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Is it not the rich who oppress you?

Updated: Sep 16, 2021

Rev. E. West McNeill

Video is of a sermon given at Kairos Center For Social Justice's Freedom Church of the Poor for Labor Day Weekend.

Below is the full sermon given at First UCC DC for Labor Justice Sunday

Our scripture lesson this morning begins with James reprimanding this early Christian community for showing favoritism toward the rich. In particular, he has noticed that people wearing nice, expensive-looking clothes are treated better than poor folks wearing dirty clothes.

In my Bible, the title of vs. 1-13 is “Warning against Partiality.” Really, though James is making two points - one is warning the community not to show favoritism and partiality to one another. But his other point is to remind the early Christians that in fact they are supposed to be partial when it comes to the rich and the poor.

James is clear that God’s side is the side of the poor. Throughout his letter, James calls attention to the clash between the ways of the world and the ways of God, which expresses itself in the clash between the rich and the poor. In verse 5 James says “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that God has promised to those who love God?” Later on in chapter 5, James has extremely harsh words for the rich. Ch. 5 verse 1 begins, “Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you.”

James is clearly not discouraging the early Christians from taking sides between the rich and the poor. His warning is against showing favoritism to the rich in particular - and he argues that doing so betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of both the community’s actual relationship to the rich and the meaning of their faith.

“Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?”

James is saying the rich both oppress the early Christians materially (by taking them to court, for example) and blaspheme the name of Jesus. And on the flip side, James reminds the community that not only does their faith call them to take the side of the poor, their material circumstances also put them on the side of the poor.

The Roman Empire was a period of extreme economic inequality and concentration of wealth at the top- like our own time. So chances are the people in fine clothes in the midst of this congregation were not truly “the rich.” They were actually much closer in circumstance to the folks wearing dirty clothes than they were to those at the top of the Roman hierarchy. And so James urges them to treat one another accordingly - to refrain from showing favoritism or judging one another.

I would argue that in many cases the church today suffers from much of the same confusion that James is writing about. First of all, even liberal or progressive churches too often prevaricate about the very clear Biblical message that God is on the side of the poor. In my experience, there is a common misconception among Christians that our faith should make us wary of taking sides - as if the commandment to love our enemies actually means denying that we have any. But as Howard Zinn famously said, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” James is making a similar point. Neutrality is not an option. Unless we intentionally choose the way of Jesus, we will fall into the opposing way of the world. Unless we take the side of the poor, we will default to the side of the rich.

Perhaps part of our hesitancy to take a clearer stand also has to do with our confusion about who are the rich and who are the poor. In general, Americans tend to have a distorted view of how wealth is distributed in the United States. We underestimate just how few people control the majority of it. According to a 2019 study, the 400 wealthiest Americans controlled 60% of the nation’s wealth. Put another way, the richest 400 Americans have more wealth than the bottom 150 million.

Even people who most of us would consider quite wealthy are actually much closer to the poor than the super-rich.

For example, a person that earns $1 million a year makes 69 times more than someone working full-time at the federal minimum wage. That’s a big difference. But the $31 billion that Bill Gates made in the first year of the pandemic is 31,000 times more than that $1 million.

This inequality has only worsened throughout the pandemic. If we were to consider James’ question - “Is it not the rich that oppress you?”- the answer could hardly be more clear to us than it is now.

Looking back to those first few weeks in March and April 2020, we might have imagined that COVID-19 would usher in a kind of rebalancing of the economy. Public services we had disinvested in for decades were revealed to be critically important. The kind of work we often devalued - if not disdained - was shown to be essential. We were coming to a new recognition of our interconnectedness.

We all remember the applause and cheers that filled the streets of cities at 7pm - shift-change for hospital workers. While most of us were on lockdown, we wanted to encourage and show our gratitude for the workers who were literally risking their lives to care for the sick.

And it wasn’t just healthcare workers. The category “essential workers” included all kinds of workers that didn’t have the social prestige of doctors and nurses. Delivery drivers, grocery store workers, bus drivers, farmworkers, sanitation workers, fast food workers. For at least a moment in time, the public had a deeper understanding of how much our society depends on their labor to function at the most basic level.

But when it came time to put this newfound appreciation into practical terms, the praise that had come up from many politicians and corporations proved hollow. Earlier this year, Congress once again failed to raise the minimum wage, even as it was clear that essential workers disproportionately earned low wages.

The pandemic has led not to a rebalancing of the economy but to an unimaginable worsening of the imbalance we started off with. Not only have the wealthiest corporations and individuals not experienced the same financial hardship as the rest of us, they have actually profited from the crisis hand over fist.

For example, Jeff Bezos’ wealth increased by $99 billion between March 2020 and this July. The wealth of Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page more than doubled to over $100 billion each. All this while tens of millions of Americans lost jobs, income and health insurance. Goldman-Sachs released an estimate just this week that 750,000 households face eviction if the moratorium struck down by the Supreme Court is not extended.

Since the start of the pandemic, my friend Mark has been organizing massive drive-through food distributions every week in the Albany, NY area through the Area Labor Federation and Catholic Charities. The demand is enormous - they run out of food every time, usually with 20-30 cars still waiting in line.

Mark told me about one interaction he had with a woman who told him she had lost her job. She had been applying for any job she could find, and even though she had a master’s degree, no one was calling her back. To get a service industry job you have to take the master’s degree off your resume, Mark told her. “But I worked so hard for it,” she said, with tears in her eyes.

There are so many people like this woman, who at one time seemed to be solidly “middle class” yet during this pandemic have been pushed into the ranks of the poor. And in reality, this is a trend that has been going on for some time.

When the Poor People’s Campaign did a study in 2018 of who is actually struggling to make ends meet in the U.S., we found that it’s 140 million people - or 44 percent of the population. And many more people are one health care crisis or job loss away from poverty. A 2013 study found that 80% of American adults will experience a year or more of economic insecurity at some point.

To take the side of the poor, therefore, is actually to take the side of the vast majority of us. When we seek to orient society around those who Jesus calls “the least of these,” we aren’t just helping a small or marginal segment of our community. Society as a whole is better off.

As we say in the Poor People’s Campaign: “When you lift from the bottom, everybody rises.”

Having a clearer understanding of how wealth is distributed helps us understand why and how policies that lift up the poor and working class serve the common good. But beyond that, when we better understand just how many of us are poor and just how few of us are rich, we also gain a clearer perspective on our connection to one another.

“Is it not the rich that oppress you?” James asks. Our affirmative answer to that question unites us with literally billions of people on this planet.

As the director of the Labor-Religion Coalition I am sometimes asked what labor and religion have in common. I respond that the simplest answer is solidarity - the idea that we are all siblings, that our fates are connected, and that an injury to one is an injury to all. Though we may express it differently, the principle of solidarity is foundational both to every major religion and to the labor movement.

And at our best, both religion and labor understand solidarity as transcending the bounds of our own immediate communities and institutions.

General Baker, a prominent labor activist and organizer from Detroit who passed away in 2014, said this about the labor movement:

"Clearly the union movement is only the organized part of the labor movement. The labor movement... is all of those who work by the sweat of their brow, whether you sell mental or physical labor … whether you work in the countryside or in the city, whether you are paid by the hour or all at once, whether you work part-time or half-time or not at all, if you once used to work and are no longer able, if you once used to work and now are unemployed, if you wanted to work and can't get there, all of this represents the strength of the labor movement."

Solidarity is more than just an idea or a belief. Solidarity is also about strategy. As General Baker says, the vast breadth of the labor movement is the strength of the labor movement. Recognizing that nearly half of the U.S. population is poor shows the power of the poor in this country. The history of the labor movement and other movements for social change show that it is only when masses of people come together that oppressive structures and policies are changed. Recognizing our inseparable connection to one another is the key to unlocking the collective power that lies dormant when we remain divided.

This is important, because as James says in vs. 14-16, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”

Taking the side of the poor intellectually or emotionally is meaningless unless we are taking action that actually changes the conditions of the poor.

And that is why as followers of Jesus we are compelled to not just preach solidarity but to practice it.

The good news is that all around us, the broader labor movement is taking up the struggle for justice. The thousands of striking coal miners in Alabama and striking Nabisco workers in the West are on the front lines of the labor movement. The water protectors organizing to stop the construction of Line 3 in Minnesota are on the front lines of the labor movement. Tenants organizing all across the country to win an eviction moratorium and rent cancellation are on the front lines of the labor movement.

We are surrounded by opportunities to join in this sacred work and to proclaim our faith through the practice of solidarity.

“Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith,” James writes.

May our works, especially in these trying times, show boldly and clearly our faith in Jesus Christ, who came to bring good news to the poor. Amen.

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