My faith tradition professes that our worth is in our faces because our faces look like God’s face. We are created in the Image of God, making each human face invaluable. Hiding opposition to fair wages behind arguments about shrinking bottom lines and increased overhead devalues the face. Why do people need to work for $7.25 an hour when CEO salaries are in the millions and stock earnings are in the billions? If we pay people a fair wage, everyone will still have enough money. The laborer will have enough and the employer will have enough, distributed more fairly between them. We don’t have to raise prices to raise wages—that’s a lie told by those who look at salaries from the top. If we look at salaries from the bottom, the view is very different. From down there we can see all the money going up the line with the people at the top getting most of it. Are the faces at the top more valuable than the faces at the bottom? Are the faces at the top created more in the image of God than the faces at the bottom? I don’t think so.
The message from the Hebrew scriptures and New Testament on the dignity of work is clear – those who labor deserve to be treated with respect. As with most justice issues, the Biblical witness around economic oppression was radical at the time and crucial for today, driven by a call for fairness and equity. Scripture has plenty to say about economic oppression of the poor, fair wages, and systemic inequalities between the “haves” and the “have nots.” Beginning in the Pentateuch and continuing through the Prophets, there is a clear and consistent witness against such practices as poverty wages, wage theft, economic disparity, and the exploitation of those in need. Many texts offer protection for vulnerable populations—often described as “widows and orphans,” people with no legal standing in that patriarchal society.
From Jesus to Paul to James, the biblical witness is also very clear when it comes to respecting workers. Recent economic analyses of the Roman Empire, the birthplace of Christianity, show that an estimated 55 to 68 percent of the population lived at or below the subsistence level, with an additional one in four people just above the subsistence level.
The religious, cultural, and legal context of the day favored the rich and helped keep the non-elite in poverty. Exploitation and oppression were tolerated. So, when biblical writers from the prophets to the followers of Jesus decry wage theft and speak against oppression, they are challenging the status quo. They stand in sharp contrast to the wider culture around them that condones this behavior.
The call for justice today is the same call. Different situations create injustice, perhaps, but not the call. In the 1st century, it was primarily wealthy landowners exploiting laborers and seizing land from poorer landowners. In the 21st century it’s investment income creating wealth for the one-percent on the backs of the bottom twentieth-percent. The question for those of us who hear God’s call for justice is, who will enact legislation to dismantle the systems of economic inequality that shackle our lives? Who will join the chorus of the prophets and Jesus and change the story?