Thinking Theologically About Wisconsin Union Conflict

First, a quick update to my story from the other day: the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports that faith leaders are beginning to issue statements in support of the unions, with more expected to come. This sparks a thought: will any religious leaders come out against the unions? (Greg Keller of Ralph Reed’s Faith & Freedom Coalition issued an e-mail blast calling on supporters to “Stand with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker,” but I consider Reed and his cronies about as religious as Avril Lavigne is punk.)

Now, on to the theological stuff. I think there are two inseparable points to make here. The first is that faith* must speak to material needs. Many people would like church to be about nothing but airy, happy spirituality. Unfortunately, that’s not supported by scripture. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t see how you can square faith in the God who says “Pay the worker his wages,” and “You feed them”** with simply ignoring what is happening to workers in Wisconsin and around the nation. According to the bible, God cares about such things; God wants us all to be fed and justly compensated.

The key word there is justly. There is no way to material wealth that does not in some way affect our neighbors. This is a principle of ethics: we must consider the effect that our economic arrangements have on one another. It is a principle of ecology: we cannot continue to accumulate wealth and goods without eventually damaging nature. And it is a principle of economics: if Gov. Walker vanquishes the unions or if they dictate what they want without limit, it will become unsustainable. Win/lose situations are sometimes unavoidable, but in the long run, what is best for the economy overall is not to have winners and losers, but to build a strong, shared enterprise. It’s not sexy, and it won’t reap huge dividends, but it does have the virtue of stability.

That, I think, is the message of the manna and the quail out in the desert. The newly-freed Israelites would love to be as rich as they remember the Egyptians being, but their God calls them to a “just-enough” economy that prevents exploitation. We’ll see if he can pull the same rabbit out of the hat in Madison.

*The Abrahamic faiths, anyway.

**Note to those who troll the comments: that’s scripture paraphrase, not quote.

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