Workplace Justice and the Church

[1] The parish served by the young minister was in a small town with several factories, one of which was owned by a family prominent in his congregation. The workers were poorly paid and unorganized, and the pastor helped them form a trade union. He was invited to speak at the local Workers’ Association, and what he had to say about “Jesus Christ and the Social Movement” was published in the local newspaper. That was too much for the leading industrialist, who in an open letter ridiculed the minister as an ignorant idealist and accused him of “sowing discord between employer and employee.” In his public response, the minister, Karl Barth, argued strongly against the injustice that he saw. He reminded his opponent that “You are indeed older than I am, as you observe, but certainly still young enough to develop better judgments. I sincerely wish that for you.”1 For himself, Barth maintained his commitment to economic justice throughout his life.


[2] What occurred nearly 90 years ago in the Swiss village of Safenwil has contemporary parallels. Blatant economic injustice has not been overcome; the rights of working people are far from secure; the exploitation of the weakest members of our society continues today, in this country and throughout the world. In nearly every community where our churches are found, it is likely that some working people suffer serious disadvantage on the job. The leaders of these churches, ordained and lay, have the same responsibility to speak and to act that Barth accepted for himself. Just as predictable, of course, will be attempts to intimidate and silence those who join those fighting for workplace justice.

[3] This, of course, is no new story. For the last two centuries, North American and European working people have struggled to obtain a fair share of the wealth they have created, for safer working conditions, and for the respect they deserve as human beings. In foundries and factories, mines and plantations, railroads and mills, shops and offices, workers have united to challenge not only the arbitrary power of owners and corporations but, all too often, the repressive weight of governmental authorities as well. Perhaps few today would argue against the right of men and women to band together in unions to bargain with employers about the conditions under which they would provide their labor for the production of those goods and the provision of those services that society requires. The harsh reality, however, was that such a right was often denied and where secured was hard won, as the broken bodies and destroyed livelihoods of countless workers and their families have attested. Even a cursory reading of American labor history cannot help but impress one with the courage and persistence of those humble men and women and children who suffered and, too often, died as martyrs in the struggle for economic justice in this country of promise.

[4] And where were the churches as the industrialization of Western Europe and America moved forward at accelerating speed? Did they follow their members as they left their rural existence and moved into the growing cities in search of work in the new factories? Did they speak out against the exploitation of these men and women? Did they join working people in advocating for fair wages and safer working conditions, decent housing and the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively with their employers? With respect to most of the nineteenth century, the answer was a dismal “No.” Catholics and Protestants were as slow to act on behalf of the working classes as they were in understanding the dehumanizing aspects of the rapidly expanding capitalist system. Conservative Christians tended to lament the destabilizing effect of industrialization on the older rural and craft-based society. While their “inner mission” efforts attempted to alleviate the suffering of some poorer workers and their families, they did little to challenge directly the abuses inflicted upon workers by their employers. Liberal Christians, particularly as they came to adopt the Social Darwinist ideology favored by elitist circles, considered governmental intervention on behalf of working people to run counter to what they held to be the divine intention in the social evolutionary process.2 As the new European working-class parties arose, they met with the opposition of most church leaders. Understandably, the hostility was returned by the members of these parties, and the unfortunate consequences of this alienation persist to the present day in a number of European countries.

[5] There were exceptions, of course. Christians like the Blumhardts, father and son, chose to stand with the workers in their struggles and in the case of the son, Christoph Frederick, to represent their concerns in the regional German parliament as a member of the Democratic Socialists. His words and actions were highly disturbing to most Christians of his day, but Blumhardt refused to be silenced.

In previous centuries, people who demanded the rights of freedom were simply brought to justice and exterminated. And now, when Socialism sets up the goal that every person have an equal right to bread, that matters of ownership be so arranged that neither money nor property but the life of man become the highest value, why should that be seen as a reprehensible, revolutionary demand? It is clear to me that it lies within the Spirit of Jesus Christ, that the course of these events leads toward his goal, and that there is bound to be revolution until that goal is reached.3
[6] Blumhardt’s example helped to encourage the formation of the German and Swiss religious socialism movement in the late 19th and early 20th century. A number of Protestant leaders began to ally themselves with the unions and working-class parties as these sought a greater measure of economic justice through political activity. Among the 20th century theologians who were influenced by this social movement were Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Juergen Moltmann. In Great Britain, a number of Anglican and Free Church clergy took up the cause of working people and formed associations that agitated for greater economic justice. Noteworthy throughout the 19th century was the ministry of British Methodists in work-class communities.

[7] Parallel to these European developments was the emergence of “social Christianity” in the United States.4 Many American workers, both native-born and immigrant, were exploited by owners of mines and factories and railroads and by rapacious “robber barons.” Their efforts to organize unions often were violently suppressed and their leaders jailed, ostracized, and killed. The Protestant response, which came to be known as the “Social Gospel”, was articulated by theologians such as Walter Rauschenbusch, Charles Clayton Morrison, and Shailer Matthews. In varying ways they addressed the concerns of working people, but their links with the emerging labor movement were more tenuous. While serving as a minister in Detroit, Reinhold Niebuhr took up the workers’ cause, although he later became critical of the Social Gospel’s failure to temper its moral idealism with the biblical emphasis on human fallibility. In general, it was denominations of Anglo-Saxon origin which embraced the different forms of social Christianity. Their convictions came to expression in the “social creed” adopted by the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America. Lutherans, for the most part, were little affected by this movement, and as churches and individuals did little to advance the rights of working men and women. A notable exception was A.D. Mattson, professor of Christian ethics at Augustana Theological Seminary in Rock Island, Illinois. Active in support of organized labor, Mattson argued forcefully for the right of workers to form unions and for what he understood to be economic democracy.5 Many former Augustana Synod pastors trace their social awareness to the work of this pioneering Lutheran ethicist.

[8] The record of Roman Catholics with respect to the European working class movement was unimpressive for most of the 19th century. The decisive change came in 1891 when Pope Leo XIII issued his famous encyclical Rerum Novarum (Concerning the New Things). Maintaining the church’s distance from the socialist-led workers’ movements, Leo advocated self-help on the part of working people through the establishment of unions. Subsequent popes and moral theologians have continued the development of Catholic social teaching. The present pope, John Paul II, has shown a particular interest in economic justice. His 1981 encyclical, Laborem Exercens (On Human Work) strongly affirmed the rights and dignity of working people. John Paul emphasized the priority of labor over capital and gave unequivocal support to the formation of unions.

All these rights, together with the need for the workers themselves to secure them, give rise to yet another right: the right of association, that is, to form associations for the purpose of defending the vital interests of those employed in the various professions. The associations are called labor or trade unions…. The modern unions grew up from the struggle of the workers – workers in general but especially the industrial workers – to protect their just rights vis-B-vis the entrepreneurs and the owners of the means of production. Their task is to defend the existential interests of workers in all sectors in which their rights are concerned. The experience of history teaches that organizations of this type are an indispensable element of social life, especially in modern industrialized societies.6
[9] The pope’s conclusions reflect the experience of Roman Catholics in this country as well. Catholics have had close relationships with the American labor movement during much of the 20th century, and their “labor priests”7 have been advocates for workplace justice in society and the church. In 1986, American Catholic bishops issued a superb statement dealing with Catholic social teaching and the U.S. economy. Entitled Economic Justice for All, this pastoral letter sets the standard for the response to economic injustice of other American churches, including the Lutheran.

[10] Lutherans, as was noted, trailed behind other American Christians in addressing the issues of workplace justice. Predecessor churches of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America seldom went beyond customary generalizations in their official statements. In 1991, however, the Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA adopted a resolution which identified the collective-bargaining process as “fundamental for the attainment of justice in American society.” It further called upon the church to “commit itself to public advocacy and advocacy with corporations, businesses, congregations, this church, and church related institutions to protect the rights of workers, support the collective-bargaining process, and protect the right to strike.” On August 20, 1999, the Sixth Churchwide Assembly adopted a social statement on economic life, Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All. The statement addresses a number of global and domestic issues relating to the economy, but what it says about workers’ rights reflects the continuing hesitation of many in this church to affirm the unequivocal right of workers to organize in unions. The statement calls for the practice of “participatory decision-making” and seems to relegate the possibility of unionization only to that time when such management-initiated efforts fail. Inclusion of this emphasis was championed by a number of ELCA social ministry organization executives, many of whom have been aggressive in recent years in resisting the possible unionization of their employees. Most of the employees in Lutheran social ministry organizations, incidentally, are semi-skilled and unskilled workers, a large number being persons of color and immigrants. It is indisputable that our church has far to go in its social thinking and practice, both within our health care and educational institutions, and with respect to the broader American society. The Church and Labor Network, an informal association established by the Institute for Mission in the USA in 1994, is one attempt to foster an informed commitment on the part of the ELCA to basic economic justice. The Network views that commitment as essential to the church’s mission outreach to working people, the working poor, and the most destitute of our fellow citizens.8


[11] And what of our present time? It is unfortunately true that the prosperity currently enjoyed by many of our citizens does not extend to vast numbers of workers, the working poor, and the poor. Consider, for example, the situation of these people: immigrants and migrants, workers in the poultry industry and meat processing plants, food service and hotel workers, janitors and custodians, nursing home and hospital workers, and many agricultural laborers. Few of these receive even a minimal living wage for full-time work. The abominations of sweatshops and child labor still exist in this country. Gender and racial discrimination negatively affect employment possibilities for too many people. A shameful number of Americans, including children, lack adequate health care and basic nutrition. Dangerous working conditions and mistreatment of workers on the job are far more prevalent than most middle-class Americans want to believe. Far too many employers engage in aggressive and sometimes illegal actions to discourage workers’ efforts to represent themselves through unions, and the laws intended to prevent these abuses are weak and unevenly enforced. For millions of our fellow citizens, life is a day-by-day struggle to keep going while at the same time – in the church as well as the broader society – the more well-off are largely indifferent to their plight.

[12] But what are the churches to do? Some confidently assert that we should trust that the market economy will – “in the long run” – benefit even those who today live at the desperate margins of our society. “In the long run,” of course, is no solution to existing injustice; indeed, the market by itself has never been an instrument of justice! Christians dare not adopt the deterministic outlook that claims nothing can be done to alter in any fundamental way the working of a system that creates so many victims and is so insensitive to the misery of those it leaves behind. Once more the ancient temptation to idolatry threatens as the ideology of global market capitalism wins new converts daily. Yet the God we worship and serve as Christians is just and compassionate to all of human creation, totally unlike the popular Mammon of greed, self-interest, and callous indifference. We hold, therefore, that our economic institutions and practices and attitudes are not beyond informed criticism and necessary reform, that they – including those who benefit from their present operation – also are accountable to God and subject to the divine will that justice be done for all.

[13] Where then, will the church – and not only its national expression but, more importantly, local congregations – stand during this time of severe need and testing? The God who chose to be known in the history of Israel and was decisively revealed in Jesus of Nazareth leaves us no choice. For the God who mercifully justifies sinners calls his people to respond to that grace by seeking justice for the weakest and most threatened of their neighbors. Could it be that a renewed commitment by the church to the struggle for greater economic justice for all our brothers and sisters will constitute the necessary obedience of Christians in the 21st century?

[14] We need more than denominational pronouncements…although these have their place. An activism for activism’s sake will be of limited value and usually has little staying power. Public statements by local clergy and others may be required, but they are not enough. What will be most important, in most cases and over the long run, is the nature and integrity of leadership exercised by the local pastor. Clearly this includes an educational responsibility of considerable scope, both with respect to oneself and the congregation. Only that action for economic justice, for instance, which is grounded in a profoundly biblical and theological understanding will have staying power in the face of opposition. There is much, of course, that can contribute to an understanding of actual economic injustice in our communities: an awareness of existing job situations and concerns that relies on workers’ perception of what needs to be done, disclosure of the self-interest of those who profit unfairly from existing work relationships, and honest and painful scrutiny of our own class-influenced biases.

[15] Even while engaged in learning, the congregation and its pastor will find abundant opportunity to speak and to act on behalf of persons suffering economic injustice. One of the most promising recent initiatives has been the formation of religion and labor networks in many American communities. Representatives of unions and religious bodies are coming together to learn from one another, to identify common justice concerns, and – where possible – to act together on behalf of those experiencing injustice in the workplace. Unions have a long history of engaging in this struggle, and they welcome those who will help them confront present workplace abuses as part of the search for a more just and humane society.9 For many, the example of the pastor and theologian Karl Barth will continue to inspire as they take up these tasks. George Hunsinger, a leading interpreter of Barth, has pointed out that it is essential for us to recognize that traditional faith and progressive politics belong together.

[16] “They (Barth and other 20th century Christian leaders),” he wrote, “saw no reason to choose between their love for Jesus Christ as confessed by faith and their love for the poor and the oppressed.”10 Nor should any of us as we – Christian ministers – confront in our time the concrete reality of economic injustice in our communities and church and nation.

End Notes

1 This incident is recounted in Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts, Fortress Press, 1976, pp.66-71; and George Hunsinger, editor, Karl Barth and Radical Politics, (Westminster Press, 1976), pp.19-45.

2 William O. Shannon&=javascript:goNote(39s German Protestants Face the Social Question, Volume I, The Conservative Phase. 1815-1871,(University of Notre Dame Press, 1954) is an older but still valuable study of German Protestant response to the rise of the working classes.

3 Vernard Eller, editor. Thy Kingdom Come. A Blumhardt Reader. (William B. Eerdmans, 1980). Page 23.

4 Gary Dorrien. Soul in Society: The Making and Renewal of Social Christianity. (Fortress Press, 1995). An excellent introduction to the history of and prospects for “social Christianity” in this country.

5 A.D. Mattson. Christian Ethics: The Basis and Content of the Christian Life. Revised. (Augustana Book Concern, 1947). See “The Relation of the State to Property and Wealth”, page 311 ff.

6 Michael Walsh and Brian Davies, editors. Proclaiming Justice and Peace: Papal Documents from Rerum Novarum through Centesimus Annus. Revised and Expanded. (Twenty-Third Publications, 1991). Laborem Exercens (On Human Work), page 381.

7 Notable among Catholic “labor priests” was Msgr. John A. Ryan. Contemporary distinguished representatives include Msgr. Jack Egan and Msgr. George Higgins. Higgins&=javascript:goNote(39 book (written with William Bole) Organized Labor and the Church: Reflections of a “Labor Priest”. (Paulist Press, 1993) is both a lively autobiography and a personal history of Catholic involvement with the labor movement. Chapter 4, “Practicing What We Preach” is equally applicable to church-related institutions in the ELCA.

8 The Church and Labor Network publishes an occasional Newsletter. For information about membership, contact Dr. Wayne C. Stumme, Coordinator, Church and Labor Concerns, Institute for Mission in the USA, 198 6th Street East, # 604, Saint Paul, Minnesota 55101-1948. E-mail:

9 For information about the formation of local religion and labor networks, contact the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, 1020 West Bryn Mawr, 4th floor, Chicago, IL 60660-4627. Tel. (773) 728-8400. This organization, under the dynamic leadership of its executive director, Ms. Kim Bobo, has pioneered new and promising partnerships between religious bodies and unions.

10 George Hunsinger, Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, (Eerdmans, 2000). Page 3.