Labor Day and the realities of Labor

It is Labor Day Weekend, a time to stop and remember the value of work and the often problematic aspects of labor.  Being a member of the white collar community, it is easy for me to forget what it means to truly labor, to submit one's body and mind to often dangerous and mind numbing work in factories and fields.  We live at a time when labor unions are in decline and the manufacturing sector is in decline as well in America.  We benefit (Americans that is) from cheap goods imported from other lands where labor practices are often unchecked, meaning that the practices mirror those in America in the 19th century and early 20th.

With this in mind, and as I was thinking about what to share on this Saturday of Labor Day, my mind went to the early Reinhold Niebuhr, who served as a pastor in Detroit during the early days of the Auto boom.  In a posting from 1925 in his book of reflections on his ministry in Detroit -- Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic -- he writes of a visit of clergy to an auto factory:   
The foundry interested me particularly. The heat was terrific. The men seemed weary. Here manual labor is a drudgery and toil is slavery. The men cannot possibly find any satisfaction in their work. They simply work to make a living. Their sweat and their dull pain are part of the price paid for the fine cars we all run.
The workers in this factory worked to live -- they needed the wages, even if the work was unfufilling and even dangerous.  

He goes on to speak of our complicity in this reality -- a complicity we often put into the backs of our minds.  As we observe Labor Day, let us consider these words from one of America's most insightful theologians that emerged out of the context of ministry:

We are all responsible. We all want the things which the factory produces and none of us is sensitive enough to care how much in human values the efficiency of the modern factory costs. Beside the brutal facts of modern industrial life, how futile are all our homiletical spoutings! The church is undoubtedly cultivating graces and preserving spiritual amenities in the more protected areas of society. But it isn’t changing the essential facts of modern industrial civilization by a hair’s breadth. It isn’t even thinking about them. 
The morality of the church is anachronistic. Will it ever develop a moral insight and courage sufficient to cope with the real problems of modern society? If it does it will require generations of effort and not a few martyrdoms. We ministers maintain our pride and self-respect and our sense of importance only through a vast and inclusive ignorance. If we knew the world in which we live a little better we would perish in shame or be overcome by a sense of futility.   [Niebuhr,, Reinhold (2013-04-16). Leaves From The Note Book Of A Tamed Cynic (Kindle Locations 641-648). Read Books Ltd.. Kindle Edition.]


Steve Kindle said…
Bob, I'm ashamed that after all these years the church, which should know better, aids and abets in colluding with our consumerist economy. We forever lag behind the true agents of worthwhile change, not entirely absent, but in the words of Niebuhr, "how futile are all our homiletical spoutings!" Today's post couldn't be more appropriate. Thank you.
John McCauslin said…
Much of life is drudgery. Day after day toiling at thankless work, whether at home or in the field, the store, or the factory. No opportunity for creative expression, and little change in the daily environment, and little evidence of change on the horizon. The idea that those who must work in such circumstances to sustain their lives and their families can find fulfillment within that work is extraordinary, and I think, the fantasy of the intellectual. In tough times we are thankful for the opportunity; in good times we dream of something better. But toiling for others is still toil. It is the people who deserve to be honored. The work is still the work.

That is not to ignore the fact that many who work thoroughly enjoy what they do, and would do it even without the incentive of need. But those people rarely work in "mindless" jobs, and might even find Labor Day a distraction.

However, for most people "work" is a necessary sacrifice, and usually an honorable one. But it is still for the most part drudgery. And it is hard, and it is mind numbing, and it is thankless. On Labor Day we remember this. And we honor the people who make such a sacrifice.

And what does the pastor have to say to such people? That life is much deeper than this, that people are paying attention to their sacrifices. That God is aware of their lives, that their lives matter. That there is a whole community surrounding them that care. That even though what they do is not extraordinary, they are themselves extraordinary. That there is a horizon in front of them if they can look up for but a few moments a week.and perhaps, just maybe, they can bring some of this light into their workplaces.

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