In today’s edition of truthdig.com, Chris Hedges decries what he calls “private government” by the American corporation(s), borrowing a phrase from philosophy professor, Elizabeth Anderson* at the University of Michigan. Dictatorship, as practiced by the corporations, freed from the constrictions of union membership of their workers (11% of workers in private corporations, only, belong to unions), includes intolerable working conditions, monitoring of off-duty political expression, firings for all those who complain, and even, requiring all workers to sign a “non-compete” contract prohibiting them from finding and securing work in their field, following termination, regardless of the reason for the termination.
Hedges quotes Anderson: “Employers’ authority over workers outside of collective bargaining and a few other contexts, such as university professors’ tenure, is sweeping, arbitrary and unaccountable—not subject to notice, process, or appeal. The state has established the constitution of the government of the workplace; it is a form of private government.” These corporations, by law, can “impose a far more minute, exacting and sweeping regulation of employees than democratic states do in any domain outside of prisons and the military.”
Lest anyone consider that these conditions pertain only to for-profit corporations in the United States, let me drop a few pieces of data, painting a picture of at least one worker’s experience over four years in an American mainline protestant church, the Episcopal Church.
Failing to inform the candidate, who innocently submitted a resume while visiting from the north side of the 49th parallel, that the hierarchy had advertised for two years in the national media looking for a candidate to take a vacant position, these same men (of course an all male hierarchy prevailed), also refused to detail the precise circumstances of the situation. “Go and love the people!” was the simple and solitary response when I asked about what I might find upon entering the situation. This response was uttered by a Korean war veteran whose austere demeanour did not yet disclose his cunning and deceitful modus operandi, inside the hierarchy. More about this later.
Upon arriving “on the scene” I learned that a mere half-dozen people were clinging to a thread of survival, tolerating a rotation of interim clergy, expecting only a minimal provision of Sunday services, so parsimonious was their attitude, and their theology. This attitude was expressed by the autocratic treasurer, a reality that prevails in many small churches, expressing and enforcing a degree of fiscal control to which all sycophants submit. There were discussions about my refusal to accept a position as mere “celebrant” as I proffered the notion that, if they wanted a full-time incumbent, I would be interested, even though the stipend might have to be lower than the norm. Within the first week or two, I heard from one interim clergy who warned, “You will need a completely new cast of characters if you are to be successful,” he told me privately. Another clergy from a neighbouring town reinforced that notion by reporting that he had already told the hierarchy the church in that town needed to be closed for five years, before any attempt to reopen its doors.
Not incidentally, and without a single minute of negotiation, I was instructed to take residence in the private home of a church adherent, obviously, in retrospection, another of the many ways these people had designed to spare expense. Although the accommodations were acceptable, given the space and the cleanliness, and the available “board”. (They were apparently treating this part of the assignment as a “B & B” arrangement), without disclosing the chasm of difference between the Roman Catholic male spouse and the Episcopal female.
No recounting of this story is complete without painting a picture of the small town/region of some 10K people, many of whom worked as coal-fired electricity unionized plant operators, or Basque/Latino sheep farmers. A flat, tumble-weed table of hard, dry sand circled small scrub-pine and spruce-dotted hills dubbed ‘mountains’ over which strong persistent winds blew in all seasons, just east of the territory made famous by the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. A single river flowed through the county which proudly hosted some 23 religious denominations, paradoxically attempting to demonstrate an independence of opinion that characterized what the ‘locals’ called, “The Real Wild West” (words painted on the sign at the town’s entrance). Souped-up four-wheeled, half-ton trucks roamed the town and the surrounding countryside, trumpeting bumper stickers announcing “this vehicle insured by Smith and Wesson,” as a rack of rifles hung in the rear cab window. Alcohol, the adult lubricant/medication flowed freely from noon onwards in most restaurants, while non-prescriptions drugs were available and accessed by a young adult demographic.
A knock on the door of the vicarage into which I was finally installed, after nearly a year in the fake B & B, prompted me to open the door to find a twenty-five-year- old young man, clearly under the influence of street drugs. He was asking for help which I attempted to secure, from a professional clinic, whose intake worker told me to repeat this instruction to the young man: “You have two choices: to enter treatment, or to die, because that is the likely outcome if you fail to seek treatment!” I passed along the edict, without ever learning the outcome. I did ascertain that, without work, the young man still lived in his parents’ home. When I commented to a parishioner that the young man symbolized much of the town culture, from my perspective, she became enraged, insulted and vehemently denied even the possibility.
It did not take long to learn that a frequent blot on the history of the county were the car accidents and deaths among high school graduates who were under the influence of alcohol/drugs following their prom each spring. The 10 alcohol stores, open for what to this Ontario native seemed like extensive hours, provided access to any with cash, including well known alcoholics. The owner/manager of the local McDonalds was empathic and supportive when approached with a notion of an anonymous telephone hot-line, modelled on the national model that has served Canadian young people for decades. In this setting, however, the line, staffed as it was with trained volunteers for approximately half-dozen hours each week, after the target population had been adequately informed of the existence of the line, received not a single call. The reason, as we learned later, was that no young person believed their call would be kept confidential.
When I suggested to a small group of high school students might consider performing the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar”, one sixteen-year-old retorted, “We can’t do that! We could maybe do a single scene from the play, but not more than that!” If one wanted to research glass ceilings among adolescents, this county would be a prime research laboratory.
Ministry in this desert ranged from hospital visits, prison visits to a young adult charged with theft from a county hotel where she had worked, conversations about alcohol dependence, a formal intervention with an elderly female alcoholic who had showed up for Sunday service so drunk two of us had to hold her up, as she tried to move from her car to the church door, (about 50-75 feet). Also on the calendar were visits with octogenarians who were convinced that they were going to die in a state they considered totally unworthy of God, as they perceived “Him” to be, pot luck suppers, shared church education program with two other churches, confirmation classes for aspiring confirmands ranging in age from twelve through 60, and with IQ ranging from very low to quite high.
Whenever I attempted to invite clergy from outside the town to visit and celebrate, as a way to bring “new voices and new ideas and new ways of perceiving the world, the church and the theology,” I encountered silence, and a total rejection of the invitation. When I protested that “conversion therapy” for gays and lesbians, to a long-term clergy in an urban, college town, I received a note with the words, “Obviously we cannot work together. I will pray for you.” When I wrote a detailed and disappointed piece about failing to complete a self-designed assignment for a training in rural ministry, I heard this comment from a supervisor who had read it, “You wrote that only to suck up to and impress your supervisor!” That same supervisor later called to inform me that he had received “word” that I had been the subject of a Driving Under the Influence (DUI), I had to inform him that I did not drink, and that the infraction he might be referring to was a mere speeding ticket.
Upon the news of the Columbine massacre, I immediately volunteered to help, without every hearing a single word of acknowledgement, or invitation to participate. Upon learning of the city-wide religious service designed to bring some community healing, to which leaders of all main denominations were invited to participate, I asked why the bishop did not attend. The answer, from the Korean war vet, “I told him not to go, because that was only a public relations stunt on the part of the Roman Catholics!”
At a clergy conference, that same Korean vet privately asked me to meet with the bishop. When I asked, “Why?” he responded, “I have been trying to get through to him for nine years, without success; I thought you might be able to get through.” When I showed up for the scheduled meeting, the bishop asked, “What do you want with this meeting?” And only at that moment did I learn that the Korean vet had set me up, without informing the bishop of the origin of the meeting. To this day, I believe the bishop (now retired) is unaware of the origin of that meeting. Only after spending two years in the position did I learn that, under church rules, no pension was available for any clergy, until five years of employment had been completed. This information would, I believed then, and still do today, have been normally available to a new hire at the inception of the assignment. So too, would a complete orientation to the special circumstances of the assignment have been a normal, expected and even required responsibility on the part of the employer.
Continuing with the hierarchy, in the late stages of my term, nearing the expiration of the R1 Visa, I called the hierarchy in the middle of the night, having not slept for some time, asking to be moved from the situation, now with some 50 people on the rolls, with a budget of $50k, and new organ and stained-glass window. I had confronted several of the original half dozen, over things like their inordinate need for control, their parsimonious attitude to parish revenue, their refusal to engage in enhanced ministry, their supercilious attitudes in serving at the altar, their rejection of a variety of liturgical music (they wanted only charismatic, and/or country/gospel music), their racism (“Can my grand-daughter’s black boyfriend attend Christmas Eve services in our church?”) and also, the indictment from a senior parish member, “You would never have been offered this job if you had come here with a black wife!”…
With the onslaught of insults, slights, impertinences, racism, parsimony, tight-assed attitudes, insularity, parochialism and the kind of superceding arrogance that attempts to “cover” profound insecurity on the part of individuals and the community itself, I found myself distraught, effectively imprisoned in the cage of the vicarage, without support from the hierarchy. Over many months, in both daytime and in the middle of many nights, I literally drove my fist through the walls and the doors inside the building, over nearly the whole of the forty-odd months of my stay. In a needed retreat in which I sought spiritual guidance, from a Benedictine sister in Kansas, in the middle of my stay in this circumstance, I learned from her of her own experience in a similar small town in the same the geographic region: “Get out of there as soon as you can; that place will destroy you, as I know from my own experience!” This wonderful spiritual director, a doctoral graduate, was gifted with a highly functioning intelligence, a deep and profound empathy, and a disciplined spiritual faith. My regret is that I was unable to live up to her supportive guidance soon enough.
I should never have been placed in that assignment; at the same time, in hindsight, I should never have accepted that assignment. I also failed to secure a supportive group to guide and caution and support the many decisions that were required. Of course, there is no union among clergy, then or now. Of course, also, my liberal theology and my Canadian identity were both anathema to the people in this parish. I was dubbed “too eastern” (meaning too preppy and too much like New England) for these people. In a brief attempt to escape this assignment, I applied and was interviewed for another rural parish in Nebraska, where I was called a “pinko communist” in the same language poured by Nixon onto Pierre Trudeau.
*Anderson’s book is, Private Government: How Employers Rule our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk About It)