Combat Greed (and illness): Boycott McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, Subway . . . (Sunday Homily)

McDonalds

Readings for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Ecc. 1:2, 2: 21-23; Ps. 90; 3-6, 12-14, 17; Col. 3: 1-5, 9-11; Lk. 12: 13-21. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/080413.cfm

This week’s liturgy of the word focuses on greed, its idolatrous nature, and how death (the Great Leveler) puts greed in stark perspective.

According to the prophet, Qoheleth, the shortness of life renders “empty” (vain) any life devoted to amassing wealth. Life is not about money, Paul agrees in this morning passage from Colossians. It’s about following Jesus by bringing forth our true Self which is identical with the God who dwells within each of us. But our time for doing so is short. As the Psalmist puts it in today’s responsorial, our days are numbered; that realization alone, he says, should give us wisdom. Then in today’s gospel selection, Jesus contrasts such wisdom with the foolishness of human surrender to the economics of growth. Paul even terms such greed “idolatry,” the ultimate biblical sin.

Those readings have driven me to think about greed in my own life. It makes me think about my own approaching death and what I do each day to hasten its arrival. At the public level, I’m driven to consider today’s headlines about fast-food workers and the difference in pay between them and their ultimate bosses. It makes me think about resisting greed at both levels (personal and corporate) in very practical, effective ways. Let me explain.

Last week I traveled from our summer home in Michigan back to our permanent residence in Berea, Kentucky. When I arrived home, the cupboard was bare – no food. So I set out to get something to eat for supper. Problem was, our local health food store, “Happy Meadows,” was closed.

Fast food options like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Subway called to me. Despite nearly forty years of sharing board with a dedicated vegetarian, the urge to eat meat is still strong. However, I was too haunted by what I’ve learned from “Food Inc.” and similar films, books and articles. Their images of factory farms and the cruel mistreatment of cattle, pigs, and chickens can never be erased from my consciousness. In their light, eating dead animals raised on feed lots and super-cramped pens, and then killed for my platter almost turned my stomach. I just couldn’t bring myself to eat meat.

I remembered that Walgreens and Rite Aid sold packaged fast food. So I went to the drugstore to look around. As I probably should have foreseen, the food offerings there were . . . well, highly drugged. I mean I easily found non-meat offerings on the Walgreens shelves – items like Kraft Mac & Cheese; I found vegetarian frozen pizza, and other similar items. But they were mostly full of fats. And as I looked at some lists of ingredients, I found many I couldn’t even pronounce. Chemicals were often high up on the lists, meaning their presence was rather intense. “Why would I put that stuff in my body?” I thought. “Do I want to get fat and sick?” So I walked out still hungry, still searching for something to eat.

I drove to Subway remembering their veggie sub. The young man behind the counter asked, “May I help you?”

“Just looking,” I said.

I scanned the brightly lit menu over his head. There it was, the Veggie Sub. Should I get the six-inch or the twelve-inch? I looked at the young man again. There he was with his plastic gloves in place smiling and eager to serve me.

Then I remembered. This kid is making $7.35 an hour. Whether he’s aware of it or not, his comrades all across the country are striking to double that wage to $15.00 an hour. They’re walking off the job in places like New York City, Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Detroit and Flint, Michigan. They’re demanding not just a living wage but the right to unionize. Unionization would mean the end of the Fast Food Industry’s routine practice of “short-working” employees, i.e. preventing them from putting in enough weekly hours to qualify for the benefits that come with full-time employment.

Those striking workers don’t want me here, I thought. So I turned on my heel and left.

Soon I found myself cruising the aisles of Save a Lot. I bought some pasta, and some sauce. I picked up a head of broccoli (Dole! Ugh!). I returned home to throw my supper together.

The little episode helped me come face-to-face with greed – again the topic of today’s liturgy of the word. I had to confront my own greed and that of the corporations that dominate our culture.
My particular greed manifests itself at least three times a day at the table. There my actions say a whole lot: I want meat. I want its flavored grease. I want salt. I want sugar. I want convenience. I want instant gratification.

My spiritual teacher, Eknath Easwaran, would say all of that means, “I want a heart attack. I want diabetes. I want cancer. I want to die as soon as I can.”

My well-ingrained tendencies also imply that “I don’t care about justice or workers who put in forty hours or more (often on two or more jobs) and who still cannot put together a dignified life without Food Stamps. I don’t care that they want to unionize and they’re asking me to boycott McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, and other corporate giants who underpay their workers while amassing obscene fortunes for themselves.

To those workers (and their bosses), the words of Qoheleth apply:

“Here is one who has labored with wisdom and knowledge and skill,
and yet to another who has not labored over it,
he must leave property.”

Usually, these words are taken to apply to the rich who are thought to labor long hours without really enjoying life. In the end, they leave their property to their heirs who benefit from their now-deceased relative’s work.

However, with the Bible’s overwhelming “preferential option for the poor,” I think the words apply even more fittingly to workers like the one in Subway and those in McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, Wendy’s, etc. Those “associates” labor with wisdom, knowledge and skill and then get underpaid. The wealth they produce (their property) goes to their fat-cat bosses. Meanwhile the rest of us are forced to subsidize those fat-cats by making up the difference (in food stamps, Medicaid, WIC Programs, etc.) between the wages the bosses pay their workers and the true living wage those workers deserve.

Yes, so-called “welfare programs” are more directed towards the rich than the poor. For working people such “welfare” should be replaced by a living wage.

Qoheleth says such selfishness and greed creates empty lives, anxiety, sorrow, grief and sleepless nights for all concerned both rich and poor.

A friend of mine constantly reminds me that little can be done to change the world. We just have to go along with the way things are, he often says. Sometimes I think he’s right.

However, today’s liturgy of the word reminds us that he might not be completely correct. At least we can do something about underpaid fast food and big box workers. That’s not trivial. We can relieve the “vanity,” the emptiness of their lives by joining them in their efforts to unionize and achieve a living wage.

We can abstain from the products of McDonald’s, Subway, Wal-Mart and similar corporations – and perhaps even become more healthy in the process.

Our presence here at the Lord’s Supper says we’re willing to do that, so that all may share in the gift of God’s bread with dignity and joy.

Am I right in saying that? What do you think?
(Discussion follows.)

Published by

Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

8 thoughts on “Combat Greed (and illness): Boycott McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, Subway . . . (Sunday Homily)”

  1. Well said! Yes, you are absolutely right — in spades. I’ve been a union member for over 50 years. Still carry my card. At times some union leaders (and members) have forgotten their purpose, succumbed to venality and greed, and have ‘gotten in bed’ with the employers they bargained against. Some have mis-managed and looted their members’ pension funds. To use an appropriate French phrase, they have forgotton their raison d’etre, their reason for being. Now, I think they have learned their lesson. With union membership at an all-time low – about 12% – I think they are ready to return to the values and ideals that made them great and made it possible for working men and women to achieve parity and dignity in the workplace. The firmly entrenched ‘giants’ are formidable but they can be beaten. In unity there is strength. As my hero, 80-year old Irisher Mary Harris- Jones (“Mother Jones”) said, ‘Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.’ Not a bad idea, I’d say….

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    1. The more I learn about you, Alice, the more there is to like. It would be so wonderful to see the labor unions come back in the food service industry. You’re right; union leadership has been bought and sold so often by their class enemies. But without unions we would have no weekends, 8 hour days, safety regulations, and so much more. Our schools have for the most part allowed anti-union propaganda to carry the day. I was surprised how many students at Berea College had negative opinions of labor unions.

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      1. Thanks for the kind words, Mike. Food Services and Health Care are the two primary areas for union organization at this point in our history. Retail is dubious. I am fearful that the current legal assault on public employee unions (including teachers) is the tip of the iceberg (the ‘handwriting on the wall,’ to quote the O.T.) . We cannot let that happen. Public schools and colleges like Berea need to have labor/union history as part of their curriculum. Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and his and Anthony Arnove’s, Voices of a People’s History of the United States should be on library shelves in all public school and college libraries.
        The unions’ hard-fought, bloody battles for workers’ rights to organize and to bargain contracts for their members seems to be a forgotten part of our history. Young people today don’t realize that many of the benefits that they enjoy in the workforce today were won by these union battles. Sadly, many of the benefits are disappearing . One of the most important was the defined benefit pension plan. Very few large companies today offer that benefit. It has been replaced by weak and ineffective joint-contributory 40l-k savings plans. In the meantime, the billions of dollars from profits of these large corporations find their way into the pockets of a few greedy executives and feed the ever-expanding practice of outsourcing — another immoral plan that cheats American workers out of jobs that should be theirs.

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      2. I love Zinn’s book and will soon be offering a blog about it — since the governor of Indiana has recently tried to ban the book from all schools in the state. Also, have you seen the disk of dramatic readings of the texts included in “Voices of a People’s History of the United States?” Oliver Stone’s and Peter Kuznick’s “The Untold History of the United States” has also proven helpful to my own understanding as have the video version of the book. Many of the video episodes are available on YouTube.

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      3. No, I didn’t know that “Voices of a People’s Hisory…is available on tape. Will get it. Thanks for the info — and for your reply.

        BTW: when you’re in India soon are you going to maintain your blog?

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      4. Yes, Alice, I’ll be maintaining my blog. I plan to write about my experiences in India — especially with the Vipassana method of mediation which I hope to study and practice. I’m on the waiting list for a 10 day retreat in Bangalore starting on September 11th. It will introduce me to the method which is different from the one I’ve been practicing over the last 15 years (Eknath Easwaran’s “Passage Meditation”). If all goes well, I’d like to do at least one 30 day retreat as well — again the Vipassana method. Meditation has become the anchor of my life, so this will be a golden opportunity for me. When I was directing Berea’s Peace and Social Justice program, I tried to make meditation an integral part of the course. But there was great push-back from many on the faculty. I’m still convinced it’s essential in some form for any peace activist.

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    1. Dee: How good to hear from you. We would love to see Tommy. Currently, though, we are in Sri Lanka. We’ll be here till next Sunday. Then back in Mysore. We have room for Tommy where we’re staying. Have him get in touch with us. It would be great to see him.

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