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Do Not Steal: A Lutheran Vision of Practice of Economic Justice


"For to steal is nothing else than to get possession of another's property wrongfully, which briefly comprehends all kinds of advantage in all sorts of trade to the disadvantage of our neighbor. To steal is to signify not only to empty our neighbor's coffer and pockets, but to be grasping in the market…, wherever there is trading or taking and giving of money for merchandise or labor." Martin Luther

[1] On January 27th, 2004, 200 clergy, lay leaders and workers participated in a 450 mile pilgrimage to the home of Steve Burd, the CEO of Safeway corporation, with the goal of appealing to him as a Christian to settle a strike and lock-out affecting 70,000 Southern California grocery store workers. The pilgrimage, which ultimately played a definitive and catalytic role in settling the strike, was organized by Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE). CLUE engages over 600 clergy and lay leaders from a wide variety of religious traditions throughout Los Angeles and adjacent counties in working together to support low-wage workers in their struggle for a living wage, health benefits and a voice in the decisions that impact them.

[2] CLUE was formed in 1996 as a response to the steadily worsening crisis of working poverty. In Los Angeles County, according to a recent study, over 30% of families are working poor.1 An adult in the family is working full-time, but that income is insufficient to pay for the basics. Working for $7 per hour brings in approximately $960 per month. The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the city of L.A. in 2005 was $1,350 per month. The human impact of these statistics is clear in the plaintive words of Maria Ramirez, a single mother who works as a hotel housekeeper. "My rent used to be $650 per month. Now it is $1,250 per month. I bring home just under $1,500 per month. I tell my children that they have to eat less but they are having trouble obeying."

[3] When workers are employed by a Mom-and-Pop business, this is a housing crisis. However, in Los Angeles, a significant percentage of the working poor are employed by corporations or large chains. In these cases, the reason why so many workers are in this situation is connected to a spiritual crisis among CEOs. In the year 1970, the average CEO earned 30 times more than his lowest paid workers. In the year 2000, it was over 300 times. In the year 2005, statistics range from 430 times to 561 times. In Japan, by comparison, CEOs earn 10 times more than their workers. When workers at these companies must obtain food stamps in order to feed their families, financially-strapped governments are using taxpayer dollars to ensure that the workers are physically able to work, effectively subsidizing their employers. These CEOs' apparent indifference to the impact of their actions on workers and communities alike is evidence of a spiritual crisis. CLUE responds to the economic crisis of the workers and the spiritual crisis of these CEOs by working to promote economically just business practices, worker-friendly public policies and economic development processes that are accountable to the needs of communities.

[4] Since 2002, I have been the Executive Director of CLUE. I am an ELCA Pastor with a Synod Council Call to lead this ministry. Newcomers to CLUE often express surprise that I am Lutheran. Economic justice was not one of Martin Luther's primary passions, nor has the Lutheran church been consistently at the forefront of the fight for economic justice. However, I believe that our core theology clearly supports the struggle for fair wages and benefits in the workplace.

[5] At the heart of Lutheran theology is the call to faith in a God whose love is unimaginably great, broad, deep and full. God's love embraces all aspects of our physical and emotional lives. God intends that we have "everything required to satisfy our bodily needs, such as food and clothing, house and home, fields and flocks, money and property." Martin Luther saw the process of obtaining what we need, our labor, as a holy act when performed in faith and gratitude; "picking up a piece of straw" could be equal in God's eyes to formal prayer and study (Treatise on Good Works).

[6] While Luther emphasized the internal stance of the individual and the individual's existential relationship with God as primary concerns, he unquestionably expected faith in God's grace to result in righteous action. In his small and large catechisms, he painted a passionate picture of the kinds of behavior that would arise from faith - including the arena of labor relations. Luther's exegesis of the seventh commandment (Thou shalt not steal) includes the following passage:

For to steal is nothing else than to get possession of another's property wrongfully, which briefly comprehends all kinds of advantage in all sorts of trade to the disadvantage of our neighbor. To steal is to signify not only to empty our neighbor's coffer and pockets, but to be grasping in the market…, wherever there is trading or taking and giving of money for merchandise or labor…Therefore they are also called swivel-chair robbers, land- and highway-robbers, not pick-locks and sneak-thieves who snatch away the ready cash, but who sit on the chair [at home] and are styled great noblemen, and honorable, pious citizens, and yet rob and steal under a good pretext….No more shall all the rest prosper who change the open free market into a carrion-pit of extortion and a den of robbery, where the poor are daily overcharged, new burdens and high prices are imposed, and every one uses the market according to his caprice, and is even defiant and brags as though it were his fair privilege and right to sell his goods for as high a price as he please, and no one had a right to say a word against it.

Luther clearly sees from the perspective of an independent producer, a small businessman, whose experience of being robbed by the powerful is primarily connected to price-gouging. However, the heart of his accusations would apply equally to the modern multinational corporations which seeks profit at the expense of people not primarily by raising prices but rather by lowering wages. The core violation of "using the market according to his caprice as though it were his fair privilege and right" is as characteristic of Wal-Mart as it was of the noblemen of Luther's time.

[7] Luther also believed that it was clearly the job of political decision-makers to protect the rights of their constituency. His doctrine of "two kingdoms" recognized that even human beings who have faith do not always live in accordance with their faith and that most people do not automatically treat one another with the love and respect called for by the Gospel. We all live in two worlds, the emerging world in which the law is written on the heart and people treat each other well out of love, and the old order in which it is necessary to intentionally ensure respect for human rights through civil authority. As Luther continues in the commentary on the seventh commandment: "…to check such open wantonness there is need of the princes and government, who themselves would have eyes and the courage to establish and maintain order in all manner of trade and commerce, lest the poor be burdened and oppressed nor they themselves be loaded with other men's sins."

[8] While Luther could not have envisioned a world in which every citizen had the right and duty to participate actively in political decision-making, we can see that in a modern democracy, we all have power and authority in the political realm and we all need the "eyes and the courage to establish and maintain" correct order in the economic sphere. When we campaign for living wage legislation or conditions on Big Box retail development, we seek to ensure an economic order which does not allow the poor to be burdened and oppressed. Unions are another modern structure through which workers can exercise legitimate power and authority in the public sphere to ensure that their rights are protected.

[9] These modern structures and the responsibilities that accompany them are recognized in a Resolution of the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in 1991 that reads, "The ELCA commit itself to public policy advocacy and advocacy with corporations, businesses, congregations, this church, and church-related institutions to protect the rights of workers, support the collective-bargaining process, and protect the right to strike." (Assembly Action CA91.06.35)

[10] However, while Luther would have supported those with legitimate authority acting in the public realm to protect workers' rights, he would have seen clergy as having a different role. Luther saw the work of clergy as belonging to the second realm, the kingdom of God. The heart of that work, for Luther, was proclamation - the speaking of the truth that transforms.

[11] CLUE sees our work as a form of engaging religious leaders in proclaiming the truth that transforms. This occurs on two very different levels:

Moral Authority
[12] CLUE builds on the ancient biblical tradition of prophets' use of public symbolic acts to communicate the truth. We regularly organize public press events which incorporate ancient symbols and traditions in powerful ways that directly impact business leaders of faith and move the larger community to get past their confusion and participate in a workers' struggle, adding the power of the customer to the power of the workers. For example, two hotel owners in Beverly Hills were delaying contract negotiations with their workers in order to weaken a union effort. A third owner was simultaneously negotiating in good faith with his workers. CLUE organized over 100 religious leaders to join in a procession down Rodeo Drive. just before Holy Week and Passover. The procession visited the just hotel owner and brought him the gift of milk and honey, publicly acknowledging his ethical practices. The procession then continued on to the two other owners, bringing them bitter herbs. One of these owners was a man of faith. When he received the herbs, he saw his actions in a new light and he changed. Within a week, he was negotiating in good faith with his workers.

Inspiration and Encouragement
[13] When workers are frightened because of company threats that they will be penalized for fighting for union representation or contracts, they need a special kind of support that can sustain their strength. As religious leaders proclaim the comforting and challenging word of God, workers are strengthened in measurable and immeasurable ways. They remember what matters most to them, what it means to live out of faith and not out of fear, and that those who walk with God can experience amazing victories on the other side of intense suffering.

[14] Economic justice, on this side of the cross, is not a completely attainable goal. However, every time that CLUE is able to ensure that a worker like Maria Ramirez is able to feed her family and pay her rent because her employer has begun to act justly, I believe that Luther would say that the angels rejoice.


End Notes

1  "The Other Los Angeles: The Working Poor in the City of the 21st Century" by the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, August 2000 (Researchers from LAANE, USC, UCLA and Cal. State Univ. Northridge.) available from the LAANE website at:
© January 2006
Journal of Lutheran Ethics 
Volume 6, Issue 1