When Joan and I met in 1982, she attended Indiana State University in Terre Haute, and I was a lowly worker at Public Service Indiana. I had no marketable skills, except the gift of persuasion, which I used to convince Joan her life would be wretched without me. So we began dating. She would drive up to Plainfield, where I lived at the time, or I would drive to Terre Haute, which I didn’t care for because of its odor. I was told the stench was cause by a paper mill, which certainly didn’t enhance the city’s aroma, but the real culprit was Terre Haute’s 1886 sewer treatment system that spewed hydrogen sulfide, which smelled like rotten eggs. Someone once said, “Terre Haute collected sewage and held onto it as if it were a savings bond.”
This caused me to dislike Terre Haute and later that year, when Terre Haute was destroyed in a dastardly plot by Nazis in the 1982 movie Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, I cheered in the theater. Like all prejudices, my dislike for Terre Haute was rooted in ignorance. I didn’t know that pungent city on the Wabash had given the world Eugene Debs, the American socialist, political activist, and trade unionist, who was jailed in 1918 after giving a speech denouncing American participation in World War I. Convicted under the Alien and Sedition Act, he was sentenced to prison for 10 years, though his sentence was commuted three years later by President Warren G. Harding. Alas, Debs died in 1926 from heart problems caused by his time in prison.
On the day Debs was sentenced to prison, the judge asked him if he had anything to say for himself. Debs stood and said perhaps the most Christian thing ever uttered in an American courtroom. He said, “I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.” The judge was unmoved, and sentenced Debs to ten years for the unforgivable crime of speaking against war and injustice.
There are times when I wish with all my being that we could wrest open the set-in-stone Bible, which history and tradition have not permitted us to either add to or subtract from, and place for all eternity these true and lovely words alongside the gospels and the prophets. “I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.”
This morning I want to acknowledge two undeniable facts and offer one opinion. Fact 1: Tomorrow is Labor Day, when we honor those who are seldom honored—the lowly worker. Fact 2: The top 1/10 of 1% of Americans hold more wealth than the bottom 80%, and we now equal Russia and China in wealth inequality. Ah, what vaunted company we keep these days.
Those are the two facts. Here’s my opinion. The vast concentration of wealth in the hands of so few means less medical care for everyone else, less education for everyone else, less food security for everyone else, less chance of advancement for everyone else, less housing for everyone else, less retirement assets for everyone else, less financial opportunity for everyone else, and less happiness for everyone else. It guarantees you and I, our children, and grandchildren, will be more sickly, more mentally unwell, more hungry, more troubled, more exhausted, more victimized by unjust laws that favor the rich, more likely to die sooner, more likely to be the victims of violence, more unable to care for our younger and older family members, and more unlikely, at the end of our days, to share and enjoy the harvest for which we’ve labored. Which in my opinion makes America’s wealth inequality unchristian, uncaring, and immoral.
It is time, long past time, the church said what Eugene Debs said 100 years ago, that we oppose a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.
When did this start? I happen to know. The era of oligarchies, which we’re still in, began 80,000 years in what is now East Asia, when humans were hunters and gatherers and lived in small, tight-knight communities.
One beautiful spring day, a man happened to witness a fight between two wooly mammoths, who simultaneously fatally gored each other. The man was elated, since the wooly mammoths not only provided food, but also warm and durable hide for clothing and shelter. He ran back to his group and told them what had happened. The village people, not the music group, but the people who lived in the village, gathered up their tools and ran to where the mammoths lie. They butchered the mammoths and carried the meat and hides back to their village. It took two entire days and by the time they were done they were exhausted, but also happy because their village now had sufficient food for the year ahead.
They were so grateful, they decided to hold a feast. But the man who’d found the mammoths first wanted to give a speech. He stood, thanked his fellow villagers for their help, saying he couldn’t have done it without them, and told them he was going to give them one entire wooly mammoth tail in appreciation for all the work they had done, and that if they wanted any more meat and hide from the mammoths he had found, he would be happy to sell it to them. And that’s how the first oligarch came to be. As you can imagine, his fellow villagers were upset. They had worked two days preparing the meat and hide and hauling it home, so they met and decided not to buy the meat until they were treated fairly and justly. That’s how the first union was formed. The United Meatpackers Union. This is all true, you can look it up. 80,000 years ago.
78,000 years later, just 2,000 years ago, a man was born in a small village near the Mediterranean Sea. He was a wise man, who thought carefully about how people should live with one another. One day, he gathered his friends together and said, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” (Luke 3:11)
People liked the idea so much, they decided to form a new religion around the principle of sharing. And it was a wonderful idea. A few people even did it. We lost one this week, our friend Dave Siemantel. But most everyone else has found it hard to do, afraid if they share they won’t have enough for themselves. So they made up sayings like “God helps those who help themselves.” and “Charity begins at home.” and “A fool and his money are soon parted.” All those sayings made the oligarchs feel better about not sharing, and made lowly workers think they were to blame for their poverty. So here we are, with a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.
Tomorrow, we celebrate the workers. I’m glad we have that day. They’ve earned it. But don’t you sort of wish we had a different kind of world, where the man with two shirts would share with the man who has none, and the family that had ample food gave to those who hungered. Wouldn’t that be some kind of world?