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A couple of my friends are on strike with the Writers Guild. One of them wrote in Commonweal about what, from the daily picket lines, this means:
Some days—with a great conversation with friends, delicious snacks baked by our intrepid strike captains or dropped off in a box from Jay Leno, a fiery and inspirational speech or two—it’s genuinely fun, a delightful, transportive experience. Most days it’s fine: not the exercise I’d seek out, maybe, but if you keep your headphones out of your ears (and most people do), there’s always someone interesting to talk to. Some days, it’s less than fine. All days it’s hot.
And, when conversation lags, there’s time to consider big questions. For one, why are we doing this? Well, that one I know the answer to: the disruptions of the streaming model make it much harder for writers to earn the living they used to, and more disruptions are on the way. We’re striking for the same reason that we struck over VHS technology and the advent of the internet—because large companies will always use technological advances to harm workers unless someone stops them. Because we’ve watched other good, creative jobs get gobbled up by hedge funds and monopolies and we don’t want to be next. Because we’ve seen that you don’t get what you don’t fight for.
Please read the whole thing, especially if you’ve ever had any interest in the intersection between Christianity and labor issues. But here’s the part that really got me:
It’s not purely an act of charity, nor an act of pure selfishness, but an act where our collective behavior benefits us both—an act that makes no sense unless it’s done by a group for a group. If I personally had stopped working in May and paced up and down in front of Disney for months, I would have been a curiosity, at best. Probably I simply would have been invisible. But in the thousands, we have the potential to disrupt billions of dollars of entertainment industry business and thereby make ourselves noticed. It works for all of us but only if we all do it.
Everyone on the picket line, everyone in the striking unions, has their own situations, their own needs, their own problems, their own goals. But they are united in two critical ways: they sell their labor to the same industry, dominated by the same set of employers; and they have bound themselves together in a union to defend their interests from those employers. This is their natural and human right, as recognized even by the hidebound and reactionary European church bodies for many years. It is also a rational act in the face of technological and political changes that have squeezed working people in many industries, if not in top-line compensation (though often that too!), then in hours, conditions, reliability, and the kinds of security that string pay periods together into something like the basis for a decent life. But this human right and instrumental rationality are overlaid by something more like a bet, or a leap of faith. And that’s solidarity. It is better, in the short run, for any individual worker to scab on the group and grab some pay. But to have any chance of getting a better share and a plausible net under the tightrope of creative work, all those individual workers have to keep faith with each other. Put down the tools, close the laptops, and chant the hoary chants until the other side feels enough pain to strike a deal.
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Seen in this perspective, solidarity is an ideal of Christian virtue. It refers to both a real presence—the material interests and conditions over which people strike—and a mystical body—the bond of faith and mutuality that makes many individual interests into one. There are reasons it has not generally been so regarded, being usually divided between the virtues of charity and justice, but one reason is probably the peculiar development of philanthropic and hyper-capitalist theologies in American Christianity. We ended up having neither neither the moral language nor the material basis for emphasizing it.
Nevertheless, one hears about solidarity more frequently these days, at least in the circles I move in. This solidarity is most often expressed at the level of rhetoric or affect rather than concerted collective action toward material goals. We might call this “aspirational” or, if we’re feeling more cynical, “ersatz” solidarity. It is not without sincere fellow-feeling. It is not usually rooted in the hard commonality of a shared interest so much as an imaginative identification with that interest. “This issue does not affect me directly but I stand in solidarity with those it does.” This captures the “mystical body” aspect of solidarity but leaves the real material presence, at best, unstated.
I’ve never been in a union, nor worked in a workplace that had unionized workers. None of the churches I’ve served have had very many union members, let alone a critical mass of people who work for the same employer or even the same industry. I’ve had to work very hard on the imaginative-identification side of the solidarity ledger, and I’m aware that it isn’t enough. How churches can be really connected, not just rhetorically or affectively, with real struggles for fairness, is a question I ponder.
I don’t have a great off-the-shelf answer for this question. I’ve heard the desire to unionize among my colleagues, and in principle I share it, but I don’t really see how it would be possible in the congregational organization of most Protestant church polities. We can be a guild of sorts, and we could cultivate and wield some power that way, but I don’t see how to bind ourselves more tightly than that. And that leaves us, by default, with the options of mounting a soapbox or making our own arrangements.
Today a blog post by a pastor announcing and explaining his departure from church ministry made the rounds of my clergy Facebook circles, mostly to approval and recognition. It’s worth reading if church is part of your life. His complaints are real and valid, and it would do people who are active in churches some good to hear them. But as it went on, it left a sour taste in my mouth. Yes, it’s true that we fulfill many, sometimes conflicting, roles. It’s true that we come in for criticism that may or may not be fair (the author does not concede the potential fairness of any criticism he received). The people we work with and for can be uncooperative and resistant to change. I have personally experienced all these things, but I have at least most of the time felt responsible for using the considerable discretion most of us are given to foster more realistic expectations, get better at things I struggle with, or come to grips with bad things I can’t change. People are who they are, and if you’ve properly cultivated an internal locus of control, you know you can’t simply comprehensively blame them for the problems you experience.
Still, frail things that we are, I could only feel some sympathy for someone who, whatever his own misconceptions going in or missteps in the middle, had suffered for his vocation. Then came the payoff:
As for what I plan to do next, I believe one of the most important ways we encounter God’s unconditional love is through our relationships with others. I am going to be investing all of my energy into a business that helps people find and form those relationships so they can experience God’s love in their lives. More to come on that in future articles!
It’s fine to quit ministry. Lots of people do it. It’s not fine, but is understandable, to tell a self-exculpatory story about being too refined, too enlightened, and too open-minded for the grubby people you’ve had to do it with. But shifting into a business model for God is far more depressing than just saying “I’m not cut out for this any more” and getting a normal job. It would strain an analogy to say that a pastor leaving church ministry to be a freelance God merchant is scabbing on the guild, but at a minimum it does nothing to alleviate the problems many of us seem to struggle with. I won’t rehearse all my concerns with the pastor-to-guru pipeline, but for today’s purpose it’s enough to point out that it’s the opposite of solidarity.
It’s undeniable that working in a field that is going through long-term structural decline forces bad choices and impossible dilemmas (ask a newspaper staff or university humanities department about that). It’s hard to manage the feelings and habits that have been so disordered and disrupted by a pandemic and an atmosphere of chronic political crisis (ask a school teacher or an election administrator about that). And it’s no fun to try to bridge the gap between high ideals and demotivating realities (check in on your hospital nurse friends). Perhaps the desire among some mainline clergy to see our dissatisfactions and traumas as unique and peculiar to our work is itself common in other jobs. Maybe teachers see blog posts on their social media feeds saying “I quit teaching seventh grade, here’s why ‘school’ is an outmoded concept.” And at a high enough degree of granularity, the problems endemic to our job are unique. But that’s true of everyone else’s job, too.
The brutal truth of pastor quit lit, or just pastor lament lit, is that most of our complaints, however justified, are in fact pretty ordinary. They are widely shared by the people we minister to and among. Amazon drivers have to deal with unrealistic expectations and bad behavior, too, and they are much more likely to get hit by a car or collapse with heat exhaustion than I am. It’s our job to talk, to think, and to put things in moralized frames, so we end up sounding more dramatic than we really ought to be. And since we, like most Americans, have no formal structure in which to aggregate our complaints and no bargaining table at which to address them, we are left with our own hurt or angry or depressed words and our imagined escape routes.
But hopefully, a frank embrace of the fundamental boringness of our own problems would open us to the only possible solutions they can have: a more secure, more pro-social, more safe, more humane society for everyone who has to go out and sell their labor to whoever will buy it. Our existential quandaries may not be tractable to the faith and practice of solidarity, but reliable health insurance that covers therapy is. If writers and actors can see the need for that kind of bet on each other, I have to believe we can find a way to try, too.
In the spirit of the holiday, here’s my favorite union song. If you have the day off, enjoy it. If you have to work, well—I stand in solidarity with you, whatever that means.
A whole post could be written about the mindset expressed here: “I have no problem dismantling the traditional Christian belief system in service of logic and reason, particularly if it helps us make sense of the world. Whereas most pastors eschew nuance in favor of black and white thinking, I believe we discover God’s presence by digging into the complexity of those details.” I don’t care for the “not like the other pastors” thing, but I really strongly advise anyone in any setting to approach changing minds by some other road than “dismantling” cherished beliefs “in service of logic and reason.” I don’t know anything about this guy and don’t want to jump to conclusions, but that just sounds like being obnoxious to me.