Wednesday, December 17, 2014



   It was a long time ago but I remember as a kid listening to passionate discussions about politics and labor at the family Christmas celebration.  The men would retire to the kitchen to do their part and wash the dishes after a sumptuous meal prepared by my grandmother assisted by dutiful aunts.  The discussion in the kitchen was loud and contentious but my grandmother would not allow vulgar language or racial epithets while we kids were within range.  They were union men, class-conscious, and well aware that union activity made sumptuous meals possible for the family.  We were Roman Catholic and my Dad, for one, knew of the social encyclicals of Leo XIII and Pius XI that supported unions. 

   Perhaps this is why it is so painful for me to realize that support for unions by the hierarchy and by liberal Church faithful is minimal.  How is it possible that liberal Roman Catholic publications such as Commonweal and NCR do not use Union printers?  Contemporary Catholics are more educated than the men in my grandmother’s kitchen so they probably feel above the struggle for just wages and an effective voice for labor.   But I do sense some guilt in laity, priests, bishops who have risen to a status above their immigrant fore-bearers and who ignore the crucial importance of labor unions.

   There is an excuse – not valid – but it’s there.  It goes back to the disputes between Paul and Jesus’ brother, James the Just.  Those Catholics that do not support unions could claim, but not legitimately, a ‘Pauline Privilege’ as a balm for the conscience.  

   When Christianity was a fringe sect of Judaism, Paul after a vigorous discussions with James and Peter, was able to get an agreement that gentiles could become part of the community without adhering to Jewish dietary laws and circumcision.  But another dispute, over faith and works was unresolved and appears in the letters of the self-designated Apostle Paul and James, Jesus brother, not an Apostle but a leader in the Christian community of Jerusalem.  

   Paul and James had different backgrounds.  Paul was from the Roman city of Tarsus and was well educated.  He spoke Hebrew and Greek and has been categorized as a ‘Hellenistic Jew.”  James the Just, Jesus’ brother, was from impoverished Galilee, was probably illiterate and probably spoke only Aramaic. Paul was more of an idealist and James a pragmatist.  Their differing views provide a tension that lasts to this day in the Christian community.  Both are considered Christian martyrs.  Paul was killed in Rome and James in Jerusalem.

   Justification by faith was key to Paul’s theology.  He wrote in his Epistle to the Romans, ‘Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ (Romans, 5:1)  Balm for the conscience, don’t worry about labor unions. 

   In response James the Just wrote,

          If a brother of sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the    day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works is dead.’ (James, 2:15-17)

    Joanne and I host the family Christmas celebration this year.  I will make a point of saying that the just wages our parents fought for through the union movement made our ‘sumptuous’ dinner possible.  However, the ever growing income gap and the well financed anti union movement make it seem that history is in reverse.  But low income and immigrant workers are on the march.  Those of us who have benefited from the union movement need to join the battle once again.  Prayers to James the Just wouldn’t hurt.    

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