Monday, September 6, 2010
It’s Labour Day! The day the nation acknowledges the contribution of waged workers, who are, by the way, the vast majority of us.
I was asked this weekend to be a guest preacher for Labour Day Sunday, with a congregation new to me. As much as I relished an opportunity to be explicit in the pulpit about my political affiliations, there’s always a significant uncertainty about how partisan language might be received in a mixed gathering. The term “Labour” alone is a red flag to some folks! To everyone’s credit – even those who disagree politically – we had a stimulating, respectful, and educational morning together.
Organized Labour – with the big L – is a significant part of my life, politically and spiritually.
But there’s also a conversation to be had about labour – the work we all do in the world – and our relationship with God. The notion of the dignity of labour begins within each individual, and in the ordinariness of the tasks we face every morning when we wake up. Is it chasing a toddler around the house for the next 12 hours?
Is it standing in a checkstand and keeping a smile on your face for 8 hours solid? Is it sitting at a desk, making enough phone calls and sending enough emails until something actually happens?
Yet all of these labours take place in the context of our relationship with the world. With the other people who live here. The meaning of everything we do derives from the effect it has on people around us. Think about it. Our labour, however “private” we may feel about it, has an impact on our community.
I’m a big believer in the “it takes a village” idea. From my perspective, society is not complicated: It’s a big village, and people chop wood and carry water to stay warm and fed. Everybody’s playing a part in this movie, with their own notions of feeling warm and fed. The most menial-seeming job, the most trivial-seeming turns the wheels of our social and family life. All our labours serve what society needs and wants; playing basketball on TV, for our entertainment (or raising 8 kids on TV); fixing elevators; or slinging groceries, which helps put dinner on our neighbours’ tables, and gives us an opportunity to smile and honour what is beautiful and holy in each other.
WAIT A MINUTE. WHERE IS THAT IN MY COLLECTIVE AGREEMENT??
Well, it isn’t explicitly in that contract. But I can look it up ... Love one another, as I have loved you. As you have done to the least of these, so have you done to me. From the Christian point of view, to serve God is to serve God’s Creation. So in our labour we may find our opportunity to serve each other in love, as Christ commands us. Love is an ethical commandment, for action. Love is not how you feel, it’s a relationship you live. And you know what? That message is easy in church, probably common.
But Labour Day … is not really about that. This national holiday is named for something that doesn’t get talked about in church! Wait: Labour Day is about the dignity of our labour, but particularly the collective – can I say “class?” – of people who labour in a capitalist economy. Labour, with a big L, is an economic, even political word. Why should we talk about that in church?
If the Prophet Amos is any example – because economics and politics and classes of people are important themes in the Bible. Especially in the Hebrew Bible, which tells us the story of how Israel became a community that was defined by a covenant with God. Throughout Israel’s story, we see how they, with God, worked out a new social arrangement. What to do, what not to do if they love God, and what they did that really really ticked God off.
We can hear the human side of that relationship, the love, the anger, in some of the Psalms … but to hear God’s side of things, we have the Hebrew Prophets. Jesus too stands in that line of prophecy – calls in God’s name to Israel as a people, to change their ways and get right with God.
But we in this century have a problem, before we even start: We’re not good at thinking like a community! It’s our greatest problem, our greatest blindness, that we have been schooled to think we function only as individuals, and that “participation” in community life is a choice we can make. It is not! We are all in this movie, as I said; we all affect the shape of the community, and it affects the shape of us. That’s normal, and natural, and profoundly human. To forget that, is to leave a great hole in what we can be as a society.
What’s worse is, many of us tend to read the Bible as if it’s written for us as individuals. As if the lessons in it somehow apply only to our own personal conduct and “choices.” And that … is to leave a great gap in our relationship with God. So much of what’s in the Bible is speaking to us as a society. How might we be God’s people? Do we even know how to answer that call?
When we talk about economics and politics, at least in the labour movement, we are talking about restraints on power and temptation -- justice. We are talking about relationships – ultimately, about respect. How shall we, as collectives of people – decision-makers and workers – how shall we engage each other in relationship? How might we serve each other, in love? Can we talk about that in church? Yes, because our Scriptures do.
Over and over we hear about the widow and the orphan – do they mean we just have to find the old ladies and fatherless children and give them food or money? No, the biblical words mean, as a community – look out for those who don’t participate in the mainstream of economic life. Look out for those who don’t have the normal means of livelihood (which in those days, meant an able-bodied husband or son).
We also hear about the poor and the needy … well, we don’t need a translation for that. In our time, as in Amos’s time, those people may well be able-bodied working people. So the problem is not ability, it’s oppression, it’s suppression, it’s exclusion. That’s pretty political.
Look at Amos 5, where the prophet is addressing the changing economic currents in the 8th century BCE.
Amos’s job is tell Samaria’s rich and powerful that they are betraying God. To Amos, we love God in JUSTICE. AND RIGHTEOUSNESS. He doesn’t care who you are or who writes your paycheque, he speaks for God and God says JUSTICE AND RIGHTEOUSNESS. He tries to soften it up a bit when he says “Seek the Lord and live,” which really means – justice or death. If we are true to God’s love, we will act justly. Or we will really really try. Or be damned.
you that turn justice to wormwood,
and bring righteousness to the ground! …
He’s talking here to the “strong” and the influential in the cities. The problem is not simply that these people are wealthy. The problem is that they are exploiting the peasant farmers in order to live in luxury. So Amos has a few choice words for that group of people who tweaked the economy, not only to work in their own favour, but to actually do harm to the poorer folks.
[you] hate the one who reproves in the gate [the courts], and … abhor the one who speaks the truth.
Therefore, because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not live in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine.
Here’s a quote from a Hebrew Bible scholar, Robert Coote:
The elite often own not only the land but also the peasants, in varying degrees of serfdom and slavery. …There is too little margin for the difficulties that the single cultivator faces in the course of a few years of harvests. If there is a crop failure, for example, the peasant may be forced to borrow money, often at excessively high interest rates. The chances are that such a peasant may never get out of debt.
So I’m reading this little slice of biblical economic life, and I’m thinking … isn’t this what I’ve been reading in my research all summer? This is like 1934 on the Prairies!– This is Tommy Douglas’s Saskatchewan! Are we still trying to get this right?
Now, there are still folks in Saskatchewan who refer to Tommy Douglas, the man who brought electricity out to the country folk, turned the province’s economy around and got elected five times – and oh yeah, gave the nation MEDICARE … some folks in that province still call him “that socialist.”
Maybe they’re some of the people who don’t know how to think like a community, or who can’t imagine a “social vision” is something that matters. But isn’t the kin-dom of God a social vision? Isn’t love and the prevention of war a social vision?
Tommy had a big idea for how Canadian society should be: poor people who get sick or injured should have the security of knowing that can get well. People too elderly to work should be allowed to live in dignity and some independence.
Widows and orphans. The poor and the needy. Where did he learn crazy ethics like that? Well, in the Depression on the Prairies… and in his study of Christ’s great commandment. Not everybody knows that Tommy Douglas’ lifelong vocation was as an ordained minister – and he took his first church in 1930, in Weyburn, Saskatchewan.
He ministered there for 5 hard years, before he finally determined that he couldn’t do enough from the pulpit. In 1933, Tommy accepted his first nomination to run for Parliament with these words:
“I am conscious of the fact that it is not customary for ministers to take an active part in the affairs of the nation; but I also remember that there was One who went about doing good so the common people heard him gladly. And I would not be worthy of His name if I did not take up the sword on behalf of the underpaid and underprivileged.”
A young opposition member one night in the Legislature [said]…it was too bad that you once had been a Baptist minister and you had turned into a Socialist premier. [Tommy] replied,
‘It’s true that 18 years ago I dedicated myself to serve the Kingdom of God, and if I didn’t believe I was still doing that I would not be standing here today.’ ”
Are we dedicated to serving the Kindom of God? Then how shall we serve, for our part? We are called to love, as Christ has loved us; that’s love with a big L. We are called not just to mercy and kindness but to justice. It’s complicated, I know – we’re no longer trying to get laws passed … we’re trying to get them enforced! That’s a much harder pitch. I have no illusions.
I’m not a Labour activist because I think Jesus was a Socialist, or because the Bible says collective bargaining is the answer. I work for Labour, because in God’s name we must work for justice. In God’s name we must stand against exploitation – including economic exploitation, as the prophets warn us.
Labour as a social movement is dedicated to precisely those things. With all its flaws, it lets me do what I pray is God’s work.