Blast From the Past: On Trade Unions and Churches

I originally published this piece 31 July 2005.  I’m putting it up again because a) it’s Labour Day weekend, and b) the political season is finally becoming a conscious reality for most Americans.  It’s a repeated warning about over-reliance on state institutions to advance an agenda of any kind.

Since that time the Democrats have regained control of Congress.  But the current candidate for President had his genesis with the latté liberals, not with the beer drinkers.

Last week in Chicago, the Teamsters and the SEIU bolted from the AFL-CIO, that great amalgamation of American trade unions put together with so much difficulty. Some people always see a split as a sign of weakness and dissolution. Many on the right are pleased at organised labour’s woes. But popping the champagne corks is premature.

Having spent many years across the table from the Machinists (a good AFL-CIO member if there ever was one,) I have some experience in how trade unions operate and think. I can’t say that my impression is an entirely favourable one; that is partly one of perspective, but there are other elements at work. Having been raised in a left-wing environment where proletarian revolutionaries were cast in a heroic light, I must say that trade unions in the US are something of a letdown, even when their differences from their more radical European counterparts are taken into consideration.

Obviously the labour force doesn’t feel much differently. Since their height after World War II, the portion of the workforce in the US affiliated with trade unions has steadily deteriorated to the point where only one in twelve American workers is a union member. The labour movement is aware of this situation, and it is especially painful in view of the marginal (by American standards at least) status of many workers in the US, caught in the extensive restructuring and downward cost pressures (manifested most prominently in the lack of health insurance) on the American worker. Ironically, today the strongest unions are in the public sector, where the benefits tend to be good.

The labour movement’s leadership is well aware of the problem. In 1995 the AFL-CIO elected John Sweeney as their president. His idea was simple: use the voting and fund raising power of the union (at the centre of which is the checkoff) to secure the Democrat Party’s return to control, and then use the coercive power of the government to force the unions into a dominant position in the American workforce. They have put their best foot and dollar forward in this endeavour, but after a decade the Republicans control both White House and the trade unions decline is unchecked. It was inevitable that sooner or later someone with pull in the movement would decide to do something about this and now the Teamsters—a latecomer to the AFL-CIO—and the SEIU—with a target workforce potentially vulnerable to unionisation—have left to pursue their own priority, which is actually going out and organising workers through direct effort.

Trade unions were originally illegal; their legalisation and the subsequent procedural rights they have won are essential ingredients in their broad success. Today in the US unions enjoy considerable legal power, and how well the unions fare depends in large measure on how cleverly the union leadership uses that power. At this point the legal field is reasonably level. The Teamsters and the SEIU are banking on their ability to use that power to organise large numbers of workers, and from there they can develop the political clout they need.

What both sides in the labour movement may not be considering is that the successes won by organised labour on the political front are one of the reasons why people don’t join unions any more. Social Security has evolved into a principal retirement plan for many, which dilutes the appeal of union pension plans. The erosion of employment at will (faster in some states than others) circumvents the unions’ own grievance procedures, a central appeal of unions. The enactment of so much extensive safety legislation and other workplace protections transfers to the state workers’ welfare which the union could take credit for if they hadn’t lobbied the government into doing their job for them.

The Teamsters and the SEIU are right in their idea of going back to focus on organising workers. But if they lapse into the laziness of getting the state to do their job for them, they’ll be right back in the same fix they’re in now sooner than they realise.

There’s a lesson in this for Christian churches too. In the US, churches have enjoyed legal protection for their existence and activity as part of those “unalienable rights” this country was founded to enshrine. The left would like to see these eliminated, and Christians are right to enter the political arena to defend these. But many Christians have come to see the state as a key instrument of righteousness. In doing this, they run the risk of having the state do their job for them, at which point the church will become redundant. Today many Christians lament the low moral state of our society, and justifiably so, but seeing the state as the primary instrument to fix this problem will only weaken Christianity’s role in doing so. To a large extent, that is the problem with European Christianity.

It’s true that sometimes the line between a level playing field and getting the state to achieve your agenda is a fine one; both trade unions and churches face this problem every day. But some in the trade union movement have realised that one reason why churches have not experienced the decline that unions have is that they have a better focus on going out, recruiting and cultivating new members. Our hope is that, as trade unions figure this out, churches won’t forget it.

When Ministers are Asked to Underperform

Recently I was talking with some Episcopalian friends of mine about the rather vacuous, primer-like articles that their bishop (Diocese of East Tennessee’s Charles von Rosenberg) had written (and had been spread around the Anglican world by Kendall Harmon) in anticipation of and in the wake of the Lambeth 2008 conference.

Needless to say, they were not pleased that the uninspiring reality of their bishop’s musings had been spread abroad by the Canon Theologian of South Carolina.

But then they came up with this: a friend of their son’s had started as a deacon at another parish. His instructions were to “underperform” so as to make the laity do more of the work.

Working in a church as I do, I know there are underperforming ministers out there. But to make that a minister’s mission is a new one on me. I’m all for the laity doing the work, but everyone in the church needs to do their best. If a minister needs to underperform to help the laity, maybe the laity needs to take on the work on a regular time basis and invest the church’s income in something else than more staff…

Leave it to the Episcopal Church to break new ground in this way…

Reply to Jonathan Martin on Pentecost and Catholic Theology

I noted here that Jonathan Martin has written a paper entitled, “Spirit, Apocalypse and Ethics: Reading Catholic Moral Theology as a Pentecostal” in The Journal of Pentecostal Theology. (The abstract is here.)

First: congratulations are in order. It’s great to be a published author. It’s not always easy either, because everyone else wants “a piece of the action.” Moreover you’re always afraid that some of the “renown scholars” in your field will find fault in what you’ve written. I know I was very nervous when presenting my first published paper (my second one is here.) But they went fine.

I’ve been surprised at the interest amongst Pentecostals in things Catholic. This was especially true in the number of ministers who expressed interest in sacramental theology in this MissionalCOG post. (Are you guys working on a Eucharistic Congress?) Sacramental theology, and considering anything to be a sacrament, has been a bête noire amongst Evangelicals for a long time.

I spent a lot of time studying Catholic theology and history during my years as a Roman Catholic and afterwards. For a long time I have felt it necessary to de-emphasise that part of my life, but perhaps the Lord has kept me around for a time like this when Pentecostals are wrestling with issues that they haven’t been up to now. There are good reasons to incorporate Catholic theology and thought into our discussions; let me share two.

The first is the following, which I said earlier:

I’ve just about come to the conclusion that the phrase “Protestant theology” is an oxymoron. Protestants don’t have theology; they have doctrine. They teach it, they make it a litmus test for acceptance and, if they’re really on their game, they live it. But the word “theology” implies that one has to think out the “why”–the mechanics, to use an engineering term–behind something, and Protestants in general and Evangelicals in particular seem to be afraid of that. Too many people have the idea that such a quest will end up with an unBiblical result. That’s why I say that Roman Catholic theology, for all of its problems (the biggest of which is the institution of the Roman Catholic Church itself,) is the premier intellectual tradition in Christianity.

The second is that many Evangelicals equate “Protestant” with “Reformed.” That’s deadly for Pentecost. Reformed theology turns a dynamic walk with Christ into a static legal fiction. Catholic theology has always posited that a right relationship with God includes the indwelling of Christ in the believer. (That’s expressed musically here.) Since Pentecosals experience the baptism (immersion) in the Holy Spirit, it’s a natural fit.

That leads me to consider modern Pentecost’s Wesleyan roots. Wesley was an Anglican, and Anglicanism, although it adopted the Augustinian language and concepts of the Reformation, was “Catholic” enough to never go with a purely Calvinistic view of perseverance. I describe the importance of that here:

Reformed theology made inheriting eternal life a simple matter: you had faith in God (an act which God caused,) your name was written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, and that was it. There was no need for penance or the church, but there was no need for spiritual growth or having to do anything, good, bad or indifferent. The logical end to this is a butt-sitting religion where people can pompously proclaim they’re going to heaven without any further action on their part. Mercifully many members of Reformed churches have not “connected the dots” in this way, and they are a blessing to themselves, the people around them and to God himself.

But, when things get across the Channel, there’s Article XVI. The whole idea that people can fall way (“backslide,” to use the traditional terminology) implies movement. If people can move back in their relationship with God, they can move forward. This turns the Christian life from a static to a dynamic business. It puts movement into one’s relationship with God. It also puts movement into one’s life to serve God and to do the work that he left us here to do. The “fuel” behind this, from Jewel to Wesley, is sanctification, personal holiness that enables the believer to “… lay aside everything that hinders us, and the sin that clings about us, and run with patient endurance the race that lies before us…” (Hebrews 12:1b) Sanctification as the work of the Holy Spirit means that God interacts in a positive with us after we are reborn in him.

And this leads us to the baptism in the Holy Spirit. It is more than a tradition; it is rooted in the early church from the day it started. But, as explained in LifeBuilders Essentials, it is not a principally emotional experience either. It is the “fuel” to empower the believer to share one’s faith with others in whatever way that God has directed an individual to do so. Once again the idea is the same: progress for the individual in one’s walk with God, and progress for the church as it seeks to fulfil it’s God-given mission. This is why, after barely a century on the earth, so many Christians consider themselves to be Pentecostal or Charismatic, and show the gifts and manifestations that go with that. But in the process many were saved through the exercise of the same power, so the movement that is seen to be demonstrative is also evangelistic.

The one thing we must avoid in all of this–and I cannot overemphsise the point–is institutionalism. If we are the people of the Spirit we claim to be, we must move in that way.

I’m excited about the possibilities, and hopefully can be constructive in my contribution.

Sarah Palin, and the Most Dangerous People on Earth

In the last part of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, one of the most important victories that took place before the Ring was killing the Nazgul Lord.  It had been prophesied that he could not be killed by a man, so the deed was started by a hobbit (Merry) and finished off by a woman (Éowyn,) who informed him of her gender before she ran him through.

That’s certainly what the Republicans are hoping for in the nomination of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate.  As was the case in 2000 but for different reasons, every indication shows that the political winds are blowing the Democrats’ way.  McCain’s stroke is a bold one, but IMHO may be the one thing that will advance his cause more than anything else.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time here and elsewhere on women in ministry, and more specifically the ongoing role of conservative women in the Anglican blogisphere.  All of this and political experience has taught me one thing: conservative women are the most dangerous people on earth–to the liberals.

As I noted earlier this week, liberals have succeeded in politics through a combination of victim politics and patronage:

But ultimately any political party or movement which wants to bond people to the government relies on “victim politics” to build its base.  It finds “victims,” then tells them that their solution is the government, then gets into power and activates the government to solve their problem (well, maybe.)  It’s been a pretty successful formula for the Democrats for a long time; it’s a very subtle form of patronage.

Conservative women, who understand that their own advancement and that of their children is too important to be uncritically left to a bureaucracy, exhibit a level of articulation and tenacity that is hard to match.  I’ve seen this on a local level, and Gov. Palin showed it in her introductory speech.

Women are, by sheer numbers, the left’s largest potential “patronage/victim” group.  Conservative women shatter that cycle, which is why the left fears them and works so hard to get them out of office.  But that’s easier said than done, as the normally ebullient Tim Gill admitted earlier this week in his efforts to oust Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R, CO.)

But sometimes fear and hate is the best you can expect in life.  That was certainly the case for Margaret Thatcher; she had to put up with a lot as the UK’s first woman Prime Minister and the breaker of much of Britain’s post-World War II welfare/union state.  There’s an apocryphal story about a dinner meeting of her and her male cabinet.  The waiter came in to take orders and started with her.

“What will you have this evening?” the waiter asked.

“I’ll have the beef,” Lady Thatcher replied.

“And your vegetables?” the waiter came back.

“Oh, they’ll have beef, too,” she ordered.

If McCain and Palin get elected and he dies in office, the “vegetables” better learn to like beef.

Unlike us, when God speaks, He has something to say

This pithy observation from Forward Leadership:

Unlike us, when God speaks, He has something to say. My Pastor spoke last Christmas about the 400 years of silence “between” the Old and New Testament. When He finally spoke…WOW!

I don’t offer this post as if I always hear God’s voice, never get discouraged, or that you aren’t human if you are experiencing these things. I offer them as encouragement.

I pray that you have an incredible conversation with God today.

Bill Clinton, Candidate X and Candidate Y

Sometimes this man amazes me:

Suppose, for example, you’re a voter, and you have candidate X and you have candidate Y. Candidate X agrees with you on everything but you don’t think that person can deliver on anything. Candidate Y disagrees with you on half the issues, but you believe that, on the other half, the candidate will be able to deliver.

This is the kind of question that I predict – and this has nothing to do with what’s going on now – but I am just saying if you look at five, 10, 15 years from now, you may actually see this delivery issue become a serious issue in Democratic debates because it is so hard to figure out how to turn good intentions into real changes in the lives of the people we represent.

But it does have to do with what’s going on now, and Bill Clinton knows it.

Moreover…he was the Democrat party’s “Candidate X” for eight years.  He got through welfare reform, trashed feminism with his sex scandals, and locked economy manager Robert Reich in the cabinet so more free wheeling Robert Rubin could let the good times roll.  He so demoralised his party’s left wing that his VP Al Gore, who should have won in a romp in 2000, lost Florida with the votes that went to Ralph Nader.  (Gore’s loss of Tennessee was more significant,  but that’s another story…)

Now the Democrats are set to nominate a real unknown quantity in Barack Obama.  He’s skilfully played to the latté liberals, but now he’s forced to move to the centre.  And he has to find a way to deal with Hillary’s disaffected supporters (personally, I think that Bill is unhappier with her loss than she is.)

For all of his faults, Bill Clinton understands one thing that many in his party do not: the full implementation of his party’s socialistic platform will break this country.  That’s why (in addition to his personal problems) he didn’t implement it during his presidency.  Does Barack Obama understand this?  Stuff like this convinces me he doesn’t.  But who knows?  After all, he is the new “Candidate X.”

Get Away from Victim Politics. But How?

Nancy Pelosi hasn’t quite thought this through just yet:

“I think that women, we have to get away from the politics of victim. This is about you go out there and you fight,” she said. “I think that what Hillary Clinton did was tremendous for the country. She has kicked open many doors, which now we have to bring many more women through, millions more women through. My being speaker of the House was breaking the marble ceiling in Congress, which is hard. Sen. Clinton [had] a bigger challenge to run for president of the United States. What we have to do now is say, we have to translate that not just for individuals, but for all women.”

But ultimately any political party or movement which wants to bond people to the government relies on “victim politics” to build its base.  It finds “victims,” then tells them that their solution is the government, then gets into power and activates the government to solve their problem (well, maybe.)  It’s been a pretty successful formula for the Democrats for a long time; it’s a very subtle form of patronage.

But now Pelosi is advocating a more proactive strategy.  That produces (or encourages) people who are self-starters and initiative-takers, which in turn reduces the need for the kind of “help” that victims need.  That in turn breaks the whole system the party has worked so hard to set up.  That’s the main reason why the Democrats, with everything they had going for them between the New Deal and the Great Society, never were able to “finish the job” and make their dominance of American politics permanent.

The Woman Who Outed the Archbishop of Canterbury

I was honoured to receive the following comment from my piece Rowan Williams and the High Price of Riding the Fence:

I have been catching up with stuff on the Web concerning the letters the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote me.

My reply to Dr. Williams’ first letter ran to more than six pages, and I brought up the same points you are making about Dr. Williams’ interpretation, or misinterpretation’ of scripture. I am praying that people with sound Biblical scholarship to show that DR. Williams is wrong, wrong, and that he is making grievous errors that will have widespread bad repercussions of momentous proportions if his ideas encourage homosexual sex.

Please keep abreast of this issue and keep writing. I appreciated your article and I agree with your conclusions. better to get things out in the open.

Yours sincerely in Christ

Debbie Pitt

Dr. Deborah Pitt is the Welsh Evangelical psychiatrist (I hope Emily Stone is reading this) who published an exchange of correspondence she had back in 2000-1 with now Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. In his reply to her questions, Williams basically stated that he had come to believe that relations between committed homosexuals were not sinful. Although such sentiments are buried in some of his public writings, Dr. Pitt’s revelation of these had the effect of “outing” (I love this terminology when used in this context) the Archbishop at an inopportune time, namely the 2008 Lambeth Conference.

I admire Dr. Pitt for making these letters public. And I appreciate her kind comments about my piece, which included decrying the “fence riding” that characterises so many Anglican ministers and prelates. It makes me wonder who really needs to be Archbishop of Canterbury…

Note about the “committed relationships” argument:

This is one of the most insidious traps that exists in the whole debate over homosexuality. One thing that most people note about homosexual relationships is their transience. The current “poster child” of this is the Nigerian homosexual “hero” Davis Mac-Iyalla, who managed to embarrass his host with his predatory practices during a visit to the U.S. That notwithstanding, the LGBT community’s response to this is that they promote relationships that a) are committed, b) are non-exploitative, and c) deserve sanction with same sex civil marriage.

Their emphasis on “commitment,” however, has lured people such as Williams into thinking that commitment is the essence of a Christian relationship, i.e., if a relationship is committed, it’s Christian. But that overlooks two important points.

The first is the sad fact that committed relationships, be they heterosexual or homosexual, are the exception rather than the rule in the West these days. For most people, commitment is more of a bother than an advantage; our divorce rate amongst heterosexuals (to say nothing of cohabitation) is a testament to that, and now we’re seeing same-sex civil marriages split up. If Williams and others are hoping to legitimise same-sex relationships based on a supposedly high level of commitment, the “choir” he’s preaching to is very small indeed.

Second, commitment is only part of a truly Christian relationship. It’s an important part, to be sure, but there are many other facets. There’s no evidence that the New Testament legitimises relationships of any kind primarily because they are committed. The truth is quite the opposite: first the New Testament calls a relationship such as Holy Matrimony between a man and a woman sacred, then makes commitment (along with other things) a “part of the package.”

Disliking Hierarchy: Why Women Leave the Church of England

This seems to be my topic these days, now this from the BBC:

Dr Aune, co-author of Women and Religion in the West, said: “In short, women are abandoning the church.

“Young women tend to express egalitarian values and dislike the traditionalism and hierarchies they imagine are integral to the church.”

She said many women found it difficult to make time for church while juggling work and family.

“With the pressures women face, churches must adapt to make themselves more accessible.”

She added that while the issue of the ordination of women was being discussed, “we have taken our eyes off the pews, where a shift with more consequences for the church’s survival is under way”.

I know there are activists in both the Pentecostal and Anglican worlds on this subject, and I’ve read the resentment out there in my own church that women are not permitted to be ordained bishops. But I think the issues of women in ministry and the whole authoritarian bent of Evangelical Christianity these days are linked, and this study shows just that. (With Anglicanism, authoritarianism is more “built into the system.”)

If we focus only on whether women can be ordained bishops and forget the whole issue of the role of laity, the success in the former will be negated by the failure of the latter, because without the laity there is no church.

And, in the end, I think that men will find a less authoritarian church a better place, too. Who likes to spend all of their time being told what to do?