Deborah the Prophet and the U.S. Economy
In the Book of Judges, Deborah was a prophetess and judge at a time when the Israelites were experiencing political hopelessness, social upheaval, and spiritual waywardness.
They were seeking a new vision of society. They cried out to God. Their stories echo down to the twenty- first century. If ever we needed more prophets, more Deborahs, now is the time.
In Scripture a prophet wasn’t a fortune-teller but someone who heard a message from God and passed it on. It was usually a message about remaining true to God and making sure the prosperity of society was shared by everyone.
Deborah was also a judge, a respected leader who heard community disputes and gave recommendations. People turned to Deborah for leadership. Despite the patriarchy of the time, she was called to be a prophet and a judge.
The Israelites were exploited by the Canaanites, but there seemed to be nothing they could do. The Canaanites were well-armed, well-organized, with 900 fancy iron chariots. The Israelites were not much of an army – no fearsome weapons, just poor people upset about their condition.
Deborah called Barak, one of the Israelites’ leading military men, and said, “The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you, ‘Go, gather your men at Mount Tabor, taking ten thousand from the tribe of Naph’tali and the tribe of Zeb’ulun. And I will draw out Sis’era, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the river Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.’”
Barak was resistant. The odds of defeating such an army weren’t good. Deborah had to bolster him, reminding him of the power of God. “Up!” she says. “Does not the LORD go out before you?”
So Barak went to battle, with 10,000 men following him. The text only says that the Lord routed Sis’era and all his chariots. As scholars explain it, it was a stormy day and the field became mud. Sophisticated iron chariots are useless, in fact a handicap in mud.
There is much to learn from the example of Deborah and her management of social, spiritual crisis – lessons for our own times and uncertainties. I see three lessons here for organizing and occupying:
Lesson One: Be a prophet in your community.
I bet there were people who told Deborah she couldn’t be a prophet. She ignored them. A prophet tells the truth, condemns the wrong, and lifts forth an alternative vision. Our nation is in crisis, several crises. We need all of you to be Deborahs to articulate the emergency and propose a new direction.
We have an unemployment crisis. Nationwide unemployment has hovered at 9 percent.1 Underemployment is at least another 7-8 percent.2 These rates are significantly higher for people of color.
But both the unemployment and the underemployment figures disguise something else – the unfair distribution of pain in this economy. Poor people are hit disproportionately hard. Rich families, those with household incomes of more than $150,000, have a combined unemployment and underemployment rate of 6 percent. The poorest families, those with household income below $12,500, have a combined rate of 50 percent.3 The pain is not shared equally.
We have an income crisis. Even before the recession, we had an income crisis among U.S. workers. The official minimum wage doesn’t begin to support a family. Income for most workers has not kept up. Praise God for the Occupiers. They’ve gotten income disparity placed on the national agenda.
We have a benefits crisis. Growing numbers of workers don’t have core family benefits – health care, pension, paid sick days. Every other industrialized nation offers these. They are no longer a priority in America.
We have a wage theft crisis. One-fourth of low-wage workers aren’t paid even the minimum wage. Three-fourths of low-wage workers who work more than forty hours a week aren’t paid the overtime premium the law says they deserve. Ten percent of tipped workers have their tips stolen by their employers. Whole sectors of workers are illegally designated as independent contractors and cheated of wages, taxes, and protections.
Thou Shalt Not Steal. Deborah would have told unethical employers to stop stealing. But Deborah’s not here. You are. Find the workers center* nearest you and volunteer (see www.iwj.org).
We have an immigration crisis. We have twelve million undocumented workers with no path to citizenship. These include young immigrant students – our future innovators and leaders – who are denied schooling. Instead of facing the issues, we blame immigrants for the unemployment rate and budget crisis.
We have an organizing crisis. As a nation, we officially say we believe all workers should have the right to organize. But, across the board, workers believe that if they organize, they will be fired. Whether or not that actually happens, workers believe it. Enough workers are fired for organizing to confirm it.
Lesson Two: Push others forward and then stand with them.
It is not enough for us personally to protest what is wrong. We must organize others to get involved. We must call them to act on their values.
People are busy in their own lives. They don’t think they can make a difference. Deborah’s job – your job – is to encourage everyone around you to lead in ways they can.
We certainly have a role in challenging those in power, but we have equally important roles in pressing those around us to use their gifts, their leadership. Most of us tend to minimize what we’ve got to offer. A little affirming can get people to act.
I work with denominational leaders – bishops and others. Critical events unfold right in their midst, yet religious leaders often hold back. When the historic labor protests in Madison, WI, happened last year, we called the bishops and judicatory leaders: “Would you go pray with the workers? Would you issue a statement?” One by one, leaders agreed to help. Each time one did, we sent the news release around and made it easier for the next one to say something.
Most of us have reasons for not stepping forth – we’re a new parent, we’re just a student, we don’t know enough, we’re not tenured, we’re writing a book … All of us need a little pushing to get out of our busyness and use our talents. But we need someone to stand with us.
I have a dear friend who began her career as an intern with me. When some workers called who hadn’t been paid and wanted to do an emergency meeting, and I couldn’t attend, I sent her. She’d never facilitated a large meeting, let alone one in multiple languages. She’d never helped workers recover unpaid wages. She was nervous. As preparation, we talked through the main points of the meeting. We talked through the options. She went and helped workers recover thousands of dollars in unpaid wages. And she went on to become a fabulous organizer.
There are many good, law-abiding, ethical employers who pay people fairly and treat people well. Interfaith Worker Justice is beginning to push them to do more – denounce wage theft, publicly challenge those who don’t.
Speaking up is important. Standing with others who speak is at least as important. We can’t do it alone. We need everyone using their gifts. Some may need only your word of encouragement.
Lesson Three: Use what you’ve got.
Don’t lament what you don’t have. Focus on what resources and power we do have. The Israelites didn’t have the iron chariots of the Canaanites, but they had people.
We don’t have the resources of Wall Street, but young people of Occupy Wall Street have focused the nation’s attention on the disparity in this society. “Occupying” is really similar to “being present.” We in the religious community know the power of pastoral presence. When someone dies, we are present with the family. In times of hurt, we are present with those who suffer. Occupying is being present in the community to its pain.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a twenty-six-year- old pastor when Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus. He had young children. He was new to Montgomery. His church’s leadership wasn’t all that supportive of him stepping into a dangerous civil rights crisis. It really wasn’t a good time. But Dr. King stepped up. The black community didn’t have political power, but it had economic power as bus riders and consumers. The bus boycott captured the imagination and sparked a movement.
We may not have the iron chariots, but they get stuck in the mud. We’ve got people. We have church buildings. We’ve got creativity, flash mobs, tweets. We’ve got power we haven’t begun to tap. Deborah used what she had. You must too.
• organize a jobs club in your congregation. Hundreds have formed and IWJ is supporting them. If you know of one, please let me know about it; contact me at KBobo@iwj.org.
• organize a meeting with your congressional representative. Your senators and representatives aren’t hanging out with unemployed people. You can change that. Use your opportunities and organize unemployed people to meet regularly with legislators. Occupy – be present in – their offices. Visit one a day. Make it a crisis for the legislators so they can’t ignore you.
• organize a workers’ rights education session in your congregation. Many people do not know their rights or know how to recover unpaid wages.
• ask contractors about payment. If you hire anyone to clean, mow the grass, or do repairs around your house or congregation, ask how workers are paid.
Some of the best Deborahs in the nation are young people. Three young people run our workers center in Northwest Arkansas. They can barely rent a car. Yet they are leading the fight against wage theft there. Recently, a restaurant worker came to the center who hadn’t been paid. These young people organized folks to write on the restaurant’s Facebook page wall asking why it didn’t pay its workers. The restaurant immediately changed its policy and compensated the workers.
Last year, they organized a mayoral forum on wage theft that resulted in new citywide approaches to combating the practice. They have arranged to do a weekly radio show in Spanish on worker rights.
These three young people are using their gifts in Fayetteville. They are Deborahs there. You can be the Deborahs here – helping unemployed people, supporting immigrants, standing with workers. Don’t waste energy on what you lack. Focus on what you have – people, some with great gifts as speakers, writers, tweeters, researchers.
Most everyone knows the David and Goliath story – the little guy overcoming the big guy. It’s interesting that almost nobody knows the Deborah story – the prophet and judge telling the truth, pushing leaders to fight for liberation, inspiring the ragtag army to defeat the military power.
I love the David and Goliath imagery, but I love the lessons from Deborah too. Women and men of courage, prophetesses – thank you for your courage. We have some battles ahead.
Kim Bobo is Executive Director of Interfaith Worker Justice (www.IWJ.org) in Chicago. It is the nation’s largest network of people of faith engaging locally and nationally to improve wages, benefits, and conditions for workers, especially in the low-wage economy. In 2009, she was named one of Utne Reader’s “Fifty Visionaries Who are Changing Your World.” This article is adapted from a sermon at Vanderbilt Divinity School last fall.
* Worker Centers help low-wage, non-union workers or- ganize for better wages, benefits, and workplace dignity.