Sermon: Labor, Justice and Mennonites

By Joanna Lawrence Shenk

Psalm 146

About a decade ago when I was visiting some friends in Pittsburgh, they suggested we go for a walk around the beautiful grounds of the Henry Clay Frick estate. As we walked the grounds I began to feel sick to my stomach. I wondered, what did this Frick guy do to have over 20 cars and handfuls of carriages, plus a village of houses and a private bowling alley, in the early 1900s?

As I researched, I found out that Frick was once known as “America’s most hated man.” He was a steel industry tycoon making his fortune manufacturing coke, a derivative of coal. With his wealth he financed the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Reading Company. He violently suppressed workers who protested his inhumane business practices, and credited his Mennonite grandfather – whiskey distiller and Mennonite church elder Abraham Overholt – with his strong work ethic, frugality in business, and shrewd bargaining practices. Not only was he shaped by “Mennonite” values, he was also my great grandma’s grandpa’s fourth cousin. So, although distantly, I am related to him.

With Labor Day upon us, I want to take a walk through Anabaptist/Mennonite history and reflect on our disposition toward labor justice and unions in a couple different historical moments. In the case of Henry Clay Frick we see the shadow side of a strong work ethic and frugality when it is untethered from a respect for the dignity of all people and rather used as the grounds for exploitation of workers.   

Although most of the first generation leaders in the Anabaptist movement were not peasants, many of the converts were, and the movement was quite concerned with the wealth of the established Church at the expense of the peasants. Along with the Peasants War that happened as the Anabaptist movement was taking shape, the Anabaptists specifically challenged the exploitative economic systems, including the tithe. 

Tithes were a church tax collected to provide income for priests. During the 16th century the money and payments collected from the people far exceeded the actual costs of maintaining local priests. Anabaptists insisted that the local congregation should have control of the money received, and that this money should be used to pay the local parish priests first, rather than last. Any leftover money should be used to help the poor instead of supporting absentee clerics. 

As persecution of the Anabaptists intensified, they were barred from joining trade guilds in some cities and in many cases they were pushed out of cities and into rural areas. Sustained persecution eventually led Anabaptists and their Mennonites successors to give up on the desire to reform society and instead they focused on mutual aid within their own communities. 

As a seperatist group, Mennonites developed a two kingdom theology, which gave them little to no use for participation in what was deemed the kingdom of the world. Instead they were called to embody the kingdom of God, to be a church without spot or wrinkle, a model to the world of virtuous living. This could easily be described as a utopian project. Through Christian witness, the world would be attracted to Christ and in choosing to follow Christ, all things would be reconciled.  

Within the two kingdom theology the job of the Christian is to constantly expand the kingdom of God by winning souls from the worldly kingdom. The Christian does not engage in efforts to make the world a better place because it’s a lost cause. 

This theological understanding played a key role in Mennonite response to labor unions in the 1930s and beyond. There are a couple great resources along these lines, including a book “Not Talking Union: An Oral History of North American Mennonites and Labour” by Janis Thiessen and an extended article by historian Perry Bush (Cassidy’s dad) titled, “Guy Hershberger, Unions and the Challenge of Kermit Eby.” I want to dive into the latter resource now.

The MC church passed two resolutions, one in 1937 and the other in 1941, that condemned Mennonite participation in unions because of the biblical injunctions about the unequal yoke, reiterated Mennonite neutrality in the industrial struggle, and forbade members from union membership. The unequal yoke referred to not taking up causes with non-Christians as that would be futile work. Furthermore one’s loyalty was to God and not a union, Christians are to suffer rather than demand justice, and the adversarial nature of strikes and collective bargaining were coercive and therefore fundamentally unchristian. 

So although they were officially against unions, Mennonites could not totally sidestep them, since some Mennonites worked industrial jobs and other Mennonites owned companies. Through the work of ethicist Guy F. Hershberger, Mennonites sought a third way with unions and created the Committee on Economic and Social Concerns. It was Hershberger’s responsibility to work out deals with individual unions, when Mennonites faced union drives. He was successful in some cases and not in others. In successful cases, Mennonites would not stand in the way of union activity but would pay their “dues” to other charitable organizations, rather than the union. 

Following a massive wave of strikes across the nation in 1946, owners struck back in 1947 with the passage of the Taft-Hartley act. This legislation legitimated the open shop – that is, it allowed workers in a plant to remain employed while rejecting union membership. In the following decades this would lead to the deindustrialization of the Midwest.

Hershberger celebrated the passage of the act, writing that it would allow the “individual Christian’ to be “more free to choose the way his conscience directs him,’ thus pushing labor to “operate on a higher ethical level.’

In 1958 a young Mennonite ethicist, J. Lawrence Burkholder, encapsulated Hershberger’s disposition, while offering a subtle challenge. “The basis of understanding with the labor movement is typical of a general unwritten and more or less unconscious agreement between Mennonites and the worldly powers according to which Mennonites will do little or nothing to disturb the equilibrium of social and political forces providing they are given the privileges of living a quiet and godly life in isolation.’

In his article, Perry Bush, contrasts the views and actions of Mennonites and Guy F. Hershberger with Kermit Eby, a member of the Church of the Brethren who became a union organizer. Eby believed that his faith compelled him to engage with worldly powers so as to provide a life of dignity for all people. In the 1930s as a young man he taught high school in Ann Arbor, MI, challenging his students to consider the problems in the world: The Great Depression, the labor struggle, and politics. For this he was fired for being a “commuist teacher.” Soon after he was supporting the General Motors sit-down strikers in Flint, MI and from there was propelled into organizing.  

Bush reflects on it this way: As he plunged into union organizing he realized that “I took to the same old church – in disguise. The Sectarians of the Left – Trotskyites, Socialists, Social Democrats – were all, somehow, disturbingly familiar faces from my youth. Where had I seen them before? In the inflamed and ecstatic face of the local parson preaching on a Sunday against sin.’ Politics permeated everything, he told young idealists new to the labor movement; politics was “…just as natural as breathing. There is politics in every family, every church, every institution’ – and especially, perhaps, in the church. 

Anyone who insisted on the apolitical nature of the church would have been dismissed by Eby as inhabiting a fantasyland. He had lived in the Brethren community long enough to recognize authoritarianism when he saw it. The same secular words even applied. The church elder clearly was the “boss,’ those supporting him comprised a “caucus,’ and the others below were governed “quite ruthlessly…

We would be more honest,’ Eby stated bluntly,’… if we admitted we are political and if we didn’t so often involve God’s sanction for doing what our power interests dictate anyway.’

Eby saw the power dynamics at play in the church that so often Mennonites, and other Christians, have ignored or denied. Unlike Hershberger’s claim that individual Christians would be guided by conscience and thereby operate on a higher ethical level, Eby was no idealist. 

All that idealism was “meaningless,’ he said, unless it was “translated from the day to day into specific and concrete action in the political arenas.’ His years in the labor movement had made him, Eby admitted in 1958, a “hard-bitten person,’ unwilling to accept that peace would “float down like a cloud from heaven.’ Instead, it would only arrive “as a by-product of the day-by-day political decisions in ward and precinct.’

For Eby the way of the cross was to confront power structures, whereas his Mennonite counterpart, Hershberger, was leary of such activity and openly criticized Eby for this decision to work with unions. Eby in response stated that “the thrust of Hershberger’s analysis “leads to individualism and right-to-work laws.’ What about a willingness to advocate for justice for those beyond the church? Ultimately, Eby admitted, he “would have felt more kindly towards Hershberger’s position if it held out more hope for those outside the Mennonite heritage.’”

Ten years after this exchange between Eby and Hershberger, white Mennoites were caught up in conflict with the United Farm Workers Movement. As Jim Lichti alluded to in the children’s story, white Mennonites in the central valley, both Mennonite Brethren and General Conference Mennonites, were opposed to Cesar Chavez organizing their farm workers. Although a generation or two before many of them were farm workers themselves, by the 1960s they were the farm owners. 

Not only did Mennonite theology get in the way of support for the farm workers, it actually served as a foil for racist and classist ideology. 

In his book “Latino Mennonites,” Felipe Hinojosa, states that although many Mennonite growers (farm owners) were known as kind and compassionate employers, they also had the reputation of being some of the hardest-driving and miserly employers in California farming. Sounds a bit like Henry Clay Frick. 

In 1972 at the Cross Cultural Youth Convention of the Mennonite Church, Black and Brown youth showed unanimous support for the farm worker movement. Their commitment coincided with strong support from the Minority Ministries Council, made up of Black, Latino and Indigneous Mennonites. These were the only Mennonites groups to support the farm workers movement. 

All other Mennonite organizations and denominations, including Mennonite Central Committee stood with the Mennonites growers. This was for fear of losing their funding, which was explicitly threatened by the farmers in the Central Valley. Hershberger joined a delegation to the Valley and in his report encouraged Mennonites to involve themselves in social programs for the promotion of justice and equity for farm workers rather than supporting union activity. Again, individual Christian conscience. But he most angered Latino Mennonites with his comment that “what’s needed is some talk and a little humor.” 

White Mennonite leaders were calling for dialogue and reconciliation and decrying the coercion of unions as violence, while they were willfully ignoring the violent system of economic exploitation from which they were benefitting. Mennonites of color saw this contradiction clearly. Some Mennonite farm owners were even rumored to be carrying guns and sticks as they patroled their workers. 

Hinojosa writes, “Chris Hartmire, a leader of the Farmer Workers Movement, criticized the Mennonite approach as ‘hardly fair play. This is the powerful talking to the powerless,’ he said in one report. As we know Chavez and the United Farm Workers prevailed in spite of white Mennonite resistance, who as non-corporate owners were not major players in the struggle. But wow, their all out resistance, illuminates the glaring failure of Mennonite theology and ethics. Other than at the beginning of the Anabaptist movement, it seems our labor record is dismal. We have either retreated from participation or sided with the exploitative status quo.

These stories from Mennonite history are a far cry from the way of Jesus and the prophets. It is sobering to see how theologies of separation from the world blind(ed) Mennonites to their complicity in the violence of the status quo. It is sobering to recognize how utopian visions of dialogue and reconciliation obscure systemic power imbalances. It is sobering to observe white Mennonites argue against the coercive nature of unions, while benefiting from an economic system built on genocide and slavery. 

Mennonite pastor, Celeste Kennel-Shank put it this way: Unions are a way for lower-income people to build power and participate in government. If we’re serious about dismantling racism and decolonizing, that means wanting more than the relationships of “serving the least of these” which perpetuate power imbalances.

In picking out the passage for this morning, Jim (our worship leader) and I landed on Psalm 146 because it articulates a vision of the Divine who is on the side of the oppressed, the hungry, the prisoner, the foreigner, and the widow. This is an image of God active in the world, in solidarity and transforming injustice. I know we in this congregation believe this to be our calling today, to actively work for justice and liberation in our world. 

And when it comes to labor solidarity, I think Mennoites have a long way to go. We live in a time of extreme and increasing economic inequality. It is a time to seriously consider and study the forces at play in our political economy and what it will take to be part of building a mass movement to confront the systems of greed destroying our world. In our work for justice we can no longer side step conversations about class. And I think it’s safe to say, we are all working class. By this I mean that we all need to work to pay our bills, or if recently retired, we needed to work throughout our adult lives to be able to retire.  

The prophetic calls in our scriptures consistently demand an end to exploitation, freedom for those enslaved and imprisoned, and liberation for the oppressed. This is a prophetic call to solidarity beyond one’s kin and community. 

As a Mennonite congregation are we willing to soberly consider our forebears’ actions and choose a different path? Are we willing to investigate why we might be reluctant to get politically active, to support union efforts or ballot measures like the Empty Home Tax? Might it be subtly  rooted in a paradigm similar to Guy F. Hershberger’s? 

Who are the prophets in our midst today? And I’m actually asking if anyone wants to do this kind of study focused on the call to solidarity and action with me? Maybe it’s a discipleship group, but in any case, I think we have work to do. May we be attentive to the leading of the Spirit. Amen.