This coming Monday, for the 117th time we in the United States will celebrate Labor Day as a federal holiday. The impetus for the passage of the legislation establishing the holiday came when tensions between striking workers and law-enforcement led to violence and death in 1894. Here in the early 21st century, there is simmering discontent and disagreement over the role of workers’ unions, the relation between the states and public employees, and more. These are vitally important questions upon which every citizen, and every church, should have an informed opinion and a strong voice.
Today we live in an economic situation in which unemployment, the lack of work to be had, remains a painful experience for so many. The 9.1% national unemployment rate at the end of July becomes so much more than a number when it reveals the painful individual stories of countless wage-earners and their families of every background and history across the nation. This number is so much greater among several minority groups in the USA. Looking beyond our own borders, 14.4% of workers in Ireland are idled (as of August 31) as well.
Behind all of this history, rancor – and also accomplishment – lies the fundamental nature and importance of work in human life. While faith celebrates first who we are as beloved creatures of God, made in God’s image, what we do is experienced as foundational in life. What we do is a prime avenue by which we understand ourselves and identify ourselves to one another. One of the measures of a fulfilled and happy life is to be doing what you feel yourself called to do. It is a human joy to complete an undertaking and recognize it as a ‘job well done.’
One of the jobs that redound powerfully in the life of every believer apprenticed to the way of Jesus Christ is the job of caring for one another. Christians never really work only for themselves. Though we may not be aware of this truth at every moment, to do so might be wildly beneficial both to the way we work and the joy it can provide us. We work for one another. We work for a common good. We work for the common good.
To wit: I work for you. But in ever-widening concentric circles of connection, I work too for the good of this neighborhood, of this city and state and nation. I work for the suffering people of Syria and the hopeful of Libya. I work for the millions in imminent danger of starvation in the Horn of Africa, beyond the borders of my peripheral vision, but not beyond my responsible care. And so do you. We work for and with one another. And together we work for the first Worker, the One who set the whole thing in motion in time beyond time, whose heart is all and only love.
You see, labor is a beautiful thing. This Monday, celebrate it well.
John P. McGinty