It has been a wild year for labor. Starting in February, CNBC reports about 362,000 workers have been on strike this year alone. That’s over double the amount in 2021 and 2022 combined. From bus drivers in Alaska, teachers in Los Angeles, writers and actors in Hollywood, and the United Auto Workers, labor has shown itself to be a force.
Can a Christian, in good conscience, support or join a striking labor union? It depends on who you ask. Conservative Christian thought leader John Piper, in a blog post back in 2008, was hesitant to say one way or another.
“So that’s an answer that allows for participation, I think, but would discourage it and would seek other ways forward in relationships between management and labor.”
The majority of Conservative Christian leaders have been quiet on the “summer of strikes”. However, this is a far cry from the history of the Church in American History.
The Pitfalls of the Boss
One of my favorite voices from the early 20th century is Walter Rauschenbusch. I seemingly find a way to include him in almost everything I write. But there’s good reason – he has a way of clearly laying out what the Christian is obligated to do for the marginalized. In this case, we’re talking about the power differential between worker and boss.
“We invoke thy grace and wisdom, O Lord, upon all men of good will who employ and control the labor of men. Amid the numberless irritations and anxieties of their position, help them to keep a quiet and patient temper, and to rule firmly and wisely, without harshness and anger. Since they hold power over the bread, the safety, and the hopes of the workers, may they wield their powers justly and with love, as older brothers and leaders in the great fellowship of labor. Suffer not the heavenly light of compassion for the weak and the old to be quenched in their hearts.”
– For God and the People
He is not calling for the overthrow of capitalism. Instead, Rauschenbusch is calling for ethical leadership. He first acknowledges the stress of their position, then asks for patience. He doesn’t tell the bosses to quit and become co-ops, but rather take the seriousness of their position to heart. They are in control of the workers food, safety, and hope. That shouldn’t be a position entered into lightly.
To avoid the pitfalls is, in theory, simple: treat your workers and those you employ with respect, dignity, and fairness.
How to be a Christian Leader
“When they are tempted to follow the ruthless ways of others, and to sacrifice human health and life for profit, do thou strengthen their will in the hour of need, and bring to naught the counsels of the heartless. Save them from repressing their workers into sullen submission and helpless fear. May they not sin against the Christ by using the bodies and souls of men as mere tools to make things, forgetting the human hearts and longings of these their brothers.”
– For God and the People
This isn’t a ‘5 steps to be a Christian leader’ seminar. This won’t turn you into the CEO-wannabe pastor or mega business owner. This is hard advice given that few have been able to handle.
The theology of Rauschenbusch takes the principalities and powers of Ephesians 6:12 seriously. These powers that run the world – the powers of abuse and domination – are alive and well in the capitalist economic framework. Without good character (and I would add legislative checks and balances), temptation can lead the leader to “sacrifice human health and life for profit.”
Rauschenbusch, a pastor at heart, brings this full circle by forcing those who employ others with the fact that the devaluing of people for profit is sin. Maybe the harshest word in the Christian dictionary, it shouldn’t be thrown around without cause. To call something sin is to say it is against God. The good Christian leader remembers that they employ human beings – created in the image of God.
Can A Christian Be Pro-Union?
Absolutely. Many of the unions in the turn of the 20th century were backed (or supported by) the churches of the area. Organized labor and movements for justice has threads throughout American history. Martin Luther King Jr’s conviction to resist was predicated on his Christianity. Currently there are churches and organizations who form for social justice that have their deep calling from Christianity.
This isn’t a blanket endorsement for all unions. We as Christians know how something good can become tainted by greed and pride. Even a great tool like organizing for a cause can be overtaken by the powers of the world. When a union works towards justice in a way that follows Jesus, that union is doing good work. Any organized movement that relies on violence or discrimination is not of Jesus.