A Right to Meaningful Work -- A Labor Day Reflection
As the nation observes Labor Day, which has come to mean for many people one last summer fling before school begins, it is useful to reflect on its meaning and purpose. Labor Day has been officially observed since September 1894, interestingly, in response to the horrific end to the Pullman Strike that threatened to engulf the country in labor strife. Thus, it became a day connected with the labor unions and the search for living wages and safe work environments.
As we observe Labor Day this year, we do so knowing that the unemployment rate stands just below 10% nationwide and at 13% here in Michigan, and that many Americans have been without jobs for longer than they ever expected. Thus, this year's observance carries with it a cloud that won't easily or quickly dissipate.
That said, it is appropriate to stop for a moment and reflect upon what it means to have meaningful work, and to consider the role that work/labor plays in our lives. We often use the word "vocation" to define our labor, and this word is connected to a "Call." In my field of endeavor, we often use the word "call" to define our work. Indeed, clergy often distinguish call from job. I don't have a "job" I have a "call." But, since I derive my income from this "call," so it is employment, and this a job.
As I was thinking about what to write, my thoughts went to theologian Jurgen Moltmann, who has given considerable thought and attention to this issue. So, I went to the shelf and picked up his book On Human Dignity, which has a chapter entitled: "The Right to Meaningful Work." It is a useful reflection, which I can't summarize here, but I think it's helpful to consider the contrast between the ancient Greek view and that of the Hebrew understanding.
"In the ancient world, work meant the toil and burden of maintaining and reproducing life. Life had to be wrested from the unordered, hostile environment. Yet this struggle itself was not true life but only its precondition. In his or her work a person was still enslaved; only the result of a person's work could be called freedom. Work could thus be seen as the process of mediation between the human being and world, between civilization and nature -- necessary, to be sure, but not in itself meaningful (p. 38).
He goes on to point out that things like freedom, life, and human worth weren't to be found in work, but beyond it. Therefore, it "was not fitting for the free citizen himself to work. The lower cycle of life was delegated to slaves, serfs, and women. Work had no permanence; work has no accomplishment, for it was not a virtuous activity" (p. 39). Thus, the Greeks had few gods/goddesses that represented work or labor-- Hephaestus and patrons of the crafts being the only ones. Instead, the life of the gods was one of leisure. Virtue and work were separate, which makes sense in a slave-holding society. Work has no meaning, beyond providing the foundation for consumption. Thus, "work makes one unfree, and whoever is unfree is condemned to work."
But if this was the common view in the ancient world, the biblical view is different, which speaks directly of the work of God.
Certainly, Yahweh is no subordinated worker-god. Rather, he is the slave-freeing God, as the first commandment states, " who led you out of the house of bondage." Therefore, he is the Creator who calls the nonexistent into being. Everything visible and invisible is "the work of his hands." To be sure, the exclusive theological use of the word barah sets the creative work of God apart from all possible human works, but in and through their work in the world human beings can and should correspond to the creative activity of God, from which the world emerged: (Exodus 20:9-11). [p. 40].
Moltmann notes that in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, work is linked with rest (Sabbath). Work is meaningful because it is limited by the goal of rest and enjoyment of life. One isn't the precondition to the other, but they are inextricably linked, and all is rooted in the work of God (who rested on the 7th day).
With this brief reflection, I invite you to reflect yourselves on the meaning of labor as participation in the work of God.