12 Pentecost C
You may have heard or read about the new contract for teachers in the Minneapolis Public Schools. The contract, negotiated by district and teachers’ union officials and approved by a vote of union members, includes provisions that would protect teachers of color from layoffs if there are staff cuts in the future due to budget cuts. Union members voted about three to one in favor of the new contract, which also included higher pay, smaller class sizes and more mental health support for students.
The language of the contract includes an exception to the seniority-based system for reducing and laying off staff. The exception is for “teachers who are members of populations underrepresented among licensed teachers in the District.” While this language is not specifically race-based, racial groups are certainly among the populations included in the language of the exception.
In addition, there are provisions for additional anti-racist work and policies in the contract. This contract responds to the wide gap between the racial makeup of the student body in the Minneapolis School District and the racial makeup of the current faculty. Efforts to attract and recruit faculty of color are enhanced under the terms of the contract in order to continue to address the disparity and improve the educational outcomes for students of color and for the student body as a whole.
The seniority rule in many workplaces is “last hired, first fired.” That rule was a law in Minnesota until 2017 when it was repealed. It remains the rule in many teacher contracts and most other workplaces, not only in Minnesota but across the country. The exceptions built in to the new teachers’ contract in Minneapolis are going to result in lawsuits to have the exception removed based on the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U. S. constitution. That has been the response to similar contracts in other places around the country.
I don’t typically follow the details of teacher contracts in Minneapolis, or even in my local school district. This situation first made the headlines in a variety of politically conservative news outlets. It was then picked up by most news reporting organizations. It has been reported as igniting a “firestorm” of controversy. It has been reported as targeting white teachers and thus as being “racist.”
It’s important to remember that no teachers are being considered for layoff at this point. In fact, the Minneapolis School District is just as short on qualified and licensed teachers and prospective teachers as most of the rest of the districts in the United States. Nonetheless, some outlets report that Minneapolis teachers are “outraged” at the contract – presumably the one in four who voted against it. In a time when the Supreme Court of the United States is preparing to hear and rule on some Affirmative Action cases in the new term, this conversation is politically and legally pertinent.
Why do I lead off the week with this reporting and reflection? I do so because our text seems like the epitome of an anti-meritocracy text. Those who are up in arms about the Minneapolis teachers’ union contract declare that it is “unfair.” People may be laid off even though they are more senior and better credentialed than some who will be retained. And one basis of that retention will be skin color or other ethnic markers.
What about merit? What about fairness? What about equality before the law? Those who came first should get priority and preference. Those who have put in the time and done the work should get the rewards merited by that effort. That’s the American way, after all, isn’t it? Work hard, put in the time, obey the rules, and you will be rewarded by progress and success, right? We White Americans are all in favor of “equal opportunity.” But we’re typically dead set against any system that moves us toward “equal outcomes.”
If I were one of those hypothetical [White] teachers laid off while other, less-experienced and less-credentialed teachers of color still had their jobs, I know I would be angry. I know I would struggle with a sense of injustice. I would wonder why I had put in all that time and effort just to have it thrown back in my face when the money gets tight. I would wonder how I was going to feed my family and pay the mortgage. I would be pissed off and afraid.
I get it. As that hypothetical [White] teacher, I had been operating under one set of social, political, and economic rules. Now, seemingly out of the blue, I am subject to another set of rules. I would have to think long and hard to make sense of this for myself and for the system in which I operated.
Part of the hard work for White people in this situation is to acknowledge that the rules were not neutral before. Hiring, education, advancement, and tenure systems have all been set up for centuries to benefit White people. That White privilege is built into the system up front.
All we have to do is look at the differential outcomes for White people and people of color. The numbers don’t lie. Based on the numbers we can draw one of two conclusions. People of color are defective in some way, and thus the system works as designed. Most of us, these days, would reject that premise when it is put so simply. The other possible conclusion is that White people get invisible advantages (and thus the system works as designed).
The second possible conclusion is the more accurate description of the social, political, and economic rules under which we White people have operated for the last five hundred years. If that privilege is built into the front end of the process, then it will be spit out the back end of the process – unless that privilege is interrupted somewhere along the way. The Minneapolis teachers’ contract is written in such a way as to interrupt that systemically built-in privilege and to move that faculty toward a more just and representative makeup.
I would suggest that one theme in our gospel text this week is about interrupting systems of privilege. “For the ones who elevate themselves shall be humbled, and the ones who humble themselves shall be elevated” (Luke 14:11, my translation). It would seem that Jesus followers are in the business of interrupting privilege and disrupting human hierarchies. And for those of us who are privileged disciples, that will mean taking a lower place.
The words of the Magnificat in Luke 1 come back to us now with a sharper sociopolitical edge. Mary sings that the Lord “has cast down the powerful from thrones and elevated the humbled” (Luke 1:52, my translation). The verb and noun in the second half of the verse are the same as in Luke 14:11. When we hear the Magnificat, we might be able to distance ourselves from this verse, since we don’t appear to be enthroned. But our text this week brings the issue to our tables and meetings, our structures and systems.
Disciples interrupt systems of privilege and disrupt hierarchies of power – in our own lives and in the world where we live and serve. Those of us who live with some measure of privilege will pay a price when the world is turned upside down (or right-side up, depending on your perspective). Thus, it is no accident that our text is followed by words about the cost of such discipleship. And it may be that the Lukan audience has lost their passion for such upturning, as is evidenced in the small parable about tasteless salt, in Luke 14:34-35.
I would not tackle the Minneapolis teachers’ contract directly in a sermon except in very limited circumstances. I fear that most listeners, especially in predominantly White congregations, would miss the point and get lost in protecting our privileges. But I do think that it’s a timely and useful case study for us as preachers to think through what this text can actually mean for our listeners and for the Church in such a time as this.
I would suggest that in Luke 14, Sabbath observance (a good thing in and of itself) has been coopted in the service of systemic privilege and power. That’s why Jesus takes it on with such directness and even hostility. His questions are directed toward those who benefit from the system as it is. His actions are directed toward those who need the system to be different.
When the system is interrupted, people are released from their bondage. Thus, for example, the man with dropsy is healed “and released.” The NRSV translates the verb in Luke 14:4 as “sent him away.” But I think that misses the significance here. A hierarchy is disrupted. A system is interrupted. A man is healed of his disease and released from his bondage to the system. Even if it seems repetitive, given last week’s reading, I would include Luke 14:2-6 in this week’s reading as an illustration of Jesus’ Kin(g)dom program.
One of the challenges in this text, perhaps, is to identify and proclaim the Good News for our [privileged] listeners. I want to think about that and come back to it in the next post.