Pentecost , Year C
Readings: (Jeremiah 2:4–13); Psalm 81:1, 10–16; Hebrews 13:1–8, 15–16; Luke 14:1, 7–14
Field, factory, mine, kitchen, hotel, salon, highway, classroom, office, precinct, daycare, store, hospital, forest. The workplace. What have I left out? Parliament, church, bedroom, table. There must be some people who never work. Who have their decisions made for them, their meals and beds made, who never carry groceries or push a stroller. All the rest of us chop, lift, sort, file, weld, tend, fry, decide, paint, stir, type, stand, talk, read, supervise, drive, watch, preach—we work. We work for pay sometimes, we do much of our day’s work for no pay, we work for pleasure.
Some of us are lucky. We work at what we like. Or we end up our work life with savings, a pension—some security in our later years. Or both. But not all of us. Some of us do work that’s boring, or distressing, or not suited to us. Some of us are hurt at work. Some of us are kicked out of the paying economy for various reasons, and work harder than ever just to get by, on the margins.
We have a good group here. Let’s find out some things about working. You don’t have to answer every question, or any question. When you hold your hand up to answer, keep it up for a bit so others can look around and see our collective experience.
Who has worked for pay?
Who has worked for unequal pay, as a man or a woman?
Who has had amazingly positive experiences at work? Such as?
Amazingly negative? Such as?
Who has had trouble at times separating who they really are from their job, their work?
Who has been fired? Unemployed?
Who has had to fire someone else?
Thank you. I have one more question for you later, but that’s a snap shot of our work experience.
The Butler is a film about serving, honour, dignity, change, anger, love, power, powerlessness. And work. Work might be in a cotton field, where the boss has a temper, a ruthless lack of conscience and a gun. Between the rows, the crop is fear. Work might be serving: serving drinks and meals in a hotel, serving time in a local jail for civil rights work, serving in the very centre of contemporary power, the White House. The film asks, How does change come? Slowly, with baby steps, through example, persuasion, patience, persistence. Or quickly, through violence or the threat of violence. Black people need change in 1950s, 60s, 70s America. Cecil Gaines is the butler of the title. His son, Louis, goes off to university, in the south, and falls under the spell of Martin Luther King, Jr. Soon he’s marching, occupying a lunch counter stool at Woolworths, getting arrested and jailed. Is the preacher right that black people working as butlers challenge racial stereotypes with their care, their hard work, their attention to detail, their self control? Later, Louis tries out the Black Panthers as they get going. Is the militant leader right, that Black people who don’t resist are hapless dupes, exploited, tamed, propping up the oppressor? Father and son take are estranged for twenty year because of their opposing views
The butler bring cups of tea and coffee to the Oval Office. He overhears policy about race relations from one administration after another, but cannot comment on anything. The film goer gets a two hour review of the coming of civil rights to the United States—the non-violent actions, the violent responses, the slow growth of opportunities for people of colour. What the viewer does not get, we realized after, is analysis of the economy of empire. Owners, of farms or factories, want the cheapest labour they can find. As one of us pointed out afterwards, skin colour just makes it easy to identify who is in the low-paid group. So the movie appears to be about race, but the issue is also class. And in many societies, still, those two things are deeply entwined.
On Labour Day, what does a Christian do? How do we relate to work, owners, workers, the paid economy? The story in Luke today is about the table, where social standing is sometimes displayed. Not everyone can sit right beside the host, the rich or powerful person who is throwing the banquet. A pecking order is revealed. How can a person of faith show grace at table? Through humility, says Luke. In the movie, all the butlers and housekeeping staff at the White House are black. They are paid less than white staff, and can never advance to more responsible positions. Cecil Gaines humbly goes to the head of operations every ten years or so to point this out. Nothing doing. If you don’t like it, quit. Finally, he is so trusted, so well-respected, that he can raise it with the President. Change comes.
And after thirty years of service, Cecil and Gloria Gaines even get invited to sit at the table during a formal, White House dinner. Gloria is thrilled. Cecil is nervous and uncomfortable to be a guest at last. He doesn’t really fit in, and he wonders and we wonder if it’s just tokenism. How much changed for the better after the legislation of the sixties? Another story from our discussion afterwards. One of us worked in Detroit in the mid-eighties. The staff was from all over, and multi-cultural. That’s the good news. As American Thanksgiving drew near at the end of November, people began to reflect about how busy it was, what pressure there was to go see family, then do the same thing all over a month later at Christmas. Yes, said a younger Black woman, whose family lived south of Michigan, and packing a picnic basket for the trip, because of all the places along the way that won’t serve Blacks. That’s the reality check.
What does the global table look like this Labour Day weekend? The International Labour Organization toils away in Geneva gathering statistics on the big picture. Their figures confirm what you suspected: the food at the table is migrating toward the end where the rich people are sitting. Workers are getting a smaller share of Gross Domestic Product, and a bigger slice is going to owners as capital income. The ILO’s Global Wage Report for 2012/2013 says that in sixteen developed economies, the average labour share of the food on the platter dropped from 75% of national income to 65% in the forty years from the mid-1970s in the years to just before the current economic crisis. Women’s share of those declining wages will have gone up, but you can be sure that many are still getting less for equal work. One of those in the Tuesday evening group taught at the University of Toronto in the sixties, and remembers that female professors got 20 to 40% less than males, just like the Black butlers at the White House. The University recently settled a class action law suit to make up some of that disparity for those still alive to claim justice. Another finally got equal pay with men when she moved to a unionized workplace.
The ILO reports there are 215 million child labourers across the planet. People migrate from poorer places to wealthier ones to get work. Both these facts present the opportunity for employers to exploit them. People leave rural areas of China and go to the city. Nicaraugans go next door to Costa Rica. Philipinas come to North America as nannies. Mexicans and Jamaicans come here to work in the fields and orchards.
Final question: How many of us have moved for work?
“Let mutual love continue,” writes the author of Hebrews. The Tuesday night movie group zeroed in on that line. I threw out the provocative question: does our Christian faith make us into door mats, weaklings, softies, as some critics have charged? No!, said the group, it makes us stronger. You can have dignity, even in a service job. It takes strength to resist non-violently. They also pointed out that Canada has issues of its own. We are in no position to point the finger at anybody when it comes to issues of race, class, sex and justice in workplace.
Mutual love. That’s what the Tolpuddle Martyrs had all the years ago. The law in England against forming a combination, meaning a labour organization or union had been repealed in 1824. So the Tolpuddle farm workers, led by a Methodist preacher, formed a few years later in South West England. All might have been well, but they swore an oath to each other as part of their new organization. Some farm owner knew of an old law that forbade oaths. Perfect! Try ’em, convict ’em, pack ’em off to Van Diemen’s land. Suppression of workers’ rights has a long history. In the case of this group, popular feeling was on their side. They came back from Australia, but ended up moving to southwestern Ontario in the 1830s.
I was at the founding yesterday of a new union. Two large industrial unions merged to create something called Unifor. It was very moving to be there as the two groups voted separately to join together. The vote was almost unanimous. The new president gave an impassioned speech. He committed Unifor to the struggle for justice: justice for women, for the LGBT community, racialized workers, the environment, First Nations, young people. It was inspiring.
Meanwhile, far from all the shouting, you may wonder about your work—the stuff you find rewarding, the stuff you don’t. Are you appreciated enough, recognized enough for it? And how much appreciation and recognition is the right amount? Your volunteer work, your church work, are they making a difference? Is your faith calling you to serve quietly and say nothing, or to put yourself firmly, gently, stubbornly, in the way of the exploiter, the oppressor. Are we martyrs? Or all those things? We are butlers, living lives of simple service so that others may simply live. And we are activists, resisting a world table that puts so many of the good things on the plates of the few while so many go hungry. Martyr doesn’t mean dying. It is just the Greek word for witness, and so we are that, too. Whatever we are called to do, we are seekers after holiness, the sacred. May we find it in our rest, in our work, in our companions, our opponents and ourselves. May we find grace at the great banqueting table of life, and may we offer it to others.