Income inequality

Editor's note: The following Labor Day sermon was delivered Sept. 4 in the Simpson Memorial Chapel of the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Preacher was Fr. Clete Kiley, director of immigration policy at Unite Here, a union representing workers throughout the U.S. and Canada in the hotel, gaming, food service, manufacturing, textile, distribution, laundry and airport industries. Prior to joining Unite Here, Kiley was president of the Faith & Politics Institute. Scripture for the service was Matthew: 5:3-12.

How blest are the poor in spirit: The reign of God is theirs.
Blest too are the sorrowing: They shall be consoled.
Blest are the lowly: They shall inherit the land.
Blest are they who hunger and thirst for justice: They shall have their fill.
Blest are they who show mercy: Mercy shall be theirs.
Blest are the single-hearted: They shall see God.
Blest too the peacemakers: They shall be called the children of God.
Blest are those persecuted for holiness’ sake: The reign of God is theirs.
Blest are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of slander against you because of me.
Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is great in heaven …

Fr. Clete Kiley

A wise teacher many years ago in our seminary class opened his bible to this scripture passage and told us: “These Beatitudes are the preamble to the constitution for the reign of God emerging all around us. Let them be the lenses through which each of you in your ministries engages and sees the world around you.”

Today let me take just one of these lenses and ask: Who today hungers and thirsts for justice?

This week our nation and our faith communities honor workers in our celebration of Labor Day. Workers certainly are among those who hunger and thirst for justice.

In the news last week we saw low-wage fast-food workers hold just one-day strikes in more than 50 cities. Their demand was for a wage they can live on: a wage that would be but a small share of the vast profits of the companies for which they work.

In this city of Washington workers marshaled the support of the wider community in a showdown with Walmart. Again the issue was a living wage.

In farms from California to Michigan to Georgia, farm workers fight for protection from pesticides and other awful conditions.

Particularly vulnerable

Immigrant guest workers, especially the undocumented, are particularly vulnerable. Millions of workers without a fix to our broken immigration system are condemned to live in the shadows. This is why comprehensive immigration reform is such an urgent need this Labor Day.

This is why comprehensive immigration reform is such an urgent need this Labor Day.

Faith communities across this country are strongly urging this reform. And immigrant workers are but some of those who today hunger and thirst for justice.

We could add the retired coal miners of Patriot Coal who worked for years, risking the effects of black lung who today risk the loss of their health care and pensions in a corporate shell game. They, too, hunger and thirst for justice.

This Labor Day income inequality is at a boiling point in America.

Surviving paycheck to paycheck

The Economic Policy Institute reports, in a recent study, 1% of this nation holds 35% of its wealth. The top 10% receive 45% of the income, while 90% split up the rest. Millions today are surviving from paycheck to paycheck. They also hunger and thirst for justice.

How long can our nation sustain this downward spiral?

Three decades ago, CEO’s in the United States were paid 42 times as much as the average U.S. worker. Today they earn 354 times as much.

How long can our nation sustain this downward spiral?

It is no coincidence that in recent years we have seen an orchestrated effort to cripple The National Labor Relations Board, the Labor Dept., the Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Fraud Agency. These along with labor unions are the instruments that protect workers and resist their being treated as commodities.

There has been a clearly orchestrated assault on labor unions and the right to bargain collectively. Right-to-work laws and other assaults on union political funds have one goal in mind: to limit the participation of workers in our democracy.

Thanks to Citizens United, billionaires and corporations can outspend unions by some estimates at 300:1. How did we get here?

Humans as consumer goods

Pope Francis addressed this on May 16, 2013: “Human beings themselves are nowadays considered as consumer goods which can be used and thrown away.”

The Pope went on:

The income of a minority is increasing exponentially, while that of the majority is crumbling. This imbalance results from ideologies which uphold the absolute autonomy of the markets and financial speculation, and deny the right of control to States, which are themselves charged with providing to the common good.

Implementing an economic philosophy of unregulated free market capitalism necessarily means rolling back safety regulations, outsourcing jobs, cutting back hours, bringing in new immigrant guest workers without labor protections, eliminating entitlements, mounting a coordinated effort to break Labor unions, and letting special interests trump the “common good” every time.

It generates a deep hunger and thirst for justice.

But, brothers and sisters in faith, that is only a partial portrait of America on this Labor Day 2013. It does not account for us nor the millions of other people of faith with whom we stand. We are another frame of the Labor Day portrait.

United Methodist Social Principles

We gather as people of faith and we return to the Beatitudes. In this Simpson Chapel we recommit ourselves to those key elements in the United Methodist Social Principles:

  • “To reduce the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few.”
  • “To support the right to organize for collective bargaining into unions and other groups.”
  • “ To stand for the right to a living wage.”

It is our prayer that this Labor Day, and our true calling born of our faith, that we ourselves will become God’s instruments for those who hunger and thirst for justice today.

It is love born of our faith that propels us outward from this chapel to all workers in the bond of solidarity.

It is a firm hope born of our faith that working together for the common good, one day, and one day soon, “all who hunger and thirst for justice will have their fill.” Amen.

Editor's note: Fr. Clete Kiley’s ministry has also included service with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Before that, he was pastor of St. Agnes of Bohemia Parish in Chicago and president of St. Joseph College Seminary.

A native Chicago Southsider, Kiley graduated from Loyola in 1970 and received a Masters Degree in Divinity from the University of St. Mary of the Lake in 1974, a masters degree in Applied Spirituality from the University of San Francisco in 1980, and a doctorate in Ministry from the University of St. Mary of the Lake in 1980.

Letter to the Editor