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January 2010 RL message
“Go in the Strength You Have”
(God Is Our Labor Union)
by Dr. Bruce N. Cameron
Jan. 23, 2010
It was a cool, clear morning. Light leaked through the leaves of the oak to lay a design on the grass. This was no ordinary tree. No, this oak tree was so magnificent that it had a name. The people called it the “Oak in Ophrah.”
That’s “Ophrah” – a place.
Not “Oprah” – the television person.
The Oak in Ophrah even attracted angels. The Bible tells us about an angel who came down from heaven to sit under this special oak tree in Ophrah. Did you ever think that angels hang around under trees to watch what is going on here on earth? Well, that is what the Bible tells us.
Let’s join the angel under the Ophrah oak by reading Judges 6:11*:
The angel of the Lord came and sat down under the oak in Ophrah that belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, where his son Gideon was threshing wheat in a winepress to keep it from the Midianites.
The Bible tells us that Gideon is threshing wheat in a winepress.
Those of you with a farming background have to help out here. How do people thresh wheat? What is their goal? Farmers say that threshing wheat involves separating the hull from the kernel or grain of the wheat. The grain contains the germ. Contrary to the way it sounds, the part that you want to keep has the germ in it. The trick is to get some wind to carry the lighter hull away so that what remains is the heavier grain. 
How do people make wine? What is their goal? Right. You crush the grape – and the goal is to keep all of the juice together in some big vat.
Aren’t these two processes mutually exclusive? When you are threshing, you want your stuff to blow around. When you are pressing wine, you want all your stuff to stay together.
You and the angel might be thinking that Gideon needed remedial wheat-threshing lessons. No one in his right mind would be threshing wheat in a wine vat, right?
Why would Gideon do this foolish thing?
We find the answer in Judges 6:11, the last six words, “to keep it from the Midianites.” Gideon has a goal that is more important than threshing wheat in the best location. That goal is to stay out of sight of the Midianites.
Washington, D.C is an exciting place to live. About a year after terrorists drove a plane into the side of the Pentagon, some other terrorists started shooting shoppers. For a period of several months, people were getting shot while they filled their cars with gas, shot when they were walking from the parking lot to local stores and shot while they waited for a bus to pick them up. The entire population seemed to be crouching whenever they were outside. The Washington Post published a picture of a lady pumping fuel into her car while ducking down between the gas pump and her car.
Imagine this is going on in your neighborhood. Would you be standing tall and proud while filling your tank with gas? If your answer is “No,” you perfectly understand Gideon’s mind-set. It is entirely logical to thresh wheat in a wine vat if you are concerned about the Midianites getting you.
If you had terrorist snipers lurking around your neighborhood gas station, and you could pump your gas while standing in some big wood barrel, I’ll bet that would be your first choice. I know I wouldn’t mind.
Read Judges 6:12:
When the angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon, he said, "The Lord is with you, mighty warrior."
Grasp the picture with me now. There you are, crouched down between your car and the gas pump, and some angel, who is sitting under a tree nearby calls out, “Hey brave guy, the Lord is with you.”
You might wonder if he was kidding. Can angels be “smart-alecks”? When you learned that angels were “encamped around” us (Psalm 34:7), you thought the purpose was deliverance, not derision.
Let’s read on. Judges 6:13:
"But sir," Gideon replied, "If the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our fathers told us about when they said, 'Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?' But now the Lord has abandoned us and put us into the hand of Midian."
What is Gideon saying? He has a complaint to file with the angel. “I would be a mighty warrior if God had done what He promised. The reason I’m ducked down here between the gas pump and the car is that things are not going the way they should. God let these pesky Midianites into the neighborhood!”
Do you have that same sort of feeling today? You lack a feeling of security because God is letting things get out of hand?
Banks have been bungling their business. As a result other businesses are closing and employees are being laid off. Maybe you fear you are next! There goes peace at work.
It was not that long ago that the post office was delivering anthrax to our homes without additional charge or warning. There goes peace at home.
An old expression talks about “when pigs fly.” Last year we had to worry about swine flu. There goes peace on vacation – especially if you have a taste for tacos.
For some reason mosquitoes have started sharing the West Nile virus with us. Newspapers have shown pictures of killer fish that have the amazing ability to slither over the land to spread to new lakes. There goes peace in the great outdoors!
Not too long ago we learned that Ebola was being tested in a Virginia laboratory. Guess that is one reason they call it “the home of the brave.”
If you can’t feel safe in your office, can’t feel safe at home, can’t feel safe outside, can’t feel safe shopping, can’t feel safe on vacation, it’s a pretty sorry life, right?
Maybe, like Gideon in verse 13, you may be saying, “God, what is going on? It is not supposed to be like this.”
Let’s examine God’s response in Judges 6:14:
The Lord turned to him and said, "Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian's hand. Am I not sending you?"
This morning we are going to spend a little time on God’s command to Gideon (and us): “Go in the strength you have. . . . Am I not sending you?” God’s point is that Gideon and God, as a team, are sufficiently powerful to take care of the Midianites and any other problem that makes you want to run and hide.
Sharlene Harwood is a Seventh-day Adventist and Robert Roesser is a Roman Catholic. They have something in common: they believe it is God’s will that they not join or financially support a labor union.
Opinions vary about whether labor unions are a good thing. But, no one doubts the original reason why labor unions came into existence. Employees believed that there was strength in numbers: if you want to earn a better living, you need to be in solidarity with other employees in a labor union. Stand together against the employer! When you face tough economic times, when things are not going right, you need to lock arms with other employees. You need to have one agent, the union, speak for all of you with one strong voice. That is the theory.
The question is whether that kind of collective strength is consistent with God’s will for His followers. When God says “Go in the strength you have . . . . am I not sending you?” is this strength collective strength? Does it mean banding with others –nonbelievers– to accomplish peace of mind?
Gideon’s story teaches us a great deal about this subject. Let’s continue by reading Judges 6:33.
Now all the Midianites, Amalekites and other eastern peoples joined forces and crossed over the Jordan and camped in the Valley of Jezreel.
Remember that Gideon was trying to hide from the Midianites when the lounging angel called out, “Hey, brave guy!” We now read that all of Gideon’s enemies, not just the Midianites, have joined forces to attack God’s people. Sort of like noticing that killer mosquitoes, killer fish, and sick swine have assembled in your yard while terrorists are shooting into your home in the middle of an earthquake. Everything you fear found your home address at the same time!
What does Gideon do? He calls for a little solidarity. He relies upon strength in numbers. The Bible tells us that he brought together 32,000 men.
That is a good number!
Let’s read Judges 7:1-3:
Early in the morning, Jerub-Baal (that is, Gideon) and all his men camped at the spring of Harod. The camp of Midian was north of them in the valley near the hill of Moreh. The Lord said to Gideon, "You have too many men for me to deliver Midian into their hands. In order that Israel may not boast against me that her own strength has saved her, announce now to the people, 'Anyone who trembles with fear may turn back and leave Mount Gilead.'" So twenty-two thousand men left, while ten thousand remained.
You have to wonder about “God logic.” God tells Gideon, “You have too many men [to win the battle].” Isn’t that like saying “You are too beautiful to win the pageant?” “You are too smart to go to college?” “You are too brave to be a soldier?” “Too tall to play basketball?” “Too tough to play rugby?”
I guess all the cowards left, so that might not be such a bad idea.
Judges goes on to tell us that God decided that 10,000 was still too many to win. He devised a test. Read Judges 7:4-6.
Take them down to the water, and I will sift them for you there. . . .      So Gideon took the men down to the water. There the Lord told him, "Separate those who lap the water with their tongues like a dog from those who kneel down to drink." Three hundred men lapped with their hands to their mouths. All the rest got down on their knees to drink.
Which group would you choose to be your soldiers? Martha Stewart and Miss Manners would likely take the group that drank like normal human beings – not the guys who lap the water like a dog.
We learn that most of the men, 9,700 to be exact, had some sort of etiquette training in their background. Only 300 drank like dogs. But for reasons unclear to Gideon at the time, God told him in Judges 7:7: "With the three hundred men that lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hands.”   From an original group of 32,000 soldiers, Gideon is now reduced to 300 soldiers with suspect dining habits.
For those unfamiliar with the story, God, Gideon and the 300 completely defeated the allied Midianite army. (Judges 7)
What does this famous Bible story tell us about God’s approach to righting wrongs and winning battles through collective force? God’s approach with Gideon is completely opposed to the “strength in numbers” theory of organized labor. The Gideon story is not an aberration. God’s approach to problem solving is summed up in Zechariah 4:6: “'Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,' says the Lord Almighty.” 
What God said to Gideon, “Go in the strength you have. . . . Am I not sending you?” reveals God’s global view about righting wrongs.
If you asked the leading experts in labor relations, they would tell you that the ultimate weapon for labor unions is the strike. To win wage concessions from the employer the members of the union, acting as one, withhold their services to injure the business of the employer. The strike strategy is to convince the employer that it is cheaper to pay higher wages than to lose money during the strike. The best approach, of course, is win through threats, rather than to actually strike, and cause both the employees and employer to lose money.
Is this the way of a Christian employee? No. “Go in the strength you have. . . . Am I not sending you?” The “Gideon, God, and 300” team shows us that brute force is not God’s ideal way for His people to solve their problems. God asks us to trust His power, and not the power of human force to work out problems.
The Bible not only gives us the general example of Gideon and the 300, it gives specific instructions about how Christians should deal with their employer. (God also gives employers specific instructions about dealing fairly with employees.) In Colossians 3:23,24 God tells us how He wants us to work for our employer.   Let’s read it:
Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men,
since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the
Lord Christ you are serving.
Can you imagine striking against God? What about amassing a group of fellow employees to force God’s hand? Isn’t that just the opposite of God’s partnership with Gideon? 
When soldiers came to Jesus to get some practical advice for living, Jesus told them in Luke 3:14: "Don't extort money and don't accuse people falsely – be content with your pay." Since the purpose of a labor strike is cost the employer money, a strike violates both of these two principles laid down by Jesus: extorting money and not being content with wages.
The Bible never tells us that we must continue to work for our employer no matter how little we are paid, but it does teach us that joining with a collective to force higher wages out of our employer through threats of financial harm is not God’s way.
Instead, like Gideon, our trust must be in God’s power to use the strength we have to advance our position in life. Consider  Psalm 75:6,7:   “No one from the east or the west or from the desert can exalt a man.  But it is God who judges: He brings one down, He exalts another."
We are to work as if we are working for God. Since God is our true employer, the Bible tells us that He will decide on our promotions (or demotions).
Remember Sharlene Harwood and Robert Roesser? The Adventist and the Catholic who could not join their labor union? Most Adventists will be astonished to know that Ellen White and the pope had similar concerns about labor unions. Pope Leo XIII in Section 16 of his encyclical Longinqua wrote this:
Now, with regard to entering societies, extreme care should be taken not to be ensnared by error. And we wish to be understood as referring in a special manner to the working classes, who assuredly have the right to unite in associations for the promotion of their interests; a right acknowledged by the Church and unopposed by nature. But it is very important to take heed with whom they are to associate, lest whilst seeking aid for the improvement of their condition they may be imperilling far weightier interests
Leo XIII cautioned Catholics not to join a “society” that would compromise God’s word in order to secure higher wages. Of all the popes, Leo XIII wrote most extensively about labor relations. His writings, if read with care, do not encourage Catholics to support the kind of secular labor unions we have in North America. The labor unions Pope Leo supported were unions composed exclusively of Catholics – workers who shared a common religious belief.
Ellen White cautioned Adventists, in Testimonies, volume 7, page 84, about trading away individual liberty of conscience by supporting labor unions:
Men are seeking to bring those engaged in the different trades under bondage to certain unions. This is not God’s planning, but the planning of a power we should in no wise acknowledge. . . .
In this work [of sharing the gospel] we are to preserve our individuality. We are not to unite
with secret societies or trade unions. We are to stand free in God, looking constantly to Christ
for instruction.
Elsewhere Ellen White wrote that employees who belonged to unions could not “possibly keep the commandments of God; for to belong to these unions means to disregard the entire Decalogue,” (Letter 26, 1903). That is surely strong language, but she rests her counsel on Matthew 22:37-40, where Jesus teaches us:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'
This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor
as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.
Giving up individual rights to increase the power of the collective, threatening or harming employers with strikes, both are inconsistent with loving God and loving our neighbor. We are teaming up with those who do not follow Jesus to win an economic war based on the strength of the collective. This is just the opposite of Gideon and the 300 teaming up with God to defeat the Midianite collective. “Go in the strength you have. . . . Am I not sending you?”
Robert Roesser, the Catholic, was a university professor. He had religious objections to joining or financially supporting the national teachers’ union because it, like most labor unions today, supports abortion and homosexual rights. The teachers’ union was hardly what Pope Leo endorsed: a union of Catholics supporting Catholic principles. It was a union that opposed two important doctrines of the Catholic Church. When Dr. Roesser would not support the teachers’ union, he was fired.
Sharlene Harwood, the Canadian Seventh-day Adventist nurse, would not support the nurses’ union because of the teachings of the Adventist Church and her own personal religious beliefs. Both nurse Harwood and Dr. Roesser had to go to court to protect their religious beliefs. In both cases, the unions fought them to preserve the power of the collective. For nurse Harwood the union settled on the eve of trial. For Dr. Roesser, he had to fight his way through to the United States Court of Appeals to win his case.
What did these employees win? They won the right to continue to work without having to compromise their conscience by paying compulsory fees to the union. Today, the battle for conscience against labor unions continues, but United States courts agree that religious objectors should be able to redirect their union fees away from the union, generally to a mutually acceptable charity.
Right now, new fronts in the battle for religious freedom in the workplace have opened up. There are powerful forces in the Congress of the United States trying to make it easier for labor unions to represent employees by taking away the opportunity for an employee secret ballot vote on union representation. More companies whose employees are represented by labor unions will mean more Adventists will be represented, against their will, by labor unions.
When the union arrives, generally union fee payments become compulsory. But, that is not the only danger for employees of faith. Just last year the United States Supreme Court ruled (14 Penn Plaza v. Pyett) that the collective agreements negotiated by labor unions can take away the right of individual employees to go to court to protect their civil rights, including their right to religious accommodation. 
Long ago, the United States Supreme Court ruled (TWA v. Hardison) that when a labor union represents employees, the union seniority agreement, and not an employee’s religious beliefs, should control who would work on the weekends. For Adventists who wish to keep the Sabbath holy by not working, union-negotiated seniority agreements are a deadly enemy to faith.
As Ellen White wrote, “how can men obey [Jesus’ words to love our neighbor], and at the same time pledge themselves to support that which deprives their neighbors of freedom of action?” (Letter 26, 1903). It is a good question. If you love your neighbor, why not support Liberty magazine, which brings before the thought leaders these important issues of religious liberty? Why not use your voice and your vote to protect individual freedom? Why not, like Gideon, determine that you, God, and however few others God chooses, are all you need to defeat evil? Why not follow God’s advice: “Go in the strength you have. . . . Am I not sending you?”
*Bible texts are from the Holy Bible, New International Version.
Dr. Bruce N. Cameron is the Reed Larson Professor of Labor Law at Regent University School of Law in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and a frequent contributor to Liberty magazine. He is on staff with the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, a national organization devoted to defending employees against the abuses of compulsory unionism.