Justice and Fairness in Action

A recent article in The Tennessean, Nashville’s daily newspaper, highlighted the housing challenge for low income workers.  A study found that the average wage needed to rent a one-bedroom apartment in Nashville is $13.75 per hour ($16.35 for a two-bedroom).  This $13.75 per hour is not only about double the minimum wage, but is $1.94 per hour greater than the state average income.  This housing difficulty for low wage workers is just one of the symptoms of our out-of-whack income inequality in this country.

But one man is doing something about it.  Dan Price, founder of Gravity Payments, a credit card processing firm based in Seattle, recently announced a startling new wage structure for his company.  Last month, Mr. Price set out on a plan to raise the salary of every employee to a minimum of $70,000 per year.  This, at a company where the current average salary is $48,000 per year.  You can read about his plan here.

How does he intend to pay for it?  For starters, Mr. Price is cutting his salary from nearly $1 million per year to $70,000.  In the New York Times article, he is quoted, “The market rate for me as a C.E.O. compared to a regular person is ridiculous, it’s absurd.  As much as I’m a capitalist, there is nothing in the market that is making me do this.”  And that is the beauty of what Dan Price is doing.  Mr. Price is breaking free from the injurious notion that drives American business – what is the lowest possible wage I can pay my workers in this market?

Did you notice the word “market” in the quotes of Mr. Price?  The market rate for CEOs is ridiculous – his words, not mine.  And the market is not requiring him to raise salaries.  He is actually going against what the market requires.  Why?

What is not reported in the NY Times piece is that Mr. Price is a believer who is interested in “granting justice and fairness” to his workers and maybe a little generosity thrown in.  He recognizes that in the Seattle area, a salary below $70,000 per year makes it difficult to buy a house or save for your children’s education.  He wanted to do something about the financial pressures workers face when hit with a rent increase or unexpected car repair or nagging credit card debt.

I salute Mr. Price.  I hope his example will be followed by others.  He has his critics to be sure.  But in my opinion those critics are narrow-minded and missing the biblical admonition to “grant your workers justice and fairness.”

Justice and Fairness in the Workplace

Now let’s turn to the big picture of “Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you have a Master in heaven” (Col 4:1).  We have a big problem in this country with income inequality.  We have all seen the statistics that compare executive pay to the lowly wages of the worker bees.  And I will not belabor the point except to summarize that the low end of the economic food chain in this country is grossly underpaid compared to what they contribute.  Free-market capitalism in our wage structure – that is, paying the lowest wage possible that the market will support to hire my workers – is one of the principle drivers of this inequality.

But the biblical position is not free-market capitalism in the wage structure, it is treating workers with justice and fairness.  As believers, we should be supporting wage scales that people can live on.  Wages that can support a family.  Wages that reflect workers sharing in the harvest.

The Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 9:9-10, “It is written in the Law of Moses: ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.’ Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because whoever plows and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest.”

Today’s workers are not sharing in the harvest.  Instead they are captive to a market-driven pay scale.  What do I mean by market-driven pay?  Let me give you a story from my own work experience.

Several years ago, in the days of top secret salaries, a new coworker of mine who had just joined the company leaked the fact that he was making about $10,000 per year more than I was.  His work experience was actually a little less than mine, so it caused some angst on my part.  I approached my boss about the income disparity.  My supervisor was very straight-forward, “Jay, we can pay you less because you are already here.  We have to pay the other guy more to get him to leave his former employer.”

This is market-driven wages.  There was no thought for fairness.  There was no concern for loyalty.  There was no consideration for the fact that I had discovered millions of dollars of oil and gas for the company without sharing in the harvest.  Now, I am not sharing this story for your sympathy.  I am well-paid and we have been blessed to raise a family of five children on my salary.  I am sharing this to illustrate the concept.  And its implementation is more painful the farther we go down the wage scale.

I have also observed this corollary to market-driven wages in the workplace.  A market downturn causes a company to lay off workers.  The remaining employees start working 50 and 60 hour weeks to keep the company afloat.  The message from management to the overworked staff is “just be grateful you still have a job.”  Then, when things turn around and the market improves, the company realizes that they can maximize their profits in the rising market by not hiring the new workers they need but just keep riding their current employees to keep working harder.  It is not a picture of justice and fairness.

Or how about the current minimum wage discussion.  When I was in college, I worked a minimum wage job as a groundskeeper.  By my last year in school, the minimum wage was $2.65/hr.  It sounds pretty small now.  But by comparison, my college costs (tuition and room and board) were around $2500/year.  Now the comparable college cost in 2015 at a four-year public school like I attended is about $19,000/year, a 660% increase.  So maybe we should increase the current minimum wage to a 660% of the $2.65 that I was making then so that college students could actually afford to pay for their education.  Oh by the way, that would be a minimum wage of $20.14/hr, a far cry above the current and dismal wage of $7.25/hr.

Because of our marriage of American-style capitalism with American-style Christianity, I think we sometimes fear association with the liberal camp if we support increased wages for workers.  But this is not a liberal vs. conservative issue.  This is a justice and fairness issue.  And the Bible makes it quite clear where we are to land.

With Justice and Fairness

“Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you have a Master in heaven” (Col 4:1).  Our last post covered the responsibility of workers to do their work heartily.  Today, we look at the flip side; the responsibility of employers to treat their employees with justice and fairness.

In our rush to join American-style capitalism with American-style Christianity, we are quick to defend a business’s right to maximize their profit.  We are quick to point out the requirement that “he who doesn’t work, shouldn’t eat”, highlighting the need for a diligent workforce.  But the responsibility to treat the workforce with justice and fairness may be one of the most overlooked teachings in the New Testament.  There is a big picture aspect to this question that we will tackle later.  But for now, let’s focus on the individual application.

We all are employers on some level.  You may own a business with a large staff.  You may be a homemaker who hires house-cleaning help or a lawn service.  Or it may be as simple as paying someone to cut your hair or babysit your kids.  The point is that we all have opportunity to treat those who serve us with justice and fairness.

Somewhere along that line, we have gotten the idea that the Christian goal is to pay as little as possible for these services.  But does that really fit the justice and fairness admonition?  I am not saying we should overpay for poor service or inferior products.  But there is also no reason to think that we always have to “win” the bargaining game.  It is somewhat of a zero-sum situation.  If I always have to “win”, then someone else is most likely “losing”.

Businesses are not in business to give their stuff away below cost.  Service providers are not in business to take home as little pay as possible.  As believers, we have a responsibility to pay what is fair.  Do you agree?  Or do you think that there is no moral imperative to how much we pay for our services?

Now this is not about being wasteful with your cash.  This is not an endorsement for spending above your income.  Each of us has a personal financial limitation and as we view our supply as being God’s gift and choice, we also hold it as God’s tool to be used to honor Him.

Ask yourself if God’s Word is giving you something new to consider.  Because in the area of paying those who serve us, there is a danger to let market forces – what is the absolute least I can pay in this market for this service – override our biblical responsibility to treat those who serve us with justice and fairness.

Following the New Testament Money Trail

What started as a post about “Wealth with Wings” and putting our financial eggs in God’s basket has morphed into a series of posts following just a small section of the New Testament money trail (hopefully not a rabbit trail).  I think the length was necessary to really get us thinking about the seriousness of what Jesus said about investing our money.  I hope you have picked up some food for thought along the way.

In practical terms, what might this “send it on ahead” approach to financial planning look like in today’s world.  Keeping in mind the admonition to use our wealth to make friends that will welcome us into the eternal dwellings, it might look like this:

It might be sponsoring a child in an impoverished country, providing money for his physical needs and prayers and letters for his spiritual needs.  I can’t think of too many situations that are as close to making friends that will greet us in eternity as this.  Or how about buying groceries for a family where both parents are out of work?  Will they be the ones to greet you in your eternal dwelling?  Have you considered giving your car to a family that needs transportation instead of trading it in?  But I can’t get the car I want if I don’t have my trade-in to contribute to the cost.  Maybe the car you want is not the car you need.  Giving away a car can be a huge blessing to someone in need.  Or maybe it is giving money to a family member to improve their living situation.  Remember, our contributions do not have to be to a tax-deductible ministry to count in God’s eternal ledger.

What about hosting a Bible study or worship time for students at your house?  They might kill the grass or put a hole in a wall or leave your basketball out in the rain.  Does that make you think, “Let’s leave that for Mr. Whitaker?”  Or maybe you could host a pot-luck to welcome new folks into your neighborhood or into the community of your church.

Another investment option is financially supporting missionaries and the world-wide mission effort.  Are you willing to say “no” to something to support your friends who have said “no” to the comforts of home to follow the path God has outlined for them?  This is not a guilt trip.  This is looking at your giving decisions with the intentionality of making it an investment.  This is following the path God has for us and helping our brothers and sisters in the ministry God has given to them.  The list is as long as our imagination.

This type of investing is not just giving your money away willy-nilly.  It is not about giving money out of obligation.  It is prayerfully recognizing the people and needs God has placed in your path and responding with generosity.  It is making a conscious choice to invest in people rather than build up our own bank account.  And it imitates our Lord Himself whose generosity to us is beyond measure.

Money and the Early Church

The most quoted passage in the New Testament describing the early church is Acts 2:42-47.  “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles.  And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need.  Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people.  And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.”

If you are like me, you have heard this passage preached many times.  And an interesting subplot to these messages is how we always leap over verses 44 and 45 (in italics above) in regard to application to today’s church.  I am always curious why this is so.  Everyone wants to be a New Testament church.  Everyone wants to emulate the early church.  But for some reason we want to leave out the selling and sharing.

I used to think that the verses smacked too much of socialism or communism and since that used to describe our sworn enemy, no proper American – Christian or otherwise – should have any part in property redistribution.  But I think the reason we ignore these verses is more personal than country allegiance.

These verses, quite frankly, step on our space.  I am good with listening to the apostles’ teaching.  I am good with sharing meals together.  I am good with fellowship (even though the Greek word used here for fellowship [koinonia] implies the sharing of goods).  I am good with prayer.  I am good with praising God.  But selling things, or choosing not to buy things, and giving to my brother or sister in need; that is stepping on my space.

Maybe I am looking at this too simply.  But I can’t find a context reason to not read this just as it is written.  It would seem to me that if we want to follow the example of the early church – and it appears here that they are living out the “send it on ahead” investment strategy of Jesus – we should be a community who looks after the material needs of our family of faith.

One more thought.  Could this be one reason the American church does not stand out in the wonder and awe department like the Acts 2 community (vs 43)?  We look just like the rest of America in our investment decisions focused on which investment strategy increases our nest egg the fastest.  Sharing our possessions not only blesses our brothers and sisters in Christ, but announces to the watching world our dependence on the God we serve and our radical love for one another.