A CELEBRATION OF THE DIGNITY OF HUMAN WORK
September 06, 2015
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. Dcn. David Justin Lynch
Proverbs 22:1-9 Psalm 125 James 5:1-11 Matthew 20:1-16
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
Labor Day is not a liturgical holiday. It’s not on the calendar of any church. So why are we celebrating a Mass to honor it? Catholicism is based on the dignity of the human person, which includes a calling to do some kind of work to support oneself and confer benefits on the community in which one lives. Work is a good thing. Through work, humanity transforms nature, adapting it to human needs. Work is more than something one does to survive. Work is ongoing human participation in God’s creation. We exist because of God’s work in creating us. God created us in God’s image; and part of being God-like is working. God placed humanity in the Garden of Eden intending humanity to cultivate it; the earliest work done by humans was growing crops and raising livestock for food. God entrusted creation to us, to continue God’s work in improving the human condition. Roads, buildings, vehicles, and definitely the technology so much a part of our lives, was the product of human work, intellectual and physical. Even the arts, which we usually associate with leisure activities, involve work. I can tell you from personal experience that composing music is work, and my wife, Beeper, can tell you that painting pictures is work, which is one kind of work I’d like her to do more often, as she’s very good at it.
We are heirs to the work of previous generations. Walk through downtown Palm Springs. Much of it was erected by the contemporaries of our parents and grandparents. Work builds legacies, public and private. The citizens of Palm Springs taxed themselves to accomplish work by way of massive construction on Palm Canyon going on right now. Not only will the finished product be useful to us, but to future generations, just as money and property you inherit from your ancestors improves your personal life.
Working is part of being a human person, even if one’s work is unpaid. Some work cannot be and will never be adequately compensated with money. Many clergy like me, and many lay people like all of you, serve the church without payment. The same is true of the many volunteers who serve social welfare agencies like Martha’s Village, Well in the Desert, and Union Rescue Mission. The difference their work makes in the lives of the least among us is precious. Work, whether paid or not, has meaning, in and of itself, in defining one’s character and one’s place in creation. Our work is part of our identity as persons.
For Catholics, Labor Day is a day to honor work and to uphold the human dignity of workers. Labor Day started in the last century because some employers see workers only as a means to their own end, a commodity they buy to make themselves wealthy. Such thinking is a perversion of the purpose of human work. They forget that the purpose of the economy is to serve the needs of all of humanity, not just those at the top of the food chain.
The sacrifices of labor movement activists achieved the many protections American workers now take for granted, such as the elimination of child labor, the eight hour day and forty hour week, rest and meal periods, bathroom breaks, safety standards, and similar protections. Clashes between striking workers and company owners were often violent. At the heart of the conflict between labor and management was the myth of freedom of contract, the notion that if worker and employer agree on the terms of employment, the law should honor that agreement, no matter how unfavorable to the worker. A huge disparity of bargaining power due to the relative economic positions of the parties, in and of itself, eviscerates any notion that the worker voluntarily entered into an unfavorable arrangement. The fact is, most businesses are wealthier than most workers and are in a position to take economic advantage of them. Many employers exploit workers by using the prospect of unemployment without income to purchase the necessities of life, like housing, food, clothing transportation and medical care to gain an advantage over the employees. In the old days, there was no such thing as unemployment benefits. This perverted idea of so-called “economic freedom” was considered more important than treating workers humanely. We still hear this kind of rhetoric from today’s conservatives, who, inspired by books such as Ayn Rand’s “Virtue of Selfishness” espouse a message of personal responsibility for one’s own life, an economy based on market forces, competition, and survival of the fittest. Those notions are anything but Christian. The bottom line on that philosophy is every person for themselves, and to heck with everyone else. That kind of destructive individualism stinks to high heaven. No, Ayn Rand, selfishness is not a virtue. It does not produce the greatest good for the greatest number. What it does do is perpetuate a win-lose mentality instead of win-win. Christianity, however, is all about making losers into winners. In Jesus, there are no losers.
The labor movement of the last two centuries directly attacked destructive individualism. Today’s Epistle sets out in no uncertain terms that those at the top of the food chain who underpay their employees so that they can live in luxury will have to answer to God. Over the last 150 years, western Catholics of all stripes, both Roman and Anglican, developed a strong tradition of calling out economic injustice in much the same manner that the author of the Epistle of James does. The encyclical, “Rerum Novarum”, by Pope Leo the thirteenth, and the ministry of the Anglo-Catholic slum parishes in both this country and elsewhere, helped provide the moral impetus for social change in stimulating the labor movement, which succeeded through legislation, judicial intervention, and union activity, like strikes and collective bargaining during the middle years of the last century to even the economic equation, leading to creation of a middle class characterized by decent wages, high rates of home ownership, wide availability to health care and public education and more leisure time as paid vacations and holidays became the norm. All of these were the result of a political climate more in tune with all of today’s scripture lessons than the corrupt and exploitive ethos of multinational corporations.
Nineteen eighty saw the rise of a political movement whose aim was to bring back to bad old days of low wages, no health benefits, with no social safety net, as conservatives attacked unemployment compensation, welfare, food stamps, public health care, and government-supported education. Yes, the past twenty years have seen massive amounts of economic growth, but we have also seen an exponential increase in wealth and income disparity. With the C-E-Os of Fortune five hundred companies earning over a thousand times the pay of their lowest paid workers, it is obvious that the message of today’s Gospel lesson has fallen on deaf ears. But today’s gospel is not an economics lesson, but a philosophical one: it was about the equal dignity of all workers and a demonstration that God loves all people equally; God does not show favoritism to those who work longer, harder or smarter.
The response of the church must to change the situation must, as Pope Leo the thirteenth in “Rerum Novarum” told us, “is to engage the world as it really is and look elsewhere for solutions.” In other words, look at the reality of the injustice staring us in the face, and start thinking about out-of-the-box solutions. That is the polar opposite of accepting the status quo and either benefiting from it and/or not doing something about it. The moral imperative is for us to get off our backsides and do something! live in a world where we can focus on poverty without specific and concerted attention to inequality! Economic policy is chosen. It does not simply happen. We must proclaim an emphatic “No” to economic and social exclusion, inequality, and idolatry of money. The trickle-down economics advocated by conservatives, like lower taxes on wealthy people and sweet regulatory deals that compromise public health and safety, perpetuates structural inequality.
Disparity in wealth and income harms persons and communities. The continuance of that disparity exacerbates the increase in the number of impoverished and inhibits economic growth. Equality, like fairness, is an important value in most societies. Irrespective of ideology, culture, and religion, people care about inequality. Inequality means a lack of income mobility and opportunity and causes persistent disadvantage for particular segments of the society, mostly people of color. Widening inequality concentrates political and decision making power in the hands of a few, leading to a less-than-optimal use of human and material resources. This causes investment-reducing economic instability. It also causes unrest, as there is only so much abuse people will tolerate before they take to the streets and riot. Inequality is a known cause of ill health, not only due to the failure of people to received medical care, but the stress of impoverishment causes stress, a known risk factor for many diseases. Inequality of educational resources makes students less successful in learning the skills needed to meaningfully participation in today’s increasingly technologically economy. Exploding wealth inequality directly threatens the cherished American ideals of unlimited opportunity for those who work long, hard and smart.
Who’s to blame for all of this? All of us. In this situation, we see both sins of co-mission, that is, the acts of those who cause it, and sins of omission, the lack of action by those in positions to prevent it, who fail to act. More sinful, however, are the social and economic structures that facilitate both those who do the bad stuff and those who allow it to happen. The structure itself is the sin. Structures themselves self-perpetuate and harm in ways that exceed those of individual circumstances. What we have is structural violence, a concept that includes multitudinous offenses against human dignity: extreme and relative poverty, social inequities like racism and sexism, and the more spectacular forms of violence that are beyond doubt human rights abuses, like police brutality and legal systems that jail people for failure to pay debts, which we see even in our country, in places like Ferguson, Missouri.
Today’s scripture lessons offer a starting point for what we must do to change all of this. In the words of today’s lesson from Proverbs, the astute see an evil and hide, while the naïve continue on and pay the penalty. That it is what must stop. We must call out injustice and oppose it, always and everywhere, in every possible way, in a manner consistent with the Gospel of love that Jesus taught us. The workplace is merely a microcosm of the symptoms of a wider problem: people who care more about money than their reputation, lenders who enslave borrowers, and those who practice selfishness in lieu of generosity. The days of those who live in luxury and pleasure while withholding living wages from working people must come to an end. The people that are harming the world are those accumulating and hoarding vast amounts of wealth by means that exploit, demean, and impoverish others. The world should start questioning whether anyone who gets wealthy in that manner should be allowed to accumulate and retain wealth in amounts far exceeding whatever they might need for reasonable survival and rather than invest that money in ways that benefit the world at large rather than just themselves.
Labor Day is about justice for workers, not only in the United States, but throughout the world. The response of multinational corporations to laws protecting American and European workers and their social safety net has been to structure their operations to exploit people in other countries. Child labor, pittance wages, and inhumane working conditions are still a problem in Mexico, India, China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Thailand, and elsewhere. As you offer your prayers this Labor Day, not only be thankful for the advantages you have as a worker in America, but pray for those overseas who are not so lucky. Pray that God’s justice will rain down to vanquish the evil structures making their lives miserable to allow the Kingdom of God to reign, a kingdom where human dignity comes first. AMEN.