+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
The traditional theme for Labor Day is to celebrate the victory of unions over oppressive employers. But I take a broader view of Labor Day. I see it as a celebration of the dignity of all human work, whether you are employed, have your own business, or like me, you work, but not for pay.
Whatever one does as work, whether for oneself or others, paid or not, defines an important part of who we are as people. Our work gives us an identity. Certain personalities and certain cognitive styles are drawn to particular work. Corporate America and vocational counselors have for many years used the Myers Briggs Personality Profile test to pigeonhole people into the appropriate career slot. I won’t go into the details of that here; if you’re curious, there are many websites that provide the Myers Briggs Personality test and explain what it is and how it relates to your choice of work. To give you an example in very simple terms, one kind of personality points towards success as a sports coach while quite another is correlated with that of a landscape architect.
What all work has in common, however, is that it gives dignity to us as human persons. Catholicism is based on the dignity of the human person, which includes a calling to work to support oneself and confer benefits on the community in which one lives. Through work, humanity transforms nature, adapting it to human needs. Work, however, is more than something one does to survive. Work is ongoing human participation in God’s creation. We exist because of God’s work in creating us. God created us in God’s image, and part of being God-like is working.
God invites us to work as God works, that is, to create. The ability to create is what distinguishes humans from animals. Humans alone paint pictures and compose music. Humanity alone has the unique ability to author into a fixed expression of what’s going on in our minds and hearts, like a painting or a song. Humanity alone has the ability to draw plans for a building and perform the engineering calculations that enable it to be built. Humanity alone has the ability to design a machine or a software program. Even artificial intelligence would not exist had humanity not invented it. The process of creation, of actualizing what’s inside of oneself requires initiative, the will to make it happen.
Unfortunately, too many workplaces inhibit, rather than encourage, that process. Employees are selected, evaluated, and retained on their ability to follow instructions in many occupations rather than their creativity and initiative. This pattern is reflected in our school system, which prizes conformity to rules and obedience to authority rather than creativity and original thinking. Dissent and disruption are at best stifled, and at worst punished.
Promoting a culture of obedience to authority and conformity to social norms does not advance human progress. Rather, the truth is, out of chaos comes progress. The improvement in our lives flows from those who don’t ask permission but instead seize the opportunity to do something new, rather than follow accepted norms.
The person who marches to the beat of a different drummer than everyone else often ends up leading the parade. For example, transportation. Horses and buggies gave way to gasoline-powered cars which are in turn being replaced by electric cars. And eventually, you will no longer drive your car. It will drive itself. The same pattern follows in communications. Paper mail delivered in person has been substantially replaced by Email. Telephones are moving from wired to wireless. File cabinets have been replaced by databases. Typewriters have given way to word processing software, which can now be operated by voice commands instead of a keyboard.
None of this would have existed had the people who invented these things simply did as they were told and followed human rules meant to maintain social order for the benefit of those at the top of the economic pyramid. For those who invent and create, God’s laws, not human laws, are the ones that count. But to create, one has to know God’s laws. By that, I don’t mean the Ten Commandments, the Old Testament purity code, any of the six hundred and some odd laws of the Talmud, or any code of canon law. I’m talking about the laws of the physical universe as to how it functions, the laws of biological characteristics, that is, how living things function, and the principles of psychology, that is, how human emotions operate. God’s laws operate independently of human laws, whether made by a legislature or a church. Humanity is engaged in ongoing discovery as to what those laws are, and sometimes, we discover that particular laws are not what we previously thought they were. God is always in a process of ongoing revelation. Those who confine God in their own little box for their own purposes transgress the very nature of who God is.
To create, to invent, to originate, is what gives humanity its dignity. In doing so, we become like God in the creation of the Universe. God loves us so much that God wants us to be like God so that ultimately we will be in God and become be part of God. Therefore, in creating something, we experience union with God. We put ourselves on a path to be as much like God as we possibly can that we participate in God’s divine nature. The incarnation of Jesus as God taking our human nature demonstrated what the union of humanity and divinity looks like. Jesus is our example to follow on Labor Day and every day. In becoming human through the incarnation of Jesus, God divinized humanity. In Jesus, God empowered us to be like God.
What gets in the way of all that in today’s work-world is oppressive workplaces. Many business owners, particularly those who own small businesses, would like to have a workplace where the eight hour day and forty hour week, rest and meal periods, bathroom breaks, safety standards, and similar protections are totally absent. Such an attitude, however, is a perversion of the purpose of human work. It is also contrary to what we hear from Jesus in today’s Gospel. Those kinds of business owners store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God. That which matters to God is God’s people. Selfish business owners are most despicable. They forget that the purpose of the economy is to serve the needs of all of humanity, not just those at the top of the food chain.
Laws protecting employees and unions bargaining on their behalf can play a role in transforming today’s workplaces to respect human dignity, but are not the total answer. What is needed is a fundamental change in the relationship between employers and workers, where trust displaces mistrust, on both sides.
I was an employer for thirty years. In managing my people, I valued and rewarded creativity and initiative. I preferred people who didn’t wait to be told if, when or how to do something, but who saw what needed to be done, figured out how to do it on their own, and went ahead and did it. That was possible because I respected their dignity as human persons.
I treated my employees as family, not just people who worked for me. More than anything else, I wanted to do away with the “us versus them” orientation so many of them brought from elsewhere into my businesses. Much to my own personal disadvantage, I paid a living wage, provided paid-in-full health insurance, and accommodated religious obligations, to name just a few of the things I did to make working for me a good experience. In short, I wanted to be the exact opposite of the way most small businesses operate. Why? What mattered to me was what mattered to God.
But doing those things did not make the “us versus them” orientation go away, particularly when it came to money. Even though I was totally transparent with my employees about company finances, and by that I mean, I shared our balance sheet and profit-and-loss statements with them, they still thought I was hiding money somewhere. It didn’t even matter to them that I showed them bank statements and other documentation to back up the numbers. And very few of my workers were transparent with me about their own finances when I tried to elicit information from them for the purpose of being sure I was paying them enough to meet their living expenses. They didn’t believe I really cared about them and that I wanted to be sure they were paid enough to avoid hardship. They thought it was unusual for an employer to care about them as people, so they didn’t trust me. With many employees, it took a very long time to build up trust between them and myself, and with some of them, I never overcame that barrier. Some of them actually thought they would benefit from working in a place of business that was a war zone, while my goal was a cooperative enterprise. They thought distrusting me worked to their financial success. However, their reason for that lack of trust is quite understandable. Believe me, there are terrible employers out there. I cannot help but condemn in the strongest language those companies who pay dirt cheap wages, who don’t provide health insurance and paid vacations for their workers, and play hide-the-ball when dealing with finances. I felt it unfair for my employees to tar and feather me with the sins of other businesses.
But those employees whose lack of trust drove them to want an adversarial relationship with me were the same people who never had any suggestions, never solved problems on their own, and never seized the initiative to fix something they saw needed fixing. These were the same people who actually wanted to be told in detail what to do, and to have someone else do their thinking for them. They refused to invest anything of themselves into their work. They wanted to come to work, do as told, collect a paycheck and go home. These kinds of people lasted a very short time with me, as I felt that attitude was a disadvantage that far outweighed the advantage whatever talent the individual might have.
What might improve both employer and employee behavior is a safety net of universal single payer health care and universal basic income. The combination of those two programs would force the bad employers to treat their workers better because they would not be able to use the fear of being on the street to have power over their workers. A safety net would encourage workers to contribute ideas and take actions to improve their workplace. The resultant outpouring of creativity and initiative would, in turn, benefit the business. A safety net would benefit entrepreneurs as well. It would encourage more people to start their own business without fear of poverty. To use a trite expression, we would see more people building better mousetraps, that is, making better goods and providing better services, which would benefit humanity as a whole.
To get there, we need to reorient our educational system to encourage creativity and initiative rather than conformity. Those who take the initiative to create something and to go and do it ought to be rewarded. Those are the people who drive human progress. The whole system needs to be wrecked and rebuilt from the bottom up.
The response of the church must always be to seek economic and social change. As Pope Leo the thirteenth in “Rerum Novarum” told us, the role of the Church “is to engage the world as it really is and look elsewhere for solutions.” In other words, look at the reality of the injustice staring us in the face, and start thinking about out-of-the-box solutions. That is the polar opposite of accepting the status quo and either benefiting from it and/or not doing something about it.
The moral imperative of Labor Day must change to exalting the dignity of human work as the means to raise humanity’s overall standard of living. Getting there will require being like Jesus, who throughout his life acted without fear and seized opportunities. Jesus was not someone who told us, “Grin and bear it.” The message of Jesus is not only, “If you see something, say something,” but, “if you see something, do something.”
Complaints only get you so far. At some point, you have to get off your backsides and do something. Jesus did not just talk about evil. He did something about it. Remember the story of Jesus driving the money changers out of the Temple? He didn’t ask anyone’s permission to do it. He saw it needed doing, and he did it. As a result of that and other incidents, evil forces put sent Jesus to the cross. When Jesus rose from the dead, he again took initiative and did something. He literally got up off his backside and left us an empty tomb to restore the relationship between God and humanity.
I invite you to do the same. Again, if you see something, don’t just say something. Do something. Let me give you a concrete example, right here and now. See all those empty chairs? Do you want to see people in them? Don’t just talk about them. Do something to fill them. Hand out cards to everyone. Engage people in conversation and invite them to church. Put up flyers and door hangers everywhere. Distribute brochures to hotels. Taking the initiative to do something to fix a problem works in the church as well as in the business world.
God’s dignity comes from God’s acts as creator. God created humanity in God’s image. Humanity’s creativity creates humanity’s dignity. God is a creator, and you can be one, too, by creating solutions to fix problems instead of accepting problems as part of the landscape. Be like Jesus. Don’t just talk about what’s wrong. Take the initiative like He did. Rise up and do something about it. AMEN.