In Praise Of Labor, Of Rest, Of Balance
By Allen V. Harris
“So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” – 1 Cor. 10:31
The Origins Of Labor Day
I am in the midst of the Labor Day weekend as I write this, feeling the need to reflect on life and this holiday, in particular. There is a nice history of Labor Day on the U.S. Department of Labor’s website ( https://www.dol.gov/general/laborday/history ) A very helpful article in The Atlantic reminds us of the origins of Labor Day in the labor and union movements of the late 19th and early 20th century:
The labor movement fought for fair wages and to improve working conditions, as is well known, but it was its political efforts that did nothing less than transform American society. Organized labor was critical in the fight against child labor and for the eight-hour workday and the New Deal, which gave us Social Security and unemployment insurance. Union workers sacrificed in America’s historic production effort in World War II and pushed for Great Society legislation in the 1960s. (1)
Celebrating & Supporting Labor
I have always been a supporter of good, hard work and treating those who work fairly. In my day-to-day life I seek to treat those who labor to make my life more enjoyable, safe, and fulfilling with respect and dignity, thanking the person who replenishes the fruits and vegetables at the grocery story, giving a “thumbs up” to those who collect the trash, and making sure I tip good service well at restaurants. But on a deeper, more systemic level I seek to advocate for a living wage, whether it is raising the minimum wage or simply encouraging employers to voluntarily raise wages to help their employees live full and meaningful lives. There is a helpful “Living Wage Calculator” created by Dr. Amy K. Glassmeier at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that makes this effort more specific by locations: www.livingwage.mit.edu
Having served in the Church now in at least four significant settings (Grapevine, TX; New York, NY; Cleveland, OH; and now in the Washington, DC area) I have been delighted, even if sometimes bewildered, by the rich diversity of workers that attended the churches I served, from airline pilots and bankers in the Dallas, Texas area, to actors, singers, and social workers in New York City, to steel mill, factory, and automobile workers in Cleveland, Ohio, and now to the vast matrix of governmental employees and associated agencies and non-profits in our nation’s capital. All labor that works for the benefit of humanity is good, and should be celebrated and supported.
In all of these settings I came to know and appreciate the variety of labor concentrated in each geography, as well as those whose work is needed wherever people gather, such as constructions workers, health care workers, teachers, and our police and fire fighters. I am also well aware that there is an enormous population of workers who I may never see that make my life as I know it possible, from farm workers in fields far away to factory workers in towns and cities in which I will never live, to personnel who clean the hallways I walk and rooms I enter who labor in the middle of the night and are home sleeping by the time I arrive.
Lack Of Balance
I have also noticed that there is lacking in virtually all these situations a deep and abiding sense of balance in our lives when it comes to work. We lack a generosity of spirit in balancing both an appreciation for “good, hard working Americans” as well as those who are out of work, for whatever reason, and in need of assistance. Instead, we misunderstand the causes of poverty and demonize those who are in need, failing to recognize the vast majority of the rest of us are only a lost paycheck or two away from a similar fate.
We fail to acknowledge the huge gaps in income equality in our nation, between those whose wealth often comes from inheritance and market investments and those whose incomes are completely dependent upon hourly wages and the availability of gainful employment (2). Instead, we idolize the rich and famous and prop up the illusion that each and every one of us could/might/should have that same level of wealth.
And even though most Americans live in a time when, thanks to the achievements of collective bargaining such as the weekend and 40-hour work weeks, we are bereft of a healthy understanding of the balance between work and play. Instead, we labor long hours, oftentimes bringing our work home with us in the form of checking e-mails and voicemails from our smart phones in the middle of family time or waking up in the middle of the night anxious about our employment responsibilities, and then when we do play we take it to the extreme and overindulge in food, alcohol, or spending.
Balance In Scripture
There are many scriptures that support the call for balance in life. In regard to a balance between the sense of hard work and helping those who are without the benefits of hard work we can look to Deuteronomy 15:7-11 and Acts 20:35 for example. As we look at the need for balance in the equality of income, we might reference 1 Corinthians 12:4-11, Luke 19:1-10, Matthew 19:21, Luke 3:10-11, and the various accounts of Jesus feeding thousands, amongst other texts. Finally, seeking a balance between hard work and rest and relaxation we could begin with Genesis 2:1-3 and move on to Mark 6:31, and Ecclesiastes 5:18-20, to name only a few (3).
Faith Leading The Way
Clearly It is incumbent upon those of us who are people of faith to prick the conscience of ourselves, our loved ones, our churches and communities, and our business leaders and government officials to seek balance in all these ways, and more. One great resource that is housed right here in the Capital Area Region is the Ecumenical Poverty Initiative (http://faithendpoverty.org). Feel free to suggest others!
It is because of the hard work of God creating, redeeming, and sustaining us that we want to respond gratefully in kind for what the Divine has done for us. Let us recommit ourselves this day to both seeking a balance in our own lives and in the lives of those around us: family, friends, churches and our community, and in doing so offer a model of God’s Beloved Community to others.
Have a blessed and balance Labor Day weekend!
(1) When Labor Day Meant Something, by Chad Broughton, The Atlantic, September 1, 2014 found online at: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/09/when-labor-day-meant-something/379307/
(2) America's explosion of income inequality, in one amazing animated chart, LA Times, by By Michael Hiltzik, March 20, 2016 found online at: http://www.latimes.com/business/hiltzik/la-fi-hiltzik-ft-graphic-20160320-snap-htmlstory.html
(3) Pope: The Bible Demands The Redistribution Of Wealth from ThinkProgress, found online at: https://thinkprogress.org/pope-the-bible-demands-the-redistribution-of-wealth-a0ea6e59ec15#.wxdi92f2o