kloppenborg, Marvin W. Meyer, Stephen J. Patterson, and Michael G. Steinhauser, Q-Thomas Reader (1988), 102.
(4) New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), Exodus 23.10-12. To read more on one contemporary Jewish interpretation of this general topic, see “Labor Rights in the Jewish Tradition” by Michael S. Perry (1993), available online here.
(5) NRSV, Deuteronomy 15.1-15.
(6) Ibid., Leviticus 25.8-17.
(7) Bernard Loomer, Unfoldings (1984), 1.
(8) Of particular interest to religious liberals in the Freelancer’s Union, “A Federation for the Unaffiliated,” online here. Something like 30% of all U.S. workers are now contract workers or freelancers of some type, and the percentage is probably higher among us religious liberals, since freelancing fits in with our preference for individualism. What the Freelancer’s Union is demonstrating to us is that even independent workers need a union. This highly innovative union breaks out of the old of trade unions and factory workers unions, funding itself through selling discounted insurance and other services to its members. The Freelancer’s Union engages in political advocacy, provides training and support, helps freelancers deal with deadbeat clients, and is beginning to offer face-to-face meetings for networking.
(9) NRSV, Amos 5.24.