Faith in Public LIVE, Let Justice Roll’s Rev. Paul Sherry on why “a truly religious person is by definition a political person.”
Rev. Paul Sherry, National Coordinator of the Let Justice Roll Campaign, and Rabbi Jill Jacobs, blogger extraordinaire from JSpot and Director of Education for the Jewish Funds for Justice, a public operating foundation that creates a just, fair, and compassionate America, focus our attention this week on one of the most important and successful campaigns in our country today: the struggle for just wages. Check back all week for their exchange!
Part 7: Rev. Paul Sherry on why “a truly religious person is by definition a political person.”
Thanks for your note and, yes, I do agree that all too often our lack of action on behalf of simple justice reflects an unwillingness on our part to jump into the fray. We either are fearful of being criticised for our actions or we have a misconception of the true nature of the religious enterprise. Either way, it is
not that we are unable but unwilling.
As to your provocative question, “How can we eliminate the perception that the political is inherently not religious?” I am inclined to say that we do so by rereading scripture, always a worthwhile pursuit, but even more so, I believe, by living out our religion in the political world. You are surely right that a
truly religious person is by definition a political person; that is, a person engaged in social transformation. As more and more of us seek to live out this conviction, perhaps perceptions will change.
As our conversation draws to a close, your statement about our “unwillingness” to get involved keeps coming to mind. Some time ago I preached on the theme, “The Courage to Dare”, after which a person who had been in the congregation came up to me to tell me that not many months before she had done precisely that and it was changing her life. She said that for years she had had strong convictions about a whole range of justice concerns but was fearful about acting on those convictions. What would her neighbors think? Would it affect her family life? And, she said, when she finally did dare to act some of her neighbors were not very happy. But she also said she has never felt more in tune with herself. She feels like what she is about is consonant with who God created her to be and that is all that matters. She had the courage to dare and in and through that courage her life was renewed.
So, why do we fail to be justice doers? Yes, partly, as we have said, because of an inadquate understanding of our faith, but even more so because we lack the courage of our convictions. So, to the degree that our religious traditions help us find that courage, akin to that of my new friend mentioned above, the religious renewal we seek may not be far behind. That, at least for me, is a reason for renewed hope.
It has been great to talk with you. Best wishes,
Part 6: Rabbi Jill Jacobs asks to what degree we are unable or unwilling to act…
Thank you for continuing to push us to think about how to move from religious theories of justice to just actions. I think that this is precisely the right question to be asking ourselves, especially as the right has proven so efficient in turning from ideology to organizing.
I was intrigued by your statement that “though we as faith based people often have strong justice commitments inspired by the richness of our faith traditions, we oftimes find it difficult to translate those commitments into effective action for substantive change.â€ I wonder: to what degree are we unable to translate these commitments into action, and to what extent are we unwilling?
Like you, I work for an organization (the Jewish Funds for Justice) committed to creating a religious community that sees justice as an integral part of its mission and practice. But organizations like ours–while more prevalent than a few years ago–still do not represent the majority of religious people in America.
Rabbis, pastors, and other religious leaders often shy away from justice work, which they perceive as “too politicalâ€ for the pulpit. I find this statement nonsensical–the Bible, at its core, is a political book. Still, for whatever reason, progressive-leaning religious leaders are often uncomfortable doing justice work.
More right-wing clergy, of course, have no such problem. The success of the religious right has been to reframe issues ranging from abortion to gay rights to tax cuts as “religiousâ€ and not “political.â€ The left, on the other hand, has cast these issues as “politicalâ€ and therefore not “religious.â€
For me, there is no distinction between what is “religiousâ€ and what is “political.â€ Our faiths are meant to guide our actions in the world–whether these be private actions or intentions between the believer and God, or whether these be public actions, involving multiple individuals, organizations, or states.
How can we eliminate this perception, among progressive people of faiths, that the political is inherently not religious, and vice versa?
I look forward to hearing from you soon,
Part 5: Rev. Sherry on Let Justice Roll
Thanks for your reflections on mitzvot. It is, as you suggest, a sound basis on which to enlist faith based people in efforts to enrich people’s lives. And, yes, the question raised increasingly in these days by Christian leaders, “What would Jesus do?”, does, I believe, provide similar motivational power.
However, I think you may agree that though we as faith based people often have strong justice commitments inspired by the richness of our faith traditions, we oftimes find it difficult to translate those commitments into effective action for substantive change. That being the case, I believe we need increasingly to help all of us develop the strategic skills that change demands. So many faith based people are deeply committed to helping build a more just society. So many have the energy to move forward with power. However, I am convinced that, if we are to be the change agents that our faith requires, we continue to need more vehicles by which that commitment and that energy can transform that which is into that which God would yet have be.
You probably will not be surprised that that conviction brings me to Let Justice Roll. Those of us who are part of Let justice Roll feel that it is one such vehicle so I would like to take this opportunity to urge our readers to join with us. We believe that, at this point in time, working to raise the minimum wage may be the most viable current instrument available to us for addressing the poverty that afflicts so many of our nation’s people. As I said in an earlier exchange, though modest minimum wage increases are far from sufficient for bringing low wage workers and their families out of poverty, they are essential for people struggling to afford the basic necessities of life and bring with them the promise of better things to come.
So, people who want to join with us in this campaign on behalf of and alongside the working poor can do so by signing up at our website: www.letjusticeroll.org. Mitzvot, “What would Jesus do?” provide the motivation. Let Justice Roll provides one concrete vehicle by which that motivation can result in positive change in people’s lives.
Part 4: Rabbi Jacobs on summoning the will for action
You are certainly right that the “minimum wageâ€ has become divorced from its original intention as a wage that would allow people to lift themselves out of poverty. Indeed, the very terminology of the current “living wageâ€ campaigns is a testament to this reality; if we had not forgotten that the minimum wage, in its conception, was meant to be a living wage, then there would be no need for this new terminology.
Much more difficult is the challenge with which you end your post: how we achieve “the will to act, to fulfill the vision.â€ There are, of course, many directions we might go with this question. As I am not a political strategist, I will not comment on the best tactics for achieving higher minimum wages in particular states or cities. As a religious leader, however, I can venture a few suggestions for what our religious communities might do to advance this agenda.
Foremost in my mind is the issue of obligation, which is a foundational principle of Judaism. Traditional Jews consider themselves to be obligated by certain mitzvot (commandments), which include laws about what to eat and not eat; how to celebrate the Sabbath and other holidays; how to treat workers; how to conduct oneself in business; when and how to pray, etc. These mitzvot, as the above examples should suggest, address not only ritual practices and relationships with God, but also relationships among people. Unfortunately, many within my community have come to view mitzvot relating to ritual behaviors as obligatory, but mitzvot relating to relations with others as simply nice things that good people do. The challenge, within my own community, is to reframe the mitzvot relating to interpersonal behaviors and civil law as equally as obligatory and equally as central. Religious leaders can do much by speaking to their communities about the necessity of working for change that makes a tangible difference in people’s lives, in addition to speaking about ritual practice and personal growth.
Christianity does not have the same framework of mitzvot, but does have a strong tradition of imitatio dei–the concept now popularized as “What Would Jesus Do?â€ I imagine that Christian clergy can similarly move their congregations by talking about Jesus as an social change hero. But I’ll let you talk about that.
Part 3: Paul Sherry on where faith and the American tradition meet
Your thoughtful reflections on the Rambam text on poverty reminded me of several texts from our American experience which also point the way forward.
First, a statement from the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which as you will remember was enacted during the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. That Act was designed, and I am quoting, to eliminate “labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standard of living necessary for health, efficiency and general well-being of workers.” If we place that statement, a rather visionary statement, I think you will agree, over against the current federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hour (a wage that places a family of three about $6000 below the poverty line) we see rather quickly, and dramatically, how we have turned on its head the very purposes that the Fair Labor Standards Act was enacted to accomplish. In fact, rather than eliminating labor standards detrimental to the maintenance of a minimmal standard of living, the current minimum wage reinforces those conditions.
Second, a demand of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the occasion for Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the Washington DC Mall. The demand of that March, often forgotten, was for “a national minimum wage that will give all Americans a decent standard of living.” That demand is as compelling today as it was so many decades ago. Think of it! The 1963 minimum wage, in effect at the very moment so many gathering on the Mall, was worth more than $8.00 in today’s dollars, about $3.00 more than the current minimum wage. The real minimum wage – the wage adjusted for inflation – reached its highest point, $9.37, in 1968. It is time. long past time, for constructive change!
These statements from our American experience and so many others from our respective faith traditions demonstrate that the vision is there. What is needed is the will to act, to fulfill the vision, so that justice will roll down like living waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream.
Part 2: Jill Jacobs on a ninth level of tzedakah
Dear Reverend Sherry:
Thank you for starting this conversation in such a thoughtful way. I am also looking forward to our ongoing discussion this week.
I have been amazed and delighted by the level of support throughout the country for raising the minimum wage, either on a state level or through local “living wageâ€ ordinances. I believe, as you suggested, that this overwhelming support constitutes an acknowledgment that it is morally wrong that people work full time and still cannot afford to meet their families’ basic needs. For me, the most striking proof that the minimum wage issue transcends ideological boundaries emerged from the 2004 election, when voters in Florida famously voted to raise the minimum wage and to re-elect George W. Bush.
Possibly the best-known and most-used Jewish text on poverty is the formulation of “eight levels of tzedakah (support for the poor)â€ by the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, aka Maimonides, 1138-1204) There, Rambam suggests that the highest level of tzedakah is giving someone a loan or a job, or entering into a business partnership with a poor person, in order that this person will no longer need to ask for help. This text appears in the Mishneh Torah, the Rambam’s attempt to formulate talmudic law into an easy-to-access legal code.
What I find most striking about Rambam’s comment is not what he says about effective means of combating poverty, but what he doesn’t say. I agree that loans, business partnerships, and jobs ultimately provide some of the most important avenues out of poverty; indeed, the organization for which I work–the Jewish Funds for Justice–is largely dedicated to improving access to credit in low-income areas. However, more interesting to me is Rambam’s assumption that giving a person a job, a loan, or a business opportunity will necessarily lift that person out of poverty. In our world, we know that jobs, loans and business partnerships can only go so far; ultimately, if jobs don’t pay enough, millions of working people will continue to live in poverty. Perhaps, in Rambam’s time, there was no class of “working poorâ€; certainly, he does not indicate an awareness of such a category of people. In our time, however, the ranks of the working poor are growing daily.
Perhaps, if Rambam were alive today, he would add a ninth level of tzedakah: ensuring that jobs and business opportunities enable people to rise out of poverty. One of the roles of religious people and organizations might be to try to restore a world in which Rambam’s assumptions work: that is, in which every working person is guaranteed to be able to meet his or her family’s basic needs.
Part 1: Paul Sherry on the moral responsibility to let justice roll
Hello Rabbi Jacobs,
I’m looking forward to the exchange we’ll have in this space throughout the week. Thanks for joining me to discuss the living wage, faith, and politics.
I’ll start with a basic statement: A job should keep you out of poverty, not keep you in it.
That’s the bottom line of the Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign, organized to raise the minimum wage at the federal level and in selected states. We are a nonpartisan campaign composed of 80+ faith based, community based and labor bodies. We remember the admonition in the book of Deuteronomy that “you shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer” and we believe with Martin Luther King Jr. that “there is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American (worker) whether he (or she) is a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid or day laborer.”
Though we have not yet been successful in raising the federal minimum wage, stuck at $5.15 per hour since 1997, we and others have had significant success in a number of states – Michigan, West Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts – and are very hopeful that in the upcoming elections we may win increases in Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Arizona, and Colorado, states in which we and others have been working very intensively in recent months.
The recent victories and those we are anticipating in the near future have led us to believe that raising the minimum wage may well be the most viable instrument available today to combat in a very significant way the poverty that afflicts so many of our nation’s people.
Many people have been rather surprised that so many states have been able to raise their minimum wage – particularly in a time of political and social conservatism – and have asked us over and over again, “Why have we had this success?” Certainly, part of the answer is good organizing, basic to any successful campaign, but even more so because people from all walks of life – all points on the political spectrum – are morally offended by a wage that keeps people in poverty rather than helping them climb out of poverty.
In other words, Let Justice Roll’s success, modest as it is, is rooted in its appeal to people to see a decent minimum wage not only as an economic value but as a moral value. As we say in our report, A JUST MINIMUM WAGE:Good for Workers, business and our Future, “Raising the minimum wage is an economic imperative for the enduring strength of our workforce, businesses and communities. Raising the minimum wage is a moral imperative for the very soul of our nation.”
It is immoral that workers who care for children, the ill and the elderly struggle to care for their own families. It is immoral that the minimum wage keeps people in poverty instead of out of poverty. Decency, morality demands redress. Down deep, most people know this and, we are finding, more and more people, when confronted by the facts of the case, respond and begin to call and act for positive change. Certainly, modest minimum wage raises are far from sufficient for bringing many low wage workers and their families out of poverty. Rather, these raises are but way stations on the way to a living wage for low wage workers and families. But though not sufficient, they are essential for people struggling to afford the basic necessities of life and bring with them the promise of better things to come in the days ahead. The prophet Amos has it right:’Let justice roll down like living waters and righteousness like and everflowing stream.”
Full information about the Let justice Roll Living Wage Campaign is available at our web page: www.letjusticeroll.org.
Looking forward to your response,
Paul H. Sherry
Coordinator, the Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign