I coined a new word. As I have read various news stories these last couple of weeks, I noted a move toward “downtrodding.” That would be the act of creating the “downtrodden.” Turns out it is not in the dictionary. So, I offer a new word: “downtrodding” because it seems a useful and perfectly descriptive word to describe actions people, governments and the “powers that be” engage in throughout history and around the world.
What prompted my linguistic creativity was the debates and proposed actions of both state and federal government that, to me, risk downtrodding more people; removing protections and support of the most vulnerable and downtrodden in our society; creating situations where workers struggle to earn a living. Before I continue, I know some of you are already thinking that as a pastor, I should not be addressing anything “political.” You may want to read a previous article about pastors and politics before you read on.
Jesus, the prophets, and the whole biblical story are overwhelmingly fixated on the treatment of the poor, the widow, and the resident alien. These “downtrodden” should be of central concern to the whole society. God will judge the whole of the people based on the treatment of these who are “the least” in the kingdom.
We are often led to believe that the sins that led to the destruction of Sodom are about sex. But, listen to Ezekiel’s take: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49) Zechariah the prophet says: “Thus says the LORD of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.”(Zechariah 7:9-10)
Jesus himself announces that he has come to “bring good news to the poor.” (Luke 4:18-19). Even Mary sings that the birth of her son will bring about a capsizing of the ships of economy and power, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52-53)
Recently, the state legislature in Iowa has begun a move to change collective bargaining for public employees. The selling point is that this makes labor relations in the public sector look more like the private sector; that it simply applies common sense to the ability to hire and fire. Yet, it also removes from the bargaining process everything but salaries , including health care and other benefits, that are essential to anyone who works for a living. (Most of us negotiate for all of this when we take a new job). The bill excludes (for now) “public safety” employees because they “risk their lives.” It excludes teachers, for instance (who, I would argue, also risk their lives – look at the school shootings). The push here seems to be to replicate what Wisconsin did five years ago with a promise that the move would fix many fiscal problems. That has not com to pass by most measures. In fact, workers are losing ground and economic growth is elusive. The same results in Iowa would be a case of “downtrodding” as teachers and other public employees bear the brunt of paying for “voodoo economics” (George H.W. Bush’s words for “trickle-down schemes.”)
In another move, the state legislature wishes to freeze the minimum wage at $7.25 and prohibit any municipality or county in the state from establishing a minimum wage at odds with the state’s mandate. First, the minimum wage adjusted for inflation in 1940 was $3.51 per hour (actual = $.25). In seventy-seven years, the wage has slightly more than doubled. By contrast, a gallon of milk in 1940 was $.34. That is ten times higher today. Gas was $.18 per gallon. More than ten times more expensive today. See the problem? Downtrodding.
Second, minimum wage is not “just” about teenagers who live at home (as if it is good to teach inequity at an early age). Only 46% of minimum wage workers are 16-24. That means 54% are trying to make a living and raise families on less than $15,000 annually (less than $300 per week). 29 states and municipalities that are higher than $7.25 – including many with booming economies. The minimum wage has 10% less buying power than it did in 1968! Sound like dowtrodding, to me.
Meanwhile, those who are at the top of the economic food chain are receiving a bigger and bigger share of the economy all the time. In 2013, 165,000 Wall Street execs received bonuses totaling over $26.7 billion above and beyond salaries. All of the folks who work for minimum wage and are full-time (a rarity) earned just a little more than half that – $15.1 million. Walmart had $17 billion in net income in 2013, yet many of their workers are on assistance programs to eat and live.
There are countless myths about raising the minimum wage that fly in the face of reality and have been collected by the Department of Labor. Decisions need to be based on facts, not on perceptions, myths and closely held ideologies that keep us feeling superior to others. Excuses and rationalizations for downtrodding do not make it acceptable.
The gospel imperative is that we raise up the downtrodden, not downtrod them even more. God has declared over and over that the way we treat the poor, the prisoner, the laborer, the widow, the orphan is the test of our citizenship in the kingdom of heaven. “As you did to the least of these, you did to me,” Jesus says in Matthew 25. If we are downtrodding anyone, we are downtrodding God in Christ.
So, I have questions about these and other actions. Will the decisions made lift up the downtrodden? Will they support and liberate the poor and those who have no voice? If they don’t, we’re downtrodding. God will be very interested in our decisions.
© 2017 Timothy V. Olson. All rights reserved.