Bent Over

April 19, 2015

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

The most lasting achievement of the Farm Workers Movement led by Caesar Chavez, that movement that still makes it almost impossible to drink Gallo’s wine, was the long handled hoe. Instead of bending over to hoe, farm workers got a technology that helped their backs last longer.

El Cortito, 24 inches long. Single most potent symbol of what was wrong with farmworkers in California. Banned. Most other states had already banned it. Chavez got it banned by the California Supreme Court.

Two experiences: Dorothy Day. So excited to be in jail with her only to discover, in the van that took we seven women to jail, that Dorothy wanted some solitude in jail. “It was the only place I could get it.”

Immokalee Workers: “Lady, (I was wearing my collar) you see all those people in the field. I could fire them all right now and in an hour have another 30 to pick these ripe tomatoes. We were advocating the raise in price from around 13 dollars a bushel to around 13.40 a bushel, what amounts to pennies on the pound. “If you do that, I’ll just fire all of them. I can’t get Taco Bell to pay that much for tomatoes. 2005 to pay an extra penny a pound for tomatoes.

This week has been an extraordinary one for advocates for the minimum wage. What has been changed to a wage with dignity or a living wage.

Mondragon 5 – 1; 354 – 1: Ratio of highest paid person in the company to lowest paid.


While the story of the workers in the vineyard is not about farm workers, it is also just about farm workers. It is Jesus undermining the entire concept of wage work. You come early, you get paid for the whole day. You come late, you get paid for the whole day. Big diff. Jesus is saying something important here about how wages and work need to be much less connected. He is after all a Utopian. He is also talking about repentance and saying that it is never too late for the Almighty to give you a big break. It is likewise about spiritual punctuality. And how very absolutely different spiritual punctuality is from punching a clock.

Today I want to say a few things about the meaning of work. Of course work is about wages. I believe that in our reduced 21st century state, where work has been reduced to its rewards for many of us, that I could just stop here and advocate a living wage, a reduction in the disproportion where some get a lot of money for moving their money around and others get a little money for hard labor. The wage arrangements are wrong, especially if you look at domestic workers, care of seniors, care of children and school teaching. You can do much better int eh world of finance. How to be rich? Start with a million dollars.

Jesus was addressing the physical and spiritual problem of bending over to work. Or bending down to work. Or not having the right technology or ideas about work in the first place.

So I ask you: do you work for money or for meaning or for both? Is the meaning of life getting enough money during the week so that you can have leisure on the weekend? Or is the meaning of leisure on the weekend getting you strong enough to work during the week for the money? Or is work a kind of circle, meant to exist between your labor and the grapes of wine, not the grapes of wrath?

God knows the meaning of work has taken more than a few hits lately. “At an ideological level, contemporary work does not function on the basis of a gap between participation and engagement, between our work and our “inner selves.” Rather, the whole point of work in late capitalism is, as Frédéric Lordon has argued, to close this gap, to force an identification of the whole self with the desires of one’s employer. That is, one must be internally motivated toward and existentially engaged in one’s work—or else face the consequences. Work is not just something we do but who we are—which is why we must be “collegial,” “team players,” “share the values” of our employer, and be committed to “the future of the company.”

That is a far cry from the Utopian dream of the Haymarket rioters. 1886 Haymarket eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for what we will. 20,000 people took the streets in Chicago. The incident that caused the demonstration came because policemen killed a worker at the McCormick Reaper works. Interesting right? State violence to keep workers under control.

Let’s look at one sort of spiritual leisure and ask whether it bends us towards the true meaning of work, as our relationship with the hoe, the grape and our salvation.

But this kind of selective spirituality also may represent just one more concrete illustration

of the west’s appropriation of “the other” for its own purposes—a kind of spiritual colonialism.

These are real concerns, but I feel these critiques are framed in simplistic terms.

Fair enough that contemporary practitioners of mindfulness appropriate other religious traditions in piecemeal fashion, but I’d wager that that happens within those traditions themselves as well. Show me one religious tradition in which that doesn’t happen.

Such critiques tend to assume an idealized context for mindfulness practices, an original sense to them, outside of which the result is little more than nonsense. That assumption—that there are pure meditative practices outside their western appropriation—feeds the fantasy of the exotic other. But it is also simply inaccurate: as any scholar of religion knows, the development of religious traditions includes a lot of cross-pollination.

Claiming that there’s some unsullied religious idea or practice apart from its “alien” appropriation may be theologically appealing and convenient, but the idea is hard to support.

One of the more interesting critiques, though, has to do with the supposed apolitical character of meditative practices.

Suzanne Moore, for instance, has criticized mindfulness practices as something like a postmodern opiate for the masses. Cultivating awareness and detachment may, of course, be great for one’s mental health, offering a little sanity amidst the constant pressures of day-to-day existence—but for Moore that’s the whole problem.

A neutered approach. That’s why the type of spirituality that such practices foster fit so easily with corporate culture, and can even contribute to a kind of “spiritual meritocracy,” as Shawn van Valkenburgh puts it, that rivals Max Weber’s famous Protestant ethic.

The philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek has similarly criticized such practices. Western appropriations of non-western traditions that emphasize mindfulness, inner peace, disinterest, non-attachment, and so on function for Žižek as “the paradigmatic ideology of late capitalism.” That is, they “represent the most efficient way for us fully to participate in capitalist dynamics while retaining the appearance of mental sanity.” In other words, even something as beautiful as meditation can bend us towards participation in late stage capitalism.

Mindfulness practices, in other words, allow us to have it both ways: we can work and participate in the market more generally without being existentially engaged in such activities, since the latter, in the end, really don’t matter for the cultivation of our “inner” selves. It’s not what we do but who we are “on the inside” that counts, which is why the contemporary mindfulness movement is, for someone like Žižek, almost perfectly suited for a market society

To reduce such practices to a sort of capitalist pacification, as Žižek and other critics at time tend to do, is a mistake, I would argue. Apart from engaging in an often unhelpful moralism that hinges real political action on an imagined pure act, such critiques often misread the way that capitalist dynamics function.

We must, moreover, embody this identification not only while at work but also “on our own time,” which also means that that time is not really our own.

This ideology of work, I would suggest, applies to so-called blue-collar and white-collar work alike. It also applies to professions that have normally thought of themselves as above the fray, such as the professoriate, as the case of Steven Salaita illustrates all too well.

To the extent that contemporary work requires a complete identification with the desires of one’s employers and, indeed, with the market itself, the “detachment” that mindfulness practices promise may, in fact, function in a more political way. That’s at least what Tom Pepper, an academic and practitioner, argues. For Pepper, meditative practices such as we find in various Buddhist traditions don’t necessarily entail withdrawal from the world to some sort of inner sanctum. Rather, they allow us to grasp the way that ideologies function to organize our lives in a particular ways, ultimately cutting through them to offer a glimpse of something different.

Meditative practices, in this sense, don’t offer us an escape, a way out, but an opportunity to engage the world more critically and radically—which is a precondition for politics.

Seen this way, mindfulness and meditation are the enemies of apathy—if that’s true, the migration of mindfulness into the mainstream can only be a good thing.”

From Religion Dispatches April 2015

I could also talk about how work’s relationship to money (let’s call it monetization of just about everything) infects not just spiritual practices but tourism. Biggest complaint I hear from my friends who travel a lot: beggars asking us for money. Then again I’ll never forget one of my fellow travelers in Chicago taking a picture of a girl as she gave her some money. That one went in her scrapbook. Or the child chasing the bus down in Machu Pichu. At first it was sheer delight that girl whom everybody thought was a boy.

Banks, they can’t see us from there.

Funny how the newest popular short term job is farm workers. Kids go to the farm to learn how to grow things.

The delight of a girl chasing a bus. The long handled hoe, where we dig deeply enough into our experience to know what the meaning of work is for us. Meditation practices that engage us in genuine detachment from the penny more a pound we need for tomatoes.

Bioneers, head for wellness on several fronts. My little utopia has always wanted everybody to work physically and spiritually at the same time.

We who are bent over our computers can learn from the girl who knew how to dance down the hill.


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