Monday, August 31, 2015

Martin Luther, MLK Jr., and Worker Justice

by Alexia Salvatierra

Economic justice was not one of Martin Luther’s primary passions, nor has the Lutheran church been
consistently at the forefront of the fight for economic justice. However, the core beliefs of Lutheran theology clearly support the struggle for fair wages and benefits in the workplace. At the core of Lutheran theology is the call to faith in a God whose love is unimaginably great, broad, deep and full. God’s love embraces all aspects of our physical and emotional lives. God intends that we have “everything required to satisfy our bodily needs, such as food and clothing, house and home, fields and flocks, money and property.” Martin Luther saw the process of obtaining what we need, our labor, as a holy act when performed in faith and gratitude; “picking up a piece of straw” could be equal in God’s eyes to formal prayer and study (Treatise on Good Works).

While Luther emphasized the internal stance of the individual and the individual’s existential relationship with God as primary concerns, he unquestionably expected faith in God’s grace to result in righteous action. In his small and large catechisms, he painted a passionate picture of the kinds of behavior that would arise from faith – including the arena of labor relations. Luther’s exegesis of the seventh commandment (Thou shalt not steal) includes the following passage:

“For to steal is nothing else than to get possession of another’s property wrongfully, which briefly comprehends all kinds of advantage in all sorts of trade to the disadvantage of our neighbor. To steal is to signify not only to empty our neighbor’s coffer and pockets, but to be grasping in the market ... wherever there is trading or taking and giving of money for merchandise or labor. Therefore they are also called swivel-chair robbers, land- and highway-robbers, not pick-locks and sneak-thieves who snatch away the ready cash, but who sit on the chair [at home] and are styled great noblemen, and honorable, pious citizens, and yet rob and steal under a good pretext.
No more shall all the rest prosper who change the open free market into a carrion-pit of extortion and a den of robbery, where the poor are daily overcharged, new burdens and high prices are imposed, and every one uses the market according to his caprice, and is even defiant and brags as though it were his fair privilege and right to sell his goods for as high a price as he please, and no one had a right to say a word against it.”

Luther clearly sees from the perspective of an independent producer, a small businessman, whose experience of being robbed by the powerful is primarily connected to price gouging. However, the heart of his accusations would apply equally to the modern multinational corporations that seek profit at the expense of people not primarily by raising prices but rather by lowering wages. The core violation of “using the market according to his caprice as though it were his fair privilege and right” is as characteristic of WalMart as it was of the noblemen of Luther’s time.

Luther also believed it was clearly the job of political decision-makers to protect the rights of their constituency. His doctrine of “two kingdoms” recognized that even human beings who have faith do not always live in accordance with their faith and that most people do not automatically treat one another with the love and respect called for by the Gospel. We all live in two worlds, the emerging world in which the law is written on the heart and people treat each other well out of love, and the old order in which it is necessary to intentionally ensure respect for human rights through civil authority. As Luther continues in the commentary on the seventh commandment:

“... to check such open wantonness there is need of the princes and government, who themselves would have eyes and the courage to establish and maintain order in all manner of trade and commerce, lest the poor be burdened and oppressed nor they themselves be loaded with other men’s sins.”

While Luther could not have envisioned a world in which every citizen had the right and duty to participate actively in political decision-making, we can see that in a modern democracy, we all have power and authority in the political realm and we all need the “eyes and the courage to establish and maintain” correct order in the economic sphere. When we campaign for living wage legislation or conditions on Big Box development, we seek to ensure an economic order that does not allow the poor to be burdened and oppressed. Unions are another modern structure through which workers can exercise legitimate power and authority in the public sphere to ensure protection of their rights.

These modern structures and the responsibilities that accompany them are recognized in a Resolution of the ELCA Church-wide Assembly in 1991 that reads, “The ELCA commits itself to advocacy with corporations, businesses, congregations, and church-related institutions to protect the rights of workers, support the collective bargaining process and protect the right to strike.”

However, while Luther would have supported those with legitimate authority acting in the public realm to protect workers’ rights, he would have seen clergy as having a different role. Luther saw the work of clergy as belonging to the second realm, the kingdom of God. The heart of that work, for Luther, was proclamation – the speaking of the truth that transforms. When religious leaders in interfaith worker justice committees utilize their moral authority to call business and political leaders to accountability to the scriptural vision of economic justice, they are fulfilling Luther’s understanding of their calling to speak the Word of God.

Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, an ELCA pastor, is executive director of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) in Los Angeles.

National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice •

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