This is Father Jared Cramer from St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven, Michigan, here with today’s edition of Christian Mythbusters, a regular segment I offer to counter some common misconceptions about the Christian faith.
I know many of you, similar to me, likely enjoyed the traditional three-day weekend which ends summer each year. I’m always struck, though, that despite the common (and important!) refrain to “remember the reason” for the Memorial Day holiday each year, there is rarely a similar call for Labor Day.
I also know that it may be strange, to sum, for a priest to have much of an opinion on Labor Day, given that labor relations are largely seen these days as a purely secular concern. But I think the reason and origins behind Labor Day actually touch on deeply theological concerns, concerns that are particularly pressing given the decline of labor unions in our own time.
Many of the roots of the labor movement can be found in Christianity itself. Beginning in the late 18th century and running to the mid 19th century, the Clapham sect in the Church of England (the mother church of my own denomination) was active in calls for social reform. The best-known member of the group was the evangelical Anglican, William Wilberforce. Their denunciations against the slave trade were one of the strongest forces that led to its end.
With the rise of industrialization in the 19th century, there was a corresponding rise of a formal Labor Movement which advocated for workers in the new industrialized world. Whether their politics were conservative or liberal, many Christian theologians and pastors found themselves aligned with the concerns of the labor movement.
In an early twentieth-century edition of Biblical World (one of the earlier names of the Journal of Religion, which is still published today by the University of Chicago Press), a theologian wrote, “The ‘workingman’ is first of all just a man, and his power to produce commodities is not the object of his existence.” A person’s value cannot be determined by the goods they produce, their existence has much deeper meaning than this. Christian virtues, like the importance of the Sabbath in Judaism, began to be brought to bear on an increasingly industrialized world, with Christians insisting that every person should have a day of rest.
Around the same time, in the early twentieth century, the Federal Council of Churches, which included the Anglican, Baptist, Orthodox, Lutheran, Methodist, Moravian, Catholic, Presbyterian, and Reformed traditions of Christianity, adopted something called the Social Creed of the Churches, giving their own support and commitment to responding to these issues. The Social Creed they adopted expressed these convictions:
- For equal rights and complete justice for all men in all stations of life.
- For the principles of conciliation and arbitration in industrial dissensions.
- For the protection of the worker from dangerous machinery, occupational diseases, injuries, and mortality.
- For the abolition of child labor.
- For such regulation of the conditions of labor for women as shall safeguard the physical and moral health of the community.
- For the suppression of the “sweating system.”
- For the gradual and reasonable reduction of the hours of labor to the lowest practical point, with work for all; and for that degree of leisure for all which is the condition of the highest human life.
- For a release from employment one day in seven.
- For a living wage in every industry.
- For the highest wage that each industry can afford, and for the most equitable division of the products of industry that can ultimately be devised.
- For the recognition of the Golden Rule and the mind of Christ as the supreme law of society and the sure remedy for all social ills.
In our own time, including right here in our community of Grand Haven, we are seeing once more the need for strong advocates for labor. While corporations and executives take in significant profits, they also complain about the difficulty in hiring workers. Something about the experience of the past two years has made many people unwilling to work for wages that cannot produce a reasonable standard of living. It’s not that there is a shortage of labor—it is that companies and businesses have not caught up to the fact that workers will no longer put up with inadequate pay nor the constant demands for work created by technology, where your office is always hidden right there in your mobile device, twenty-four seven.
We can set partisan politics aside, I hope, and agree as Christians that the inherent dignity of every human being means we should be concerned with the wages people are being asked to live with, even as corporate funding continues to go up to those at the top.
In our church’s nighttime office of prayers called Compline, there is one prayer that particularly highlights this concern to me and is a meaningful end to the day. It says, “O God, your unfailing providence sustains the world we live in and the life we live: Watch over those, both night and day, who work while others sleep, and grant that we may never forget that our common life depends upon each other’s toil; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Indeed, our common life does depend upon each other’s toil. May we learn, not just on Labor Day but always, to respect and honor that more fully.
Thanks for being with me. To find out more about my parish, you can go to sjegh.com. Until next time, remember, protest like Jesus, love recklessly, and live your faith out in a community that accepts you but also challenges you to be better tomorrow than you are today.