LABOR AND RELIGION Labor Day, September 4, 2011
Tomorrow, we celebrate Labor Day, so cherished that we celebrate the occasion without work. Tomorrow, we end our summer, ring in school, and we do so without laboring. The occasion offers an opportunity to recall our Church’s stance on labor issues. This year the country recalled the horrific events of a hundred years ago, March 25, 1911. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City snuffed out 146 lives of young garment workers. Because the managers had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits, the eighth, ninth, and tenth floor factory blocked the workers’ escape from the blazing building. These women, most were Italian and Jewish immigrants, died either immediately from the blaze or from leaping to the concrete street. That event stirred the conscience of this nation. Since then, this country has made gains in remedying sweat shop conditions.
Twenty years prior to this fire, Pope Leo XIII released Rerum Novarum, “Of New Things.” This encyclical addressed the condition of the workers, and it discussed the relations and duties between labor and capital. The Church primarily concerned itself with “the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class.” Pope Leo subtitled his encyclical “On the Conditions of Labor.” Communism threatened society, and communism threatened the Church.
By a worker, we mean a person who produces and effects some worthwhile end. Play remains outside this discussion about work. Both labor and management work together to accomplish some legitimate goal.
From the scriptural readings assigned to Mass on Labor Day, we understand the roots of the Church’s concern. The Book of Genesis remarkably concludes the story of creation: “And on the seventh day God finished His work which he had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done”(Genesis 2:2). The first worker, above all created beings, was our God, our Creator shaping the universe.
This working God put Adam in the garden that God Himself had planted. Not only was Adam to enjoy the garden, lying on the lush grass and counting the stars, but also Adam was to work it, to make the fruit grow and to give the plants a fresh life. Adam should imitate the original gardener, God.
In his work, Adam should become more and more like God, for we, too, should improve our acre of God’s world, making it a better place for our brothers and sisters. At the same time, through our work, we would exercise our physical and mental abilities. And in our work, we should enflesh the rule of God over human hearts.
Animals do no work. They only sustain themselves, and the animals do not advance the kingdom of God.
Whether you be front office or assembly line people, you should feel that this turf is greener because of you, realize that someone is the better for your labor, and know that you, in exercising your abilities, are fulfilling your own potential and are bringing God more completely to other people.
In his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul recalls that when he lived in their community, he earned his keep; “with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you.” Then Paul bluntly adds this: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living” (2 Thessalonians 3:8-12).
Paul thus insists that humans ought not be strangers to work, for quite naturally work befits the human. With the encyclical “Laborem Exercens,” Pope John Paul II (in 1981) underlined that “work is a fundamental dimension of man’s existence on earth.” This conviction stems from scripture.
God created humankind in his image,
In the image of God he created them
Male and female he created them
God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it (Genesis 1:27-28). “Thus we humans mirror our Creator partly through the mandate received from our Creator to subdue, to dominate, the earth. In carrying out this mandate, man, every human being, reflects the very action of the Creator of the universe” (Laborem Exercens, #4 “Work and Man).
Sin brings toil. Yet “work is a good thing for man,”…good because useful, even enjoyable, but good also as worthy, as corresponding to our dignity, as expressing and increasing our dignity. We honor industriousness as a virtue, for by our industry we transform nature and adapt it to our needs while also achieving fulfillment as humans. (Cf. Laborem Exercens, # “Work and Personal Dignity.”)
Pope John Paul II, toward the conclusion of his encyclical, marks the spirituality inherent in work. Created in the image of God, we share in the activity of the Creator. We continue the Lord’s activity as we discover resources and values. The last book of sacred scripture echoes respect for God’s creative work: “Great and amazing are your deeds, Lord God, the Almighty” (Revelations 15:3).
We ought, says John Paul, imitate God both in working and also in resting, since God himself wished to present his own creative activity under the form of work and rest.
And John Paul further urges that awareness of sharing in God’s activity should permeate “the most ordinary everyday activities…. [Men and women] by their labor are unfolding the Creator’s work, consulting the advantages of their brothers and sisters, and contributing by their personal industry to the realization in history of the divine plan” (Laborem Exercens, #25 “Work as a Sharing in the Activity of the Creator”; cf. Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, #34 “Value of Human Activity).
This attitude toward labor flies in the face of an atheistic view. With this outlook, we labor with our Creator to accomplish ourselves and to fulfill the Lord’s world. Amen.