Thursday, February 14, 2008

God and Wealth

I'm a member over at a site called CrossLeft and I blog and comment there. CrossLeft's masthead slogan is "Join the Progressive Christian Movement". The question of the meaning of terms like "progressive", "liberal", and "left" comes up from time to time, particularly in relation to the presidential election campaign.

I had written a comment complaining that Obama and Clinton are too caught up in the corporate system, and received a reply from an Obama supporter that one can take anti-corporatism too far. Following that, someone else posted a drawing of his to illustrate the passage in Luke that ends with Jesus saying "You cannot serve God and wealth" -- or in the older translations, "You cannot serve God and Mammon".

So this is what I wrote next, with a few emendations at the end, coming from my comments to responders:

Angelo's illustration for Luke 16:1-13 stimulates me to write about corporations, conservatism, and Jesus' teachings. Yeah, again with the corporations.

It really seems so simple and straightforward to me.

1. In Luke, Jesus says "You cannot worship God and wealth."

2. Business corporations whose stocks are publicly traded in the market have, under current law, only one duty -- a fiduciary duty to their stockholders. That means they're obligated to put stockholders' financial interests above all else. Net income and net worth are their only bottom lines. The production of wealth is the sole interest of these fictive legal persons.

3. As a legal person, a corporation of this type is literally a soulless person and feels unconstrained by any human values other than "wealth is good", "more wealth is better", and "no amount of wealth is enough". Thus, maximizing profits is at all times its only operational goal. Providing products and services are but means to this goal.

4. This strange wealth-seeking person is given perpetual life by its charter. It nevertheless may die, but if it makes profits, it need not ever die. With perpetual life comes the absence of 'death taxes'. The 'estate' is never broken up and redistributed to its human heirs; its wealth can build to a level far beyond that which is possessed by a single human person. The most successful corporate persons become economic entities that are larger than most nation-states. With size comes financial power. With financial power comes political power.

5. The human persons who own stock in this fictive legal person are free from any legal responsibilities for what their corporation does. If they don't like what the corporation is doing, they can sell their stock. If they continue to hold their stock, they have no practical influence on "their" corporation's behavior. The structure of corporate governance makes it extremely hard for stockholders to have any significant impact on corporate policy and behavior.

6. Except as restricted by governmental regulation, the corporate personages are therefore set free to do as they like. The cumulative effects of what they like to do have, over the last couple of centuries, changed the face of the earth and changed the terms of human existence . Thus, the true revolutionary force in 'modern times' has been the corporation, aided by corporate-enabling and corporate-promoting nation-states. The Soviet Union's counterrevolution couldn't hold up against the corporate-based system' ability to harness science and technology to produce wealth and power. And China's has been absorbed by the same system within which it is now a major contender for power.

7. Wealth and power, relatively concentrated in key sectors, have made the corporation the dominant and defining institution in our society. People adapt to its needs more than it adapts to people's needs.

8. Our society has in this manner created a class of fictive legal individuals who constitute a totally new type of ruling class. These rulers are beyond the reach of the teachings of Jesus. "Serving Mammon" (I like the old words sometimes), they are unable to "serve God". Or, correlatively, "to serve humanity". Is it any wonder we non-fictive human individuals and our human societies have problems?

9. Those who serve these servants of Mammon as executives and highest-level support staff have generally taken for themselves the respectable term "conservative". They function as the human part of the new ruling class. (It's estimated that perhaps only 30,000 people constitute the "ruling class" part of the "upper class".) Their definition of "conservative", stripped of parochial social and cultural issues (the materials of "the culture wars" in the USA), comes down to maintaining the status quo of corporate domination.

10. Our constitutional structure and the structure of our election laws make for a two party system which is hard to challenge or change. Both parties are conservative in that they work to maintain the corporate system. One party tends to work to enhance corporate power, the other to improve the terms of the deal through incremental changes and reforms which help to stabilize the corporate system. FDR is the prime example of the latter, despite the fact that his reforms weren't experienced as merely incremental by the diehards of the corporate enhancement bloc. He took the label of "liberal" rather than "progressive", as "progressive" had become an outmoded and pejorative term. It was associated with basic challenges to the corporate system which had failed and which no longer had any traction.

11. The term "liberal', having been demonized and made into a pejorative by the Republican corporate party, was in turn rejected by many reformers within the Democratic corporate party, as well as by outsiders to the "left" of that party. "Progressive" became the term of choice for many. It had the virtue -- and the vice -- of blurring distinctions between the incrementalist reformers within the Democratic Party and the "leftist" system-challengers outside of the party. The virtue is that it has made it easier to form some coalitions across ideological lines in order to resist, in mostly ineffectual ways, some of the most extreme actions of the Republican Party. The vice is that it blurs ideological differences in a way that confuses thought and diffuses action. It makes it harder to discern what changes improve and support the corporate system, and what changes actually start to change the system.

12. Jesus said "You cannot worship God and wealth."

What do we mean when we call this place "CrossLeft" and ask people to "Join the Progressive Christian Movement"? Do we see connections between the words "You cannot serve God and wealth" and our American institutional life? Are we to abet those corporate persons and their servants who worship wealth? If we oppose them, how? And how do we discern the difference?

That is, do we take corporatism on as a major opponent? If we do, as I think we must, then what constitutes real opposition and what doesn't?

Those are the questions that will do much to define what we mean by "CrossLeft" and "Progressive Christian Movement". The tags "leftist", "liberal", and "progressive" are far less important than the issue of where you draw the boundary between "conservative" and "non-conservative" -- or more precisely, "corporatist" and "non-corporatist", as some paleoconservatives and Burkean conservatives see the dangers of corporatism.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Going Hungry to Make a Point

This article describes the Labor-Religion Coalition's Fast in March of 2000. The issue for that year's fast was the minimum wage which had been unchanged for many years at $5.15 per hour. It took a lot of organizing and lobbying work, and it took a few years, but with the efforts of unions, religious groups, and community organizations, the increase was won in 2004, and the wage was finally raised in 2005, to $6.00 per hour. In 2006, it went to $6.75 and then to $7.15 on January 1, 2007.

By comparison, the Federal minimum wage was raised last year to $5.85 and is scheduled to go to $6.55 in July and to $7.25 in July, 2009.

The effects in NY have been good -- the increase benefited thousands of low-wage New York workers. And, contrary to the warnings of opponents of the minimum wage hike, employment in industries employing large numbers of low-wage workers grew significantly. And hours worked increased, too.

Currently in NY, business organizations like the National Federation of Independent Businesses are again fighting a bill to raise the rates again and to index them to inflation:

"This year, a bill has passed out of the Assembly's labor committee to raise the wage in 2009, 2010 and 2011. The proposed legislation also mandates annual minimum wage increases starting in 2012, indexing the raises to a formula combining inflation rates and the consumer price index. Two-thirds of NFIB survey respondents opposed that idea. Under the bill, the minimum wage would rise to $7.75 in 2009, $8 in 2010 and $8.25 in 2011." []

The NFIB is also fighting a bill to mandate paid family leaves, which passed the State Assembly (controlled by Democrats) and is stalled in the State Senate (controlled by Republicans).

The struggle for equity and living wages continues -- the new minimum wages are still below Living Wage standards for NY. Religious groups will continue to share an economic justice agenda with labor.

From the New York Times, March 31, 2000, Friday,

Going Hungry to Make a Point;
A Fast for Poor Laborers Is a Sign of New Interest in an Old Technique

On college campuses and farmers' fields, in churches and immigration detention centers, and across a range of religious and political beliefs, people are fasting. They do it to make a statement, to prove a point, to draw attention, to make a personal kind of peace.

Indeed, across New York State this week, more than a thousand people, from the Roman Catholic bishop of Albany to janitors in Buffalo, have joined one of the country's largest fasts, this one to protest low wages and abuses in the workplace.

Fasting, of course, has been a spiritual undertaking and sociopolitical tool for centuries, and the lineup of famous fasters is vast and varied: Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, Dick Gregory and, of course, Jesus of Nazareth. But fasting, it appears, is seeing a modest revival.

''There's been a definite increase in fasting,'' said Kim Bobo, executive director of the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice. ''Fasting has always been in the Christian, Jewish and Muslim tradition, and as people of faith seek increasingly to struggle for justice in this time of abundance, it's a natural outgrowth that fasting would be something they do.''

To many, the power of fasting, personal and political, feels especially strong in New York, where many of the streets, beginning with Wall Street and extending deep into the suburbs, seem to be awash in money and an obsession with wealth and excess.

Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany said New York's religious and labor leaders came up with the idea of a 40-hour fast because they were upset that the problems of poor workers were drawing so little attention, while high-tech billionaires were getting all the publicity. Fasting, he said, is a way to make an unmistakable moral statement when so much of the populace is preoccupied with stock options and sybaritic consumerism. And what better time to do it, he said, than during the Christian penitential season of Lent?

''Everybody is mesmerized these days by the soaring stock market and how people seem to be doing so well economically, yet the gap between the richest and the poorest is wider than it's been in decades,'' said Bishop Hubbard, co-chairman of the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition, which organized the fast. ''Very often those not participating cannot speak for themselves, and we feel as religious leaders and members of the labor movement that we have to be a voice for the voiceless.''

In Albany, Brockport, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and New York City, hundreds of clergy members, labor leaders, college students and others began fasting at 8 p.m. Wednesday. Subsisting on only water and juice, they have prayed together and joined street demonstrations to draw attention to a group they call ''invisible workers.''

These workers include janitors in Buffalo who earn $5.25 an hour, farm workers in Sullivan County who are required to work 70 hours a week and cafeteria workers at the State University of New York in Albany who cannot afford medical coverage. These workers, the fasters say, often do not earn enough to feed their families adequately.

Hallie Williams of Buffalo, who worked for 18 years as a unionized building cleaner before she was laid off and replaced by a nonunion janitor earning the minimum wage, applauded the fast. ''We can't do anything if somebody don't help us because if somebody don't help us, we're just out there without a paddle,'' she said.

The New Yorkers are fasting during the same week that six students at Purdue University in Indiana are doing so to pressure the university's administration to do more to ensure that clothing bearing the Purdue name is not made in sweatshops.

Last spring, six students at the University of California at Berkeley fasted for eight days to demand more instructors for the ethnic studies department. In 1998, half a dozen tomato pickers in Immokalee, Fla., fasted for a month to protest low wages, while janitors and labor leaders at the University of Southern California shunned food to protest the university's failure to sign a union contract.

Fouad Jabar, a graduate student at Purdue who began fasting on Monday, said, ''At other schools, there have been sit-ins and protest demonstrations, but instead of being confrontational, we chose to do a fast to show how serious we are about the sweatshop problem.''

The Rev. Kevin Irwin, a professor of theology at the Catholic University of America who has written extensively on fasting, said the recent upsurge is a healthy development, healthier than a trendier type of fasting that he has little patience for.

''The recent trend in fasting in our society was rather narcissistic -- we fast to lose weight, we fast to look good,'' Father Irwin said. ''The purpose of the fasting we're seeing now regarding social concerns is healthier. It is dependent on God and raises very important values in society.''

Those who choose to fast have many role models. In the Bible, the prophet Isaiah fasted to loose the bonds of wickedness and to undo the yoke of the oppressed, and Jesus fasted for 40 days to proclaim good news to the poor and to give sight to the blind and health to the sick.

Gandhi fasted to draw attention to Britain's colonial domination and harsh treatment of the Indian people. Cesar Chavez, founder of the United Farm Workers, held repeated fasts of three weeks or more to make the public focus on the low wages and miserable conditions of thousands of farm workers.

''It's a commonly accepted practice: one afflicts one's own body as a sign of identifying with the pain of another,'' said Balfour Brickner, rabbi emeritus at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan. ''The fast in New York is appropriate because these people, these workers, are hungry. They're hungering for economic and social justice, and our fast is a manifestation of our identity with their cause.''

Brian O'Shaughnessy, statewide coordinator of New York's labor-religion coalition, acknowledged that it was hard to count how many people were participating in the fast. But he said close to 1,500 people had told the coalition that they would participate.

The coalition chose to make the fast 40 hours because 40 is freighted with symbolism: the 40 days of Lent, the 40 days of rain in the Great Flood, the Jews' 40 years in the desert, and the 40-hour workweek.

This is the fifth year the coalition has held the fast. Last year, after the participants focused on the plight of farm workers, the State Legislature raised the minimum wage for farm workers. This year the fast began two days after the New York State Catholic Conference held its annual lobbying day in Albany, and it will end at noon today.

''Fasts like this highlight problems and highlight the need for us to continue to address the inequities in many provisions of the labor law,'' said Nicholas Spano, a Westchester County Republican who is chairman of the State Senate Labor Committee. ''We are listening, we are responding, and we have to do more.''

The participants say they want to press the Legislature to raise the state minimum wage above the federal minimum of $5.15.

Bishop Hubbard said he hoped the fast would grow in future years, and some labor and religious leaders say they will try to spread it to other states. The fasters, Bishop Hubbard said, were following in the footsteps of Jesus, who, the Bible said, fasted to prepare for his public ministry to help the needy.

''I think we have the same mission in today's society,'' he said. ''The issues may be different, but the call to reach out to those who are neediest and most vulnerable among us is every bit as much a part of our religious mandate as it was when Christ walked the face of the earth.''

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Immigration: A 40-Hour Fast For a Moral Solution

For the last 12 years, The Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State has organized a 40-hour Interfaith Fast during the Christian season of Lent, to highlight issues of social and economic injustice and to move people to prayer, reflection, and responsive action. We fast because we hunger for justice and righteousness.

This year's 13th Annual 40-Hour Fast focuses on Immigrants. It will start at 8 PM on Tuesday, March 4 and end at noon on Thursday, March 6.

What we do in NY can be duplicated elsewhere. Please read, and then think about what you can do where you are. Downloadable brochures and other information are at


"You must not oppress the stranger...
for you lived as strangers in the land of Egypt."
Exodus 23:9


During our fast, what can we do?


Pray daily that immigrants are welcomed in our communities as sisters and brothers and that all workers receive fair wages and are treated with dignity.

If you know of any worker not being paid overtime or the NYS minimum wage, contact the NYS Department of Labor at 1-800-447-3992. New Yorkers, regardless of immigration status, must earn at least of $7.15 per hour (including tips).

Contact the Fiscal Policy Institute (518/ 786-3156) to receive a copy of Working For a Better Life: A Profile of Immigrants in the New York State Economy or download a copy at

Learn about the rights of workers to overtime wages, prevailing wage rates for certain public building projects and other programs and services available to all without regard to immigration status. For information or to schedule a presentation, contact the Bureau of Immigrant Workers’ Rights in the New York State Department of Labor at 518/ 457-6162 (upstate) or 212/ 775-3665 (downstate).

Visit to learn what some religious congregations are doing to make immigrant families visible as children of God in the face of raids and deportations.

Attend (or help to plan) a community forum or roundtable discussion on immigration. Contact a Labor-Religion Coalition to connect with planning in your region.

Support statewide policies that give farmworkers and domestic workers the rights and protections from which they are now excluded.

Read the Unity Blueprint for Immigration Reform, available (along with other resources) at It provides specific legislative proposals aimed at achieving a workable, just and fair immigration system.


An overhaul of U S. trade policies such as NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), which have led to the impoverishment of working people in Mexico and other countries. These policies have created a desperate need to leave one’s country and migrate to the U.S. in search of survival wages.

Adequate funding and enforcement of all U.S. labor laws, including wage and hour laws, health and safety laws and protection of workers’ right to freely join a union. Addressing these issues for U.S.-born workers is part of what it means to create a welcoming climate for immigrants.

A program that values families and favors the unification of family members.

A pathway to earned citizenship, building on the values we all share. Exploitation, punishment and mass deportation of immigrants isn’t right or workable.

(Based on the Summary and Users Guide to For You Were Once a Stranger: Immigration in the U.S. Through the Lens of Faith (2007). Download at Interfaith Worker Justice,

--WHY 40 HOURS?--

The number 40 has special significance in both religious and labor traditions.

The Hebrew scriptures speak of the 40 years in the wilderness and the 40 days of rain that preceded a new covenant with Noah, both transformative events.

For Christians, the 40 days of Lent are a time of sacrifice, prayer and action rooted in Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the desert.

The labor movement, after many years of sacrifice and struggle, gained a 40 hour work-week for most workers in the US.


"Fasting is a transforming act--it has the moral power to bring about political change worthy of our state…"
Bishop Howard Hubbard, Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany

"…workers in New York are hungering for economic and social justice, and our fasting is a manifestation of our identity with their cause." Rabbi Balfour Brickner

"Muslims fast from daybreak until dusk during the entire month of Ramadan. Denial of sustenance is one way Muslims share a connection to those who suffer from hunger and poverty."
Imam Djafer Sebkhaoui

"Way back in the beginning of our union, someone asked what we expected from the church. I answered that …we wanted the Church to be present with us, willing to sacrifice for justice."
Cesar Chavez

"This, rather is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke, setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke." Isaiah 58:6


During these 40 hours you are invited to go without solid food for one or more meals, or for the time between sunrise and sunset on March 5, or for the entire 40 hours, or for the time between meals.

How to fast
The Labor-Religion Fast asks you to not eat solid food during the 40 hours or during a period you identify. It is important to drink plenty of liquids while fasting. In your hunger, you are asked to take action, "to hunger for justice" so that on-going and persistent injustice in New York State may be alleviated.

It is hoped you will invite others (family members, co-workers, your religious congregation, your union brothers and sisters, etc.) to join the Fast. Call 518/ 213-6000, ext. 6294 for more brochures.

Fasters need not change their normal schedule; however, you are encouraged to join with others in your local area for an opening of the Fast on the evening of March 5. Many groups will also "break the fast" together with a simple noon meal and prayer service following the 40th hour on March 7.

You are invited to join others in 2007 FAST events. Click here for details.

Medical Advice for Fasting
(adapted from Women Against War, sponsor of a 24 hour fast)
Most healthy adults can safely fast for 24 hours. However, some people should not participate such as those with diabetes, liver or kidney disease, persons on chronic steroids, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

It is common to feel some uncomfortable sensations during a period of fasting. These include headache, fatigue, some nausea later in the fast, lightheadedness or dizziness especially with standing up. Regular coffee or tea drinkers are more likely to experience withdrawal headaches or migraines triggered by fasting.

Preparations for fasting:
•In the first 12-16 hours of fasting most of our readily available calorie sources are consumed.
•It probably helps to eat a carbohydrate rich meal before beginning the fast. Carbohydrate rich foods include cereals, breads, pasta, grains, rice, legumes.
•Coffee and tea drinkers may try to reduce their consumption several days before their fast.
•Once the fast begins, it is important to conserve energy. Plan to rest and nap throughout the time.
•It helps to have warm clothing to help maintain body temperature.
•It is important to continue to drink plenty of water.