The two jobs I work complement each other nicely. One pays my bills but sucks my soul, while the other heals my soul but doesn't pay enough to cover my bills.
The soul-crushing job is in full-time retail. And in the interest of continuing that employment, I hasten to say that I'm not knocking my employer but the dynamics of the industry itself. The soul-healing job is in part-time pastoral ministry. Working between these material and spiritual spheres of life can generate some social and ethical insights -- at least I'd like to think so.
For example, at my retail job we have an entire cooler door devoted to energy drinks: Monster, Rockstar, Red Bull, Amp, you name it. And let's not forget the five-hour one available at the counter. I doubt that many customers give much thought to using them to get through the day. But I look at those products and think, "What's wrong with us? When did we start needing so many additives to keep us going? Didn't God make days off so we could rest up and recharge?"
According to the beliefs of my other job, God invented time off by instructing the ancient Hebrews to rest for a whole day, a Sabbath. And not only them, but their employees, too; something unheard of at that time. It applied to everyone, rich and poor alike, so it probably ranks as the first equal-opportunity mandate.
Not surprisingly, the idea didn't sit well with rich merchants. They eventually started getting antsy to get production going again. The Bible tells of social-justice prophets confronting such business owners. Amos was among the most vocal, chiding them for their financial anxiety over the interruption of their cash flow. "When will the holy days and festivals be over so we can start deceptively selling again?" he mocks them as saying.
Written more than 2,700 years ago, chapter eight of Amos reads like a modern condemnation of American retailers for shortening Thanksgiving to jump-start Black Friday or for staying open on Christmas. And he didn't stop there. He vehemently ripped into them for exploiting and under-paying the poor.
The God of the Bible is a God of justice, and economic exploitation is railed against from the Patriarchs to Jesus (who himself was a low-wage worker). A seminal Biblical story of labor that is relevant to our time belongs to Moses and his dealings with Pharaoh. One may think that sounds extreme. After all, Pharaoh was an oppressive ruler who abused the Jewish people whom he enslaved. But consider this ...
While Moses eventually demanded that Pharaoh free the Jews, he initially asked only that they be given a break from brick-making, Egypt's chosen profession for them. He just wanted them to have some down time for worship. Pharaoh's reaction? So you want time for worship, do you? How about using it to gather the straw for your bricks? Up to that point, Pharaoh had provided the materials. Now Pharaoh demanded they do both -- with, of course, no drop in production.
It is not uncommon to find American businesses today that, like Pharaoh, always demand more. More sales. More production. Beat last year's or last quarter's figures. Work harder; work faster. We even have an entire industry of energy drinks dedicated to help make it happen.
But the deeper relevance of the Pharaoh story for today is the question of who benefits from the increased production. What did the Hebrew slaves get in return for their extra labors? Nothing. Egypt's splendor was built on their backs.
What have American workers gotten in return for their increased efforts and productivity? While corporate profits have risen and CEO salaries have soared over recent decades, middle-class workers' wages have remained stagnant. Essentially, we work harder and someone else gets the raise. As in ancient Egypt, the wealth of the rich is built on our backs.
In the Biblical story, God worked with Moses to rescue the Jews from the unjust economic system of slavery. Once their freedom was secured, they were told to celebrate a day of rest each week. No one was excluded. It was a way of giving them time to recharge and keep their souls intact.
In America, we've long lost that part of the deal. We've fallen into the economic injustice of working harder so those with money can have even more. That's why I think God would be pro-union.
According to the Bible, God hates injustice. Unions have enhanced social justice in our nation, building a strong middle class. It's time to give them a chance to do it again. Let's at least try to get a little more straw for our bricks.
Ron Pedersen Jr. is a minister in the United Church of Christ now serving Mount Troy UCC (firstname.lastname@example.org). His views do not necessarily represent those of his congregation.