The Church and “Politics”

The Church and “Politics” by Brian Merritt

 Labor Temple (1910-1924) Labor Temple was founded in 1910 by the Rev. Charles L. Stelze of the Presbyterian Home Mission Board. The first Labor Temple occupied the former Fourteenth Street Presbyterian Church, located at 225 Second Avenue near Union Square, and built in 1851. Under Stelze's leadership, Labor Temple would be

Labor Temple (1910-1924)
Labor Temple was founded in 1910 by the Rev. Charles L. Stelze of the Presbyterian Home Mission Board.  On its opening day, Labor Temple was attended by five hundred members of labor unions, Socialist, Anarchists, and persons who took interest in labor matters and sociologists.

A few months back I was cornered at a Presbytery meeting and asked about the ministry of Mercy Junction Justice and Peace Center. One can always deduce when there are leading questions, when the questioner is trying to get to a point of view. This time was no different. When the questions had come to an end, there was the inevitable declaration, “Well, I think that Mercy Junction is being too political!”

It is not like I haven’t heard this before. Even though I never public advocate for candidates, the work I do for peace and justice is always tinged with the political. Yet, somehow politics has become an ambiguity. Politics represents whatever in the world of justice and peace that counters someone else’s political leanings. In reality they are the political ones and want the Mercy Junction to stop meddling with their narrow political reasoning. Standing firm for human and animal rights as part of the nature of the church has the consequence of being proclaimed political.

Politics is merely the relationships of the people to the state. In each’s relationship to the state there is a vast number of situations in which the hierarchy of power has oppressed, marginalized and done violence to the full expression of life and freedom. In such cases, it is irresponsible for a person or community of faith to respond with apathy. In such cases, Mercy Junction Justice and Peace Center is called to agitate in this realm of the political.

Yet, there are larger entities like capitalistic corporations, religious communities, financial institutions, associations and nonprofits, that also participate in the oppression of the divine’s creation. In these instances, outside the realm of the political, Mercy Junction Justice and Peace Center is also called to confront power.

In this particular case, I was even more bemused by being told that Mercy Junction Justice and Peace Center was being too political because of its support of labor. Unions?

Not only has the Presbyterian Church (USA) maintain a strong link with labor unions over the years, but our denomination has strong General Assembly statements on the rights of workers to organize and for collective bargaining rights. As early as 1952 the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church affirmed: “free collective bargaining in labor-management relations,” calling on Presbyterians to join labor unions “as an expression of Christian vocation.” A helpful historical timeline is posted here at Justice Unbound.

It is not only the PC (USA) that holds the importance of labor rights as a human right, but the Episcopal Church, American Baptist, the United Methodist Church, Quakers, the Roman Catholic Church and many others make strong statements affirming the rights of laborers. This does not include the denominational pushes to affirm the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights which also has a strong push for the human right of workers to organize.*

One must take a very blind view of scripture to miss the text’s care and concern for worker’s justice. Jesus and Paul repeat the line, “A worker deserves their pay.” Jesus even allows his disciples to steal and break the Sabbath in order that they might have food during their work. From the prophets, Jesus, James and Paul, the worker is not to be despised or treated unjustly.

Why then is working with a union suspect? Maybe it is because in the Presbyterian Church (USA) we have become too associated with a certain class in the power structures of our communities. When a pastor or congregation sides with those whom a white, educated, male dominated class oppresses, then it becomes a threat to those churches’ power, income and structure.

Yet, there is also an implicit threat to our independence as a separate worshiping community in such talk. We have done nothing wrong, but the whisper of being too political serves a nefarious purpose amongst political and theological detractors. It is meant to silence criticism from those who do not want their power challenged by a church that has been all too willing to remain silent to injustices. Or, it may even be the sad last whimpers of those who feel threatened in seeing a grand diversity that is justice’s inevitable call.

We are called to live justice. We do not live out our faith for convenience or to make those around us comfortable. Our conviction comes not only from the one who the state executed, but also the one who took a whip of chord and cleared the temple of injustice. Mercy Junction Justice and Peace Center bears witness in calling the church to be more political when injustice rears its ugly head with the state’s sanction. We also call on the church to oppose principalities and powers who unjustly oppress our brothers and sisters in this world.

Mercy Junction Justice and Peace Center supports workers rights, not because it is a politically astute thing, but because it is our calling as followers of Christ. We are called by Christ to walk picket lines, agitate for better pay for workers at McDonalds, strive for equal pay for women and employment for ex-felons. We do this because we are assured it is part living out our faith. We will continue to support women’s rights, and black lives matter, oppose mass incarceration, agitate for the expansion of healthcare for the poor, and affirm LGBTQQ rights, animal Rights, people with disabilities rights, poor people’s rights, first nation’s rights, immigrants rights and many more as they become revealed. To stop would be because we have bowed to political pressures inside and outside the church. We will do no such thing. Thanks be to God!

*Article 23
• (1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
• (2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
• (3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
• (4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Image and caption: http://www.nycago.org/Organs/NYC/html/LaborTemple.html

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