Signs of Hope Amid Crisis

I look forward to Labor Day weekend. Who does not enjoy a 3-day break? Although in my case, because my day off is Monday, 3-day weekends are somewhat compromised for me. Yet, I rejoice in them because I know that many of the people I live and work among will enjoy three consecutive days of relaxation as summer ebbs into autumn.

Coming from the UK, where we enjoy six 3-day or bank holiday weekends, two additional public holidays – Good Friday being one, and an average of 3 – 4 weeks of paid vacation leave a year, I am appalled by American attitudes to time off. The average vacation leave in the US is 11 days a year. I wonder why it never occurs to us that falling productivity, increasing family and marital breakdown, rising tides of depression, suicide, and addiction, and rising civic strife are not recognized as the fruits of a work system that denies hope to many through the low pay and long hours that reflect an exploitative use of human beings? So, I am appreciative for the Labor Day weekend.

As summer ebbs into Autumn the Labor Day Weekend is a chance for last visits to the beach, or forests, for family and community barbeques; each occasion a reminder to us that these activities are winding down for another year.

How many of us know, let alone remember the origins of the day we celebrate as an extra day of leisure? Let me cite from the US Department of Labor website:

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well being of our country.

 

Through the years the nation gave increasing emphasis to Labor Day. The first governmental recognition came through municipal ordinances passed during 1885 and 1886. From these, a movement developed to secure state legislation. The first state bill was introduced into the New York legislature, but the first to become law was passed by Oregon on February 21, 1887. During the year four more states — Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York — created the Labor Day holiday by legislative enactment. By the end of the decade Connecticut, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania had followed suit. By 1894, 23 other states had adopted the holiday in honor of workers, and on June 28 of that year, Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories.

In 1993 on the 100th anniversary of organized labor in Rhode Island the following appeared in the Old Rhode Island publication:

In the midst of the financial panic of 1893, Rhode Island workers secured a long-sought ambition—the establishment of the first Monday in September as a legal holiday. The state’s horny-fisted sons and daughters of toil had marched, petitioned, and agitated for over a decade. Rhode Island workers witnessed New York and Oregon pass holiday legislation in 1887, and by the spring of 1893 most other states had followed suit. The General Assembly, under the prodding of elected representatives from various mill towns, finally joined the bandwagon, and Governor D. Russell Brown signed the authorization.

Rerum Novarum (from its first two words, Latin for “of revolutionary change”, or Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor, is an encyclical issued by Pope Leo XIII on 15 May 1891. It was an open letter, passed to all Catholic Patriarchs, Primates, Archbishops and bishops that addressed the condition of the working classes.

Rerum Novarum discussed the relationships and mutual duties between labor and capital, as well as government and its citizens. Of primary concern was the need for some amelioration of The misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class.” It supported the rights of labor to form unions, rejected socialism and unrestricted capitalism, whilst affirming the right to private property.

John Paul II on the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum issued Centesimus Annus in which he said:

Man [sic] fulfills himself by using his intelligence and freedom. In so doing he utilizes the things of this world as objects and instruments and makes them his own. The foundation of the right to private initiative and ownership is to be found in this activity. By means of his work, man commits himself, not only for his own sake but also for others and with others. Each person collaborates in the work of others and for their good. Man works in order to provide for the needs of his family, his community, his nation, and ultimately all humanity.

Judaism and Christianity both understand labor as the source of all wealth. Labor bestows dignity on the human person. Labor is the basis for all human flourishing. Core psychological needs for human beings comprise someone to love and be loved by, a safe place to live, an activity that brings meaning and purpose. If labor is right up there among the conditions supportive of human flourishing it must nevertheless be balanced by leisure. Work and leisure in a balanced relationship contribute to a life of well being.

Marx defined capital as stored labor. I am fully aware that in citing Marx and advocating for a need of balance between labor and leisure in our contemporary social climate, I will be dismissed by some, as a Marxist. Yet, as over 100 years of Catholic social teaching asserts, to champion the rights of workers, to assert the dignity of labor, and to confront the abuses of labor at the hands of unrestrained capitalism is not Marxism, but Christianity! I am not advocating the abolition of capital but for a reclaiming of the true soul of capital. The generation of capital is part of a holistic system in which the role of capital is to support the maintenance of the common wealth.

In their current statement on the dignity of work and the rights of workers the US Conference of Catholic Bishops cite 13 Biblical references in support of their affirmation that:

The economy must serve people, not the other way around. Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation. If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected–the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to the organization and joining of unions, to private property, and to economic initiative.

As a society, America finds balancing competing needs difficult because competition and the adversarial spirit are intrinsic to the way we view our individual and collective social life. The true meaning of the word com-petition  is to strive together. In our society competition describes the way individuals and groups strive against each other.

A society where the sole purpose of the capitalist enterprise is the maximizing of shareholder returns obscures the reality that capital is stored labor and those whose labor contributes to the generation of wealth deserve far greater respect and enjoyment of the benefits. This is not simply an altruistic idea, it is the necessity for a well ordered and stable society.

Any casual observer of our socio-political scene must conclude that a house divided against itself cannot long stand. The results of the last electoral cycle is a registration of widespread and deep dissatisfaction with the state of our society – our common wealth, where the rights and dignity of ordinary people whose only resource is the sale of their labor, energy, and talent are routinely exploited and abused.

We arrive at the paradox of voting into power, again and again, those who lack the talent, experience, and most shockingly of all, the vision and will to recognize that the accumulation of wealth by the few at the expense of ordinary people has clear ethical limits. These ethics are rooted in our deeper religious traditions of a just society.

In Exodus 3:1-15 God tells Moses:

I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their suffering, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians.

God is attentive to those who are denied justice. Liberator is one of the core names claimed by God.

In Romans 12:9-21 Paul invites us to:

Let our love be genuine, hate what is evil and hold fast to what is good: love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another is showing honor. … Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you, do not curse them.

Paul appeals to the creation of communities where justice is the systemic expression of love.

This year’s Labor Day Weekend occurs within the context of environmental disturbance on a monumental scale along the Gulf Coast and now further inland. I will confine myself to two comments.

Firstly, Joel Osteen, the millionaire megachurch evangelist told Houstonians to not fear, for “God’s got this”. My hope is that many will finally wake up and realize that Osteen’s is a profoundly corrupted theology of God that is at odds not only with Judeo-Christian Tradition but flies in the face of the experience ordinary people have in the world. God does not cause hurricanes and so God is not in control of them. Even the rich, those in Osteen’s eyes who are right with God, this time took a hit. Explain that away, Joel.

Secondly, Texas is synonymous with a culture that champions the American idea of competition as each individual for him and herself. Yet, in the face of disaster, the communitarian action of Texans in selfless support for one another reveals something deeper about how people really experience one another. Texans can pride themselves not on their spirit rugged individualism, but on their communitarian actions of compassion.

It’s only together that we can realize Paul’s injunction to:

Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. … Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

In the midst of unparalleled disaster hope triumphs through the solidarity of one human being with another. Alongside the tragic loss of life, the disruption to livelihood, the destruction of property, the demonstration of hope through solidarity shows us new possibilities for the future of our society. Is this not the central reason for real rejoicing this Labor Day Weekend.


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