Monday, February 28, 2011

Unions, Collective Bargaining, and Protesting: What would Jesus do?

Just a few days ago we were able to witness what we call the “Anti-Union” vote on the part of the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Assembly, which of course had to be done with the melodious sounds of protests in the background. However, the Democrats in the Senate still seem to be off on their days of protest-vacation, in their attempt to stall the proposed measures.

Immediately after the vote passed the Assembly, there were shouts of “Shame!” and “Boo!” from Democratic representatives. Only to hear and watch of such theatrical madness would make any left-leaner smile. The unrest in Wisconsin this week over Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to discontinue the bargaining rights and benefits of public workers is spreading to other states — Ohio, Indiana, and Tennessee, to name a few — also facing serious fiscal challenges that need to be dealt with straightaway. In many states, Republicans who came to power in the November elections, often by defeating Democrats [who are overwhelmingly union-backed, as noticed throughout political history], are taking aim not only at union wages, but at union power as they face budget gaps in the years ahead. However, because I am far from an economics and finance scholar, let me approach this issue from one of my favorite perspectives — the Jesus approach.

As my sensory nerves were engaged with the sounds and images from Wisconsin — its protests, shutdown of some public services, missing Democratic senators, and gubernatorial unwavering — I could not help but think of the old aphorism, “What would Jesus do?” Because I hope to be a scholar one day, let me qualify that I have no clue what Jesus would actually do or say; however we can examine his occasional teachings in order to extract an idea of his response.

In my view, whether your theological approach to Jesus is that of redeemer, Hebrew scholar, political activist, or social leader, one cannot deny that the narratives of Christ are concerned with the healing of the whole being of the individual — mind, body, and soul. Hence, Jesus had a special sense of mission to the oppressed. At the outset of his public ministry, he stood up in the synagogue and read from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” (Luke 4:18-19) This reading from Isaiah outlines the myriad levels of oppression that he [Jesus] had come to disrupt.

For our approach to this article, oppression is more theoretically defined as the subjection of human agency through the unjust use of force. This is significant, because whether it was the persons shunned because of their battle with leprosy or the women excluded because of patriarchal hegemony, Jesus had a way of connecting with those persons subjected by unjust societal force. Yet, in the 21st century, it is significantly distressing that the biblical theme of Jesus’ solidarity with the historical liberation of the oppressed is notably absent in the mission and message of those who strive to make the church truly universal.

In Wisconsin, as in other parts of this nation, the union workers are being subjected by the unjust use of political force. Their rights to collectively bargain and seek economic fairness are being removed before their very eyes, with minimal solidarity on the part of the church. According to what we see in the gospels, Jesus is calling for the church to be inconvenient, and support the struggle of the oppressed from within as they seek to obtain their own liberation from the oppressive, unjust forces of political supremacy. Our minds must not be deluded into thinking that the liberation of the oppressed will be achieved by those who are oppressed alone; no, beloved, this is not possible. Instead, those of us who identify as disciples of Jesus Christ - and who thus constantly wrestle with the question of “What would Jesus do” - must join hands and hearts with those seeking a socioeconomic landscape of egalitarianism.

Though Jesus lived and moved in a social and cultural environment when the religious leadership and political elites were dedicated to maintaining the systems and institutions of society that were “in-place,” he [Jesus] made it his practice to be out of place. Similarly, while the governor, the Republican Assembly majority, and other conservative political individuals would encourage these protesters to get in place, I say to the protesters in Wisconsin and around the world — shout louder and protest longer, for to be out of place is what Jesus would do.

Robert S. Harvey is currently a master’s student at Harvard Divinity School, where he addresses the intersection of religion, education, democracy, and civil rights. Robert is also a Baptist minister and has published a number of essays, articles, and social commentaries; he is currently completing a book entitled, 'Unconditional Love, Unconditional Inclusion: The Role of Christian Churches in the Social Development of Gays and Lesbians.'

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