Where You Stand Determines What You See

Tim Ahrens

As a young man, I heard theologian Robert McAfee Brown present three guidelines for making an effective prophetic witness. He was speaking at a forum at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, five years after the Vietnam War. Brown implored us to be aware that we were privileged and educated young men and women. But what we did with the education and privileges would make a world of difference.

He said, “Stand up and speak out on behalf of the poor and those who need your voice in this world. Remember that: 1) where you stand will determine what you will see; 2) whom you stand with will determine what you hear; and 3) what you see and hear will determine what you say and how you act.”

As a preacher of the gospel, I’ve been called by Christ to prophetic witness on behalf of those who are poor, forgotten, and forsaken, and I have used Dr. Brown’s guidelines throughout my life. I have found myself standing with poor and working-class people in many places over the years. In Fall 1984, I helped organize Yale Divinity School students and faculty to stand outside the gates on the picket lines with clerical workers seeking fair wages and benefits. Most recently, in February 2011, I found myself outside the gates again – this time outside the Ohio statehouse with thousands of firefighters, public school teachers, police, and nurses. More than 360,000 state workers were about to lose their rights to collective bargaining, and I organized other pastors, rabbis, and imams to speak out on their behalf.

The assault on Ohio’s public employees’ rights came from the newly elected governor and legislature. Swept into office in November 2010, Gov. John Kasich and supporters sought to abolish a thirty-five-year collective bargaining agreement for all unionized state employees. Although 70 percent of Ohioans supported the right to collective bargaining, the attack on public-sector employees had begun.

Against this hostile legislation came daily protests on the statehouse lawn and in the capital’s atrium and rotunda. Tens of thousands of people showed up. As a religious leader in Ohio, I joined the protests – listening carefully, reading the legislation carefully, and in time speaking publicly.

Questioning the Spirit of the Times

On March 8, 2011 as the governor gave his State of the State address, I addressed more than 5,000 Ohioans outside the statehouse. Our messages, the governor’s and mine, were demonstrably different. The governor stands with the rich and speaks for policies that are anti-union, making no apologies for where he stands and for whom he speaks. I was there to challenge his understanding of collective bargaining and speak up for a different idea of the collective spirit of faith in our state. On that clear cold March day I said:

What I love about Ohioans is that we work out our problems. We come together and work together and face the tough times. We find a way through. That is what collective bargaining is all about. It is not about greed, as some people say. It is about fairness and equity. It is all about working things out for the good of all people. It means making sacrifices on both sides and finding a way forward. And it works. It has worked for Ohio for a long time. This is not the time to throw out what works in a state where over half a million people are out of work.

What has changed in the spirit of Ohio? Where have moderation and the collective spirit of doing the right thing gone?

Mr. Kasich, you need to listen to the people of Ohio. Listen and you will hear the voices of the men and women who teach our children, protect our streets, and put out the fires in our burning buildings. They give their lives to us. They risk their lives for us. Their instruments are tuned to service and praise of God.

Listen to them. They are the deacons in our churches. They are the “mitzvoth” in our synagogues. They are prayer partners in our mosques. There are hundreds of thousands in this symphony of protest! As we hear them cry we know that the citizens of this fine state also hear them. Students in our high schools, colleges and universities are clicking-on their computer-search engines and their searches are taking them out of Ohio. Even though their teachers want them to stay, they have begun to lose hope and look elsewhere to find work as future teachers, firefighters, and police.

Listen, Mr. Kasich. We have faith, too. We are out here. We will not go away. We are standing out here with the statue of a former Republican governor and president, William McKinley. If you won’t listen to us, listen to him. At the base of his statue it reads: “Let us ever remember that our interest is in concord, not conflict, and that our real eminence rests in the victories of peace, not those of war. Our earnest prayer is that God will graciously vouchsafe prosperity, happiness, and peace to all our neighbors, and like blessings to all the peoples and powers of earth.”

In the end, the people of Ohio turned out in record numbers to defeat Issue #2 by a vote of 61-39 percent. The very next day, conservative leaders gathered to begin their next challenge to workers in Ohio – “the right to work” initiative.

Labor and economic questions are ever-pressing on us in Ohio. The over-employed work long hours in six- and seven-day work weeks with little or no additional compensation. The under-employed scramble to piece together two and three jobs with no benefits and no perks. Many of the unemployed are churning through savings, others are sinking into debt, but all are struggling to survive as unemployment payments end. We count over 500,000 Ohioans in this category. If we are not addressing these issues from our pulpits and bemahs, I believe we are not faithful and true to God and God’s people.

As the senior minister of a large downtown congregation in Ohio’s capital city, I am often in the midst of justice issues of our day. The death penalty, gun violence in our schools and on our streets, health care, fair housing, taxes, public education and labor issues are all critical concerns. Where you stand and with whom you speak will determine what you say on these and other issues.

A Theology of Work

Where we stand and with whom we stand are foundational guidelines. But our ground of being is found in God. For me, each morning begins by turning my life over to the care of God. Prayer is my constant guide.

Daily prayer coupled with Holy Scripture direct my steps into the heart of God. Scripture has always been my guiding light. I believe with my Pilgrim forbearers: “more light and truth are always breaking forth from God’s holy word.” Light and truth have often guided my steps for justice with the words of Micah 6:8, Amos 5, Luke 4:14-21, and John 21:15-19. They have sustained me.

Ten years into my ministry, I happened to read an interview with theologian and poet Howard Thurman. He was asked if he had any regrets. He said, “My only regret is that I wasted the first ten yearsof my ministry saying nothing to anyone because I was afraid. Like the women in Mark’s Easter story, I was silent because I was fearful. Fear will cause us to be silent in the face of that we know is wrong.” I decided that day: I would dedicate my ministry to speaking the truth in love.

Others have inspired me. The late William Sloane Coffin, one of my mentors and heroes, used to tell the story of coming on a street fight and asking, “Is this a private fight or can anyone jump in?” I find that those who are taking advantage of the poor don’t want anyone to know about it and certainly don’t want people to organize and jump in. But that is what it takes to change an injustice into something fair and right. 

As a pastor, I am always challenged to balance pastoral care, worship leadership, and church administration with peace-and-justice work. Believe me: I spend twenty times more hours in church meetings than speaking out at statehouse rallies. Even now, I am writing this in the pre-dawn hours so I can go to hospitals and nursing homes once the sun has risen.

Prophetic ministry is personally demanding; I believe that’s why so few embrace it. My predecessor the Rev. Dr. Washington Gladden once said, “Speaking out for workers and the voiceless poor is the hardest work I do. It takes a lot out of me every time I speak. But, when I see them without any one to speak on their behalf, I feel called by God to raise my voice.” Bill Coffin once said, “Whenever I preach prophetically, I clear off my schedule the following week to make pastoral calls on angry members.” How true.

Some would say the church has no role to play on issues dealing with labor and employers. I could not disagree more. When it comes to the assault on laborers, I feel strongly that I must speak out. I am undaunted in this. As I serve the church of the late Rev. Dr. Gladden, a prophet of the social gospel, his words delivered on the statehouse steps 100 years before me ring true in my heart. He said: “… The labor question is in part an economic question, and all economic questions are fundamentally religious questions. (In fact), there are no purely spiritual interests, since spiritual forces all incarnate themselves in the facts of everyday life, and can only be known as they are there manifested. … There is indeed danger that the Church will make mistakes in dealing with such questions, but that the greatest of all mistakes is in ignoring them. … There are no souls that are more in need of saving than the souls getting entangled in the materialisms that undervalue manhood; and there are no people who need moral guidance more than those who are grappling with the manifold phases of the labor question.”

I would recommend to every pastor, priest, rabbi, and imam that your job description requires you to preach and teach on social justice issues. The scriptures in every tradition call leaders and members to stand up on behalf of the poor, forsaken, and forgotten children of God. God calls us to be prophetic witnesses.

The late German theologian Dorothee Soelle, working with themes from Sigmund Freud, wrote a little book many years ago called To Love and to Work (Fortress, 1984). She wrote: “My book is an attempt to affirm our being created and becoming creators, being liberated and becoming agents of liberation, being loved and becoming lovers.” (p. 157) She believed work is not a divine curse (as some interpreters of Genesis would have us believe), but a means of human freedom. Now we need to find a way for grace and love to help us become more human in our times.

May you find a place to stand with the poor and the forgotten. May you hear their stories and respond to their pain. May you answer God’s call and be bold in speaking the truth in love so that others may love and work. 

The Rev. Tim Ahrens ’85 M.Div. is senior minister of First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Columbus, OH. He received YDS’s William Sloane Coffin Award for Peace and Justice in 2008. See his blog at www.socialgospelrising.com.