Project Canterbury

The Christian Worker and the Trade Union

Colombo, Sri Lanka: Christian Workers Fellowship, 1976.

Transcribed by the Right Reverend Dr. Terry Brown
Retired Bishop of Malaita, 2009


What is your Attitude?

You are a Christian and you are also a worker--white collar or otherwise. The workers in your work-place are organized in an Union to protect their interests and to fight for their rights. Well then, what is your attitude as a Christian to your fellow workers and the Union?

Do you hold yourself aloof from the activities of these Unions? Do you feel that as a Christian, you honestly cannot join these organizations of your fellow-workers? Or, do you give yourself the re-assuring excuse that these Unions are under the wing of some political party or other in order to justify your staying out--nay, in order to justify even your working against these?

If this is your attitude, let us try to understand what it really implies. Perhaps we could see then that this attitude is a class attitude; that it has little to do with Christianity, but a great deal to do with the caution and respectability of the Sri Lankan middle class.

The Christian Approach

Christianity is not just 'pie in the sky' as some folk imagine. It has very much to do with the living of our daily lives here and now. Nor is Christianity merely an individualistic religion, intensely personal but with little or nothing to say about social or secular matters. On the contrary, to a Christian, the claim of Christ is a total claim. It is valid over the whole life, whether private or public, spiritual or material, religious or secular. The Redeemer of the soul is also the Saviour of the body the Lord of the Church is also the Lord of the world. Furthermore, all Christians are brothers in one household because they have in Christ one Lord and Master; are comrades because they have in Christ one Leader. And all men are brothers because they have in God, a common Father who made them in His own image and because in Christ they have a common Brother [1/2] who shared their life and work and ultimately died that their total life may be more abundant. [It is wrong to assume that the concern of Christianity is only with the religious life of the individual and the endeavour of a select circle of devout people to live a sanctified life and attain an individual perfection. It is the denial of the Incarnation".--Liturgy and Society by A. G. Hebert, S. S. M., page 191.]

Viewed from this position, every Christian must needs enter into co-operation and fellowship with his work-mates, to share in their struggles and problems, their successes and their failures. How many of us are Christians in this sense?

Now don't run away with the idea that you showed kindness to your desk-mate the other day and that your Christian obligations are thereby fulfiled. It is true that you showed kindness to the individual, but what of your attitude to your fellow-workers as a group and to the organization which safeguards their interests and fights for their rights, that is, their Union?

Trade Union

Do you realise that the Trade Union you shun is not something alien to you as a worker, that it arises from your needs and the needs of the others working with you? You and your fellows are working for good or ill within a productive system which is run primarily for the purpose of getting the greatest possible profits for the owners. In such a situation, the less the wage that is paid to the workers, the greater is the profit. Is this not the easiest way for an owner to make his profit? But there is in your work-place a strong union and your employer fears it. He knows that the union will fight back if he, for instance, attempts a wage cut.

Trade Unions then are essentially a defensive apparatus permitted by the present day capitalist system to the working classes, a means to defend their living standards, and to protect their human rights. Have you not benefited from the existence of your trade union? Have not your wages and conditions of work improved as a result of their exertions on your behalf? Have you .not found that you have been treated with greater respect in your work-place as a result of their activities? At the same time, trade unions could also become a lever of offence in the clash between the working class and the owning or capitalist class for the [2/3] division of the national dividend and for the participation of the workers in management at all levels on a national scale. In this latter sense, trade unionism could even have wider social implications and thus assist in the struggle towards a just and equitable social order.

Those of you who are employed in government work-places and nationalized corporations should never fail to realise that your conditions of work, standards of living and your human dignity ultimately depend upon the strength of the organized working-class in capitalist society.

Perhaps you might now say that you object not so much to your trade union as to your union officials and the policy they follow. But in such a case, would it not be your duty to 'remedy' the situation by entering the union and participating to the fullest in its activities? Only then would you be able to change those things which from your point of view are undesirable. To wash your hands off trade unionism on account of personal fears, would be to act as Pontius Pilate did when faced with the challenge placed before him by Jesus.


At this stage you could be more precise in your objections. You say that you might have showed greater interest in your union if it wasn't for the nasty habit of your colleagues to speak so readily and frequently about the 'strike weapon'. Do you mean to imply by this that you want a trade union which ought never to use the strike weapon? You might as well think that a cat in gloves could catch mice!

The right to strike is the chief bargaining weapon of a trade union. It must clearly be understood that there is nothing 'immoral' about taking such a course of action. Workers do not go out on strike for fun; nor do responsible unions call a strike except where the normal methods of negotiation are found ineffective. If even in such situations, you disagree with the union and feel that the strike weapon is being used without sufficient cause, the most responsible course open to you as a Christian is to raise the matter in the union and campaign for an acceptance of your point of view. If you are in a minority, you ought, as in all union matters, to accept the majority decision (as indeed you promised to do when you joined the union), and if need be, to re-agitate the question inside the union with a view to having the earlier decision reversed. If, [3/4] despite your opposition, a strike is called, your duty is to participate in the strike. You most decidedly ought not, under any circumstances, to act as a Judas by becoming a black-leg. The correctness or otherwise of the strike decision taken by your work-mates is something which will be pretty evident to everyone in the course of the strike struggle itself. A strike is no picnic; the success of a strike depends a great deal on the discipline and solidarity amongst the strikers. It depends on yon.

Politics and the Trade Union

As a final argument you would of course say that you dislike unions because of their politics. As a Christian you feel that you should have no truck with politics.

But are you quite sure that this attitude of yours too is not political? Ask your boss why he dislikes the union in the workplace and he would probably say that there is too much politics mixed up in it. Why does he say so? Is it because he has a very 'Christian attitude'? Or is it because he finds this "politics" a bit inconvenient to him and to the unjust system he represents? He might hope to ignore with impunity in this world the teachings of Christ, but he knows it is difficult to ignore, without material loss, the same Christian teachings--social justice and the like when it comes before him in the shape of politics. He therefore hates politics like the plague--especially the politics he finds in your union.

Now, it is perfectly true that politics is to be found in most unions, but this cannot be surprising to anyone if the close connection between economics and politics is recognized. The trade union movement in England led to the formation of the British Labour Party, while in our own country, political parties assisted in the formation of trade unions. It is quite useless, therefore, to yearn for 'pure' trade unionism. This is not pessimism, but a recognition of the plain facts. Beside, what is wrong with politics anyhow?

Christ and the Social Order

Haven't we already agreed that the claim of Christ is a total claim? We must then remember that God is directly concerned in the way society is organized, in the way wealth is distributed and property is used, in the way men behave to one another: that is, in politics. Compromise with social injustice can never be a course open to a Christian; indifference to such conditions can never be justified. It is perhaps significant that the earliest recorded strike [4/5] is found in the Bible--a strike of brickmakers organized by Moses against their Egyptian oppressors. This struggle led to one of the most bitter and protracted national liberation movements in history.

A Christian should be committed to support movements which improve the material conditions of men and women. For though material well-being is not an end in itself, its absence hinders man's development. A man who faces the daily anxiety of wondering how he will find bread for his stomach, will hardly have the time or desire to seek 'spiritual bread' for his soul. One is therefore committed, not merely to a participation with his fellow-men in the activities of a union, but also to the building up of a just and equitable social order. How fearful is the barrier of middle-class respectability which prevents so many Christians from the fullest participation in this work! Quite a number no doubt, think it more convenient to enjoy an easy and sheltered existence, receiving whatever material comforts are possible on week-days and duly turning up in Church on the Sunday to receive their quota of spiritual comfort too. Unfortunately, such folk tend to forget that Jesus Christ was a carpenter who became a revolutionary both in social and religious matters, the founder of the great classless society for the promotion of righteousness, who could utter scathing, burning words against the rich, the respectable, the religious. Yes, middle-class respectability should not be mistaken for the teachings of Christ and His Church.

If we think a bit more deeply, we shall see that social inequalities and prejudices are roundly condemned in the Scriptures and by implication in the Mass--at every service of Holy Communion.* [*"The congregation in church is the fellowship of those who have been baptized into Christ. They act as His Body with Him. They are conscious of what is wrong with the world. They act out the drama of life as it should be lived. They produce bread in fellowship. They break it for equal distribution. They share it in justice. They see how God's spirit can be expressed in bread and wine and in human relationships. They then unite themselves to Him and to His purpose, and He fills them with His life, that they may go forth to make all life a purposeful thing".--The Meaning of Worship (Industrial Christian Fellowship Publication) page 8. Also see The Social Significance of the Liturgy (Industrial Christian Fellowship Publication) page 7.] In this Service, the products of God's earth and man's labour--bread and wine--are offered to God and consecrated, to be received again as the Body and Blood of the Saviour and shared [5/6] by the faithful. What is offered by the symbols of bread and wine is not only our souls but also our bodies, not only our 'inner lives' but also our daily work and circumstances. And what is shared is not only spiritual food but also material food, not only our 'Church' life but also our total life. The use of these material products at this Service is a continual reminder that the act of sharing we perform in our common worship must lead to a similar sharing in the daily circumstances of our common life and work. Thus in this great Sacrament, we are also shown the right use of earthly things, the pattern of Church life, and because the Church is the model community, the pattern for secular society as well.

This reveals how inseparable from our point of view, Christianity and society, religion and politics, must always be. It involves a belief in a social order in which 'material things'--the means of production, distribution and exchange--are used not for the private advantage and profit of a few, but for the common good of all, a society in which no owning and exploiting class stands between the people and their access to these 'things'. Such a belief is not a mere 'fanciful opinion', but is an essential part of the Christian Faith.* [*Footnote: see next paragraphs.] It becomes impossible for a Christian who knows what the Holy Communion means, not to take part, to the best of his abilities, in the work of political and social emancipation; impossible for an earnest communicant not to be an earnest politician.

[*Footnote from above: The declared presence of Christ beneath the bread and wine of the Mass reveals the essential fact that in "Him all things consist". Christ becomes manifest when these representative products of God's earth--bread and wine--are presented on behalf of mankind by the Church and shared in Holy Communion. Similarly, the whole world and its products will manifest Him in whom they consist when they are shared by all mankind in Holy Commun(ion)ism. These who partake of the Holy Communion therefore are necessarily pledged to be Holy Communists.

It is precisely this truth about the Mass being a foretaste of the common life as it should be lived under Christ that the Christian Workers Fellowship seeks to underline in its Workers' Mass.]

Q Isn't undue hardship caused to innocent people as a result of strikes?

A Strike action is not embarked upon lightly; it is only when workers are prepared to face the hardships and even the risk of being sacked, that they go on strike. Hardship to the families of the strikers and even to sections of the public, is in these circumstances unavoidable. But one could with more justification blame the employer for the situation in which workers are compelled to go on strike.

[7] Q Do the activities of the trade unions necessarily result in laziness and the shirking of work among employees?

A Certainly not. A trade union normally raises the sense of responsibility of the worker. It is an excellent trade union principle that the best unionist should also be the best worker.

Q Should a Christian defend the existing social system and the right to have private property?

A No, he need not. A Christian is not committed to any existing society, although he is committed to working towards a just and equitable social order. Private ownership of property has always been regarded by the Early Fathers of the Church as being rooted in sin. It is because the earth is the Lord's that one could say it is not the landlord's.

Here are some of the many references which indicate a consistent line of Christian thinking on these matters:--

"The bread of the needy is the life of the poor;
whoever deprives them of it is a man of blood.
To take away a neighbour's living is to murder him;
to deprive a worker of his wages is to shed blood". (Ecclesiasticus 34:21-22 R.S.V.)

"The Lord enters into judgement
with the elders and princes of His people:
"It is you who devoured the vineyard,
The spoil of the poor is in your houses.
What do you mean by crushing my people,
By grinding the face of the poor"?
says the Lord God of Hosts". (Isaiah 3: 14-15 R.S.V.)

"Hear this, you who trample upon the needy,
and bring the poor of the land to an end.
Saying 'When will the new moon be over,
that we may sell grain?
And the Sabbath..
that we may buy the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and sell the refuse of the wheat?'
[8] The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
"Surely I will never forget any of their deeds". (Amos 8: 4-7 R.S.V.)

"Look around you. Isn't it the rich who are always trying to 'boss' you, isn't it the rich who drag you into litigation?............

"Go to now you rich menYou have made a fine pile in these last days, haven't you? But look, here is the pay of the reaper you hired and whom you cheated, and it is shouting out against you! And the cries of the other labourers you swindled is heard by the Lord of Hosts Himself. Yes, you have had a magnificent time on this earth, and have indulged yourselves to the full. You have picked out just what you wanted like soldiers looting after battle. You have condemned and ruined innocent men in your career, and they have been powerless to stop you". (St. James 2: 6, 5: 1-7. Trans--J. B. Phillips)

"Among the large number who had become believers, there was complete agreement of heart and soul. Not one of them claimed any of his possessions as his own but everything was common propertyThey would distribute to each one according to his need." (Acts: 4; 32, 35 . Translation--J. B. Phillips)

St. Clement of Alexandria (c 210)--"All things are common and not for the rich to appropriate an undue share. The expression, therefore, 'I possess and possess it in abundance, why should I not enjoy' is suitable neither to man nor to society..God has given us the liberty of use, but only so far as necessary and He has determined that the use should be common". (Paed 2: 13)

St. Basil (c. 379)--"Wretches, how will you justify yourselves before the Heavenly Judge? You say to me 'What is our fault, when we keep what belongs to us?' I ask you, 'How did you get that which you call your property?' How do the possessors become rich if not by taking possession of things that belong to all?"

St. John Chrysostom (c. 407)--"To grow rich without an injustice is impossible. But what if he succeeded to his father's inheritance? Then he receives what had been gained by injustice." (Homilies 1 Tim: Hom: 1-12)

[9] John Ball of Kent (1381, Priest and leader of a peasant uprising in England)--

"When Adam delved (dug) and Eve span (spun)
Who was then the gentleman?"

"Ah, ye good people, the matters goeth not well to pass..nor shall not do till everything be common, and that there be no villeins nor gentlemen, but that we may be all united together, and that the lords be no greater masters than we be. What have we deserved, or why should we be kept thus in servage?.......Whereby can they spy or show that they be greater lords than we be? Saving by that they cause us to win and labour for that they dispend" Froissart (Globe ed.) page 251

Jerrard Winstanley (17th Century, Leader of the Diggers' Movement in England)--"Self propriety (private property) is the curse and burden the creation groans under..this particular propriety of mine and thine hath brought in all misery upon people.Was the Earth made to preserve a few covetous proud men to live at ease and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the Earth from others, that these may beg or starve In a fruitful land; or was it made to preserve all her children?" The New Law of Righteousness (1649) pages 61-62.

"Property and single interest divides the people.and is the cause of all wars and bloodshed and contention everywhere" The True Levellers' Standard Advanced (1649)

--From Winstanley: The Law of Freedom and other writings ed: C. Hill (Pelican) page 90

John Malcolm Ludlow (1821-1911, A pioneer of the Christian Socialist Movement in England) --

"Socialism the latest born of the forces now at work in modern society and Christianity, the oldest born of these forces, are in their nature not hostile but akin to each other; or rather the one is but the development, the outgrowth, the manifestation of the other".

[10] Stewart Headlam (19th Century, Priest and Socialist of England)--"the(se) names surely have good meanings for us: the Holy Communion pledging all who partake of it to be sharers of their wealth, whether spiritual or material, to be Holy Communists: the Holy Eucharist telling us that it is a God of joy with whom we have to do, that human joy is sacred, and religion should be a joyful thing: the Mass reminding us that in this one great Christian service at least we are at one with our fellow-churchmen elsewhere, that this same act is being done, the same sacrifice is being offered in Rome as in London:.the Lord's Supper reminds us that this great service took the place of the Jewish Passover supper: that just as year by year the Jews kept festival in honour of their great national deliverance from Egyptian tyranny, so week by week we keep festival in honour of Christ the deliverer from all tyrants, the emancipator of oppressed nations and classes everywhere."

Quoted by G. H. Binyon: The Christian Socialist Movement in England (SPCK 1931)

James Connolly (Irish Trade Union Leader, Marxist and Roman Catholic executed by the British Troops in 1916)--

"We seek to organize every person who works for wages, that the workers themselves may determine the conditions of labour. We hold that the sympathy strike is the affirmation of the
Christian principle that we are all members one of another, whilst those who oppose the sympathy strike and uphold sectionalism in trade union struggles are repeating the question of Cain who, when he was questioned about the brother he had murdered, asked 'am I my brother keeper?' We say, 'yes, we are all the 'keepers of our brothers and sisters, and responsible for them.'

"From the organization of Labour as such we propose to organise upon the co-operative principle that we may control the commodities we ourselves use and consume".

The Workers' Republic (Ed. by D. Ryan--Dublin) Page 189

"..if the pioneers of the Socialist movement were indeed freethinkers, so much the more shame to the Church that, by neglecting their obvious duty, left freethinkers to do the work in which churchmen ought to have been the leaders". (Page 252)

[11] R. H. Tawney (Historian)--"Christians are committed by their creed to a view of man, and of his place in the universe, which makes the tolerance of class advantages and class essay in blasphemy..a man's relations to his fellow-men in the world are part of his relation to God, and if the former are opposed to those which the Christian conscience can approve, then the latter necessarily share their corruption. 'If a man love not his brother whom he hath seen, how shall he love God, whom he hath not seen'?"

Christian Politics (Socialist Christian League Publication) page 12

William Temple (former Archbishop of Canterbury)--"The existing system is challenged on moral grounds. It is not merely that some who have not are jealous of some who have. The charge against our social system is one of injustice. The banner so familiar in early unemployed or socialist processions--'Damn your charity; we want justice'--vividly exposes the situation as it was seen by its critics. If the present order is taken for from the more or less fortunate would seem virtuous and commendable; to those for whom the order itself is suspect or worse, such charity is blood money. Why should some be in a position to dispense and others to need that kind of charity?.......The Christian cannot ignore a challenge in the name of justice. He must either refuse it or, accepting it devote himself to the removal of the stigma. The moral quality of the accusation brought against the economic and social order involves the Church in 'interference' on pain of betraying the trust committed to it".

Christianity and the Social Order (Penguin) pages 22-23

Camilo Torres (Priest and revolutionary socialist of Columbia killed in action in 1966)--

"..not to participate in the revolution of our time is to commit the most serious mortal sin".

This is what a non-Christian--Frederick Engels--the great collaborator of Karl Marx had to say about the early Christians:

"It is now, almost to the year, sixteen hundred years since a dangerous party of revolt made a great commotion in the Roman [11/12] empire. It undermined religion and all the foundations of the state: It flatly denied that Caesar's will was the supreme law; it was without a fatherland, international; it spread over all countries of the empire from Gaul to Asia, and beyond the frontiers of the empire. It had long carried on underground agitation in secret; for a considerable time, however, it had felt itself strong enough to come out into the open. This party of revolt, of those known by the name of Christians, was also strongly represented in the army; whole legions were Christians. When they were ordered to attend the sacrificial ceremonies of the pagan established church, in order to do the honours there, the rebel soldiers had the audacity to stick peculiar emblems--crosses--on their helmets in protest. Even the wonted barrack cruelties of their superior officers were fruitless. The Emperor Diocletian could no longer quietly look on while order, obedience and discipline in his army were being undermined. He intervened energetically, while there was still time. He passed an anti-Socialist, I should say anti-Christian, law. The meetings of the rebels were forbidden, their meeting halls were closed or even pulled down, the Christian badges, crosses etc" were, like the red handkerchiefs in Saxony, prohibited. Christians were declared incapable of holding offices in the state, they were not to be allowed even to become corporals..the Christians were forbidden out of hand to seek justice before a court. This exceptional law was also without effect. The Christians tore it down from the walls with scorn; they are even supposed to have burnt the Emperor's palace in Necomadia over his head. Then the latter revenged himself by the great persecution of Christians in the year 303, according to our chronology. It was the last of its kind. And it was so effective that seventeen years later the army consisted overwhelmingly of Christians, and the succeeding autocrat of the whole Roman Empire Constantine, called the Great by the priests, proclaimed Christianity as the state religion"

(March 6, 1845, Introduction to The Class Struggles in France by Karl Marx)

1st issue--Nov. 1958
Reprint--Mar. 1964
2nd (revised) Reprint--Jan. 1976


Printed at Lalith Printers--Puwakaramba, Moratuwa.

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