The history of the trade union movement in the United Kingdom has been heavily influenced by Christians at various points. The leader of the Tolpuddle Martyrs back in the 1830s was George Loveless, a Methodist local preacher. His faith and desire to see social justice cost led to him and the others paying a heavy price for their willingness to make a stand against the pitiful wages they received as labourers. Their plight caused a national outcry. The fledgling trade union movement came together to fight the Tolpuddle worker’s cause. 100,000 people protested for their freedom and parliament was handed a petition with 800,000 signatures. This was the first time the trade unions had taken on the government and the result was victory with the Tolpuddle six being pardoned.
Nearly three centuries later we’re still seeing these mass protests. Being employed as a teacher, I’ve ended up spending a lot of time (probably too much!) thinking through this issue recently. For the first time since I’ve been employed I have been asked to vote for strike action. The easy answer as to whether Christians should strike is, “Yes if it’s appropriate.” The next question, which requires much more consideration is, “How do you define ‘appropriate’?” Undoubtedly, in the case of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, there was real oppression by their employer and the government of the time. The trade union movement came together to seek justice for many, many people who were working in dire conditions for wages that could barely sustain them.
The same cannot be said for the strikes that took place yesterday on the 30th of November. The case for social justice is still there, but the issue is much more complex. I suspect few would honestly say that public workers are facing unjust oppression by the government. The area of workers’ rights and entitlements is complex. Rights and expectations are not the same things. The government and unions need to come to agreement, but is the use of strike action going to benefit anyone on this occasion?
Christians have to live with an apparent paradox. We’re called to fight injustice. God has many serious words to say against those who oppress their workers and treat them badly. However on several occasions in the New Testament we are told to submit to authorities over us. 1 Peter 2:18 says, “Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.” In Romans 13:1, Paul writes, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established”. These verses need to be read carefully in context, but the underlying message is that Christians need to try and establish a balance between knowing when to act against genuine injustice and when to submit to authority in a gracious and unselfish way. Both of these courses of action can potentially be costly and at the times when we have to make these judgement calls, we really need to be asking for God’s wisdom. I don’t think that sitting on the fence and letting others make up our minds for us is what God would want.
There is a lot more that can be said on this issue and this post is only beginning to scratch the surface. I have found a carefully considered post on Richard Perkins blog discussing Christians and strike action, which is both current and relevant. If I were to write further, I would most likely repeat much of what he has said. If you are thinking through this issue then I would strongly recommend you read it.
As to my own decision whether to strike or not yesterday; I decided after much thought not to. I’m still not 100% sure I made the right choice, but based on the evidence I had available to me, I felt this was the right course of action. I have Christian friends who did strike and I very much respect them for their decisions. The important thing is that we are able to give an account for our decisions and that whatever we choose to do, we do it in a way that honours God.