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Yellow Vests and Maximum Wage

Posted on: December 09, 2018

Category: Theology

Yellow Vests and Maximum Wage

Quest Thoughts: Yellow Vests and Maximum Wage

The "yellow vest" protest in France has attracted a lot of attention. To my understanding, since 2008 it has been mandatory in France to have a yellow vest in your vehicle. In case of an emergency, it is worn on the roadside both as a reflector and a sign of needed assistance. It is as a sign of needed assistance that the vest has caught on as a protest garment. The vest attracts attention to the protesters and their cause.

While the movement is very diverse, there is a tendency to reduce the issue to fuel taxes. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. The government's new tax reform favours the wealthy and penalizes the poor. The protesters want the solidarity tax re-imposed. This is a tax on wealth that is fundamental to sustaining social services. They also want a higher minimum wage. And, in the mix of things, there is the idea of a maximum wage set at 15,000 Euros a month (about $22,000.00 Canadian and $17,000.00 US). It is the last demand, a maximum wage, that is quite amazing.*

What would the world be like if there was both a maximum and maximum wage? I've entertained this idea before as a kind of economic fantasy. I think Bernie Saunders advocates this idea, and it is probably buried somewhere in the platform of Canada's NDP. Still, when I re-encountered the idea as a yellow vest demand, I was thrown into thoughts about parables and postmodern theology.

The parable of the workers in the vineyard, where every labourer gets paid the same wage regardless of hours worked, is a parable most people find troubling. Very few people I've met like it. Many commentators try their best to assure people the parable means God's grace is equal to all. But the parable probably does not mean something about God's grace; it probably does mean something about the economy of a different world. The Jesus Seminar voted the parable red, meaning the scholars thought it was authentic. They interpreted it as a reversal of expectations for the poor. However, this interpretation does not work well since all the labourers in the parable are poor. The sting of the parable falls on equal payment regardless of hours worked. We don't know in the parable if we should look mainly at the vineyard owner, the labourers, or the payment. It's hard to know where the centre of attention should fall. But we do know a couple of things: this is not how the world works, and it would take a revolution for it to work this way. The parable also makes us face tough questions: how committed are we to justice, how far will our generosity go, and what do we think justice really is? Now, let's return to the yellow vests. Is the idea of a maximum wage really that offensive?

The other thought I've held in relation to the yellow vest protest comes from postmodern theology. It seems like the idea of a maximum wage is an impossible possibility. This is how postmodern theologians describe the empire (kingdom) of God: an impossible possibility. Discounting TV evangelists and Fox News, most theologians are not literalists. Many do not believe in God, but they do believe in the idea of God. This difference needs a short explanation.

God does not exist as an invisible "thing" out there, somewhere; the reality of God is much more imaginative and creative. Postmodern theologians will refer to God as "the call." God is what impinges on the conditions of human existence with unconditional--though never realized--demands. God is the revolution of justice "to come" (the hope against hope or the impossible possibility), but God must always remain as the reality to come. God is an artistic idea that cannot be reduced to literalism because the idea of God is about the question of human life, value, and meaning; God is not the answer but the question. So, postmodern theologians will say God is the call to justice that always insists on justice despite the failings of the law, or God is the call to love that always insists on love despite the failings of love. God is the insistence on the human promise that remains and always will always remain outstanding. God is the reality that never was and may never be but could be. In postmodern thinking, God does not exist; God insists, as my friend Jack Caputo says.

When related back to the yellow vests and the idea of a maximum wage, it is possible to link this impossible possibility to the question of the call. Of course, the call is unconditional--always outside of our history, always outstanding--but parables are glimpses of the call, glimpses of what is outstanding. In some ways, it is possible to say that a maximum wage is a glimpse. It is not, of course, the answer to all social problems, but it is a glimpse of how social services can be funded, how homelessness can be addressed, how rates of violence can be reduced, and how desperate poverty can be overcome with compassion. It would be part of a different world, and while I might be guilty of dreaming too much, it seems to me it would be part of a world that took a step toward parable.

By David Galston

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