At Work in the World

It's not exactly new news—but the New York Times has an eye-popping update on abusive labor practices at a Postville, Iowa meatpacking plant.

In case you missed it—in May, federal immigration officials raided the nation's largest kosher plant, Agriprocessors, Inc. in Postville, which had employed almost 400 illegal immigrants, almost two dozen of whom were also under-age. The Times' Sunday story offers recently uncovered details about the gruesome working conditions and illegal labor practices inside the plant.

For those of us who remember the initial coverage of the Postville story, it's a far cry from that early narrative of heartwarming pluralism on the prairie. Back then the Orthodox Jews who took over a boarded-up plant in a dying town were initially viewed with suspicion. But the prospect of new jobs and new residents eventually won over many locals.

Turns out the natives were right.

For links to pro and con coverage on the Postville, see Steve Sailer's excellent round-up, written when the raids went down in May.

So, is this a religion story? Since the owners of the plant, the plant itself and the purpose of the plant are all religious – the story begs the question. Moreover, the wrongdoing in this instance seems particularly heinous given the context. On the other hand, reporting on this as a “special case”—religious group goes bad!—would undercut the valid news angles, specifically immigration and labor violations.

One way to get at the contradiction that arises between religious intent (laws of kashrut) and capitalist imperatives would be to examine what happens when religious practices become commodified. I doubt Orthodox Jews would be the only true believers whose practice didn't square with their teachings. Although this kind of analysis would not be appropriate in a news story, it would make for a good blog or think piece. It also squares with the kind of push back we've asked for in political coverage. (If Jesus is your political mentor, how does that square with your policy decisions?)

As it turns out, the Times Monday story got at some of these issues. Clergy and activists marched at the plant to protest working conditions. Among the demonstrators were several rabbis seeking to “revise kosher food certification to include standards of corporate ethics and treatment of workers.” Maybe more follow-up in the Jewish press?

Elsewhere – see Alternet. Two interesting stories: Robert Scheer on the media and his new book about American empire and an inside look at Pastor Hagee's Christians United for Israel conference.

And, in the category of potentially positive, under-reported religion stories, check out this meeting of Christian and Muslims scholars and leaders. The gathering, taking place at Yale Divinity School, is a next step for The Common Word Project.

This initiative, launched last year by Muslim scholars, seeks discussions of shared values between Muslim and Christian leaders. Ultimately, these explorations would trickle down to the masses. Can it work? And, more to the point, is it a story? (Imagine the newsroom pitch: Here's a hot one – religious leaders and theologians jawing about love of God and love of neighbor.) And yet, this is religion at work in the world – slow-moving, oblique and seemingly, frustratingly, out of step, off-tune and irrelevant to contemporary standards of newsworthiness. And yet the potential for a truly big story.

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