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THE DIGNITY OF HUMAN WORK
LABOR DAY CELEBRATION
September 03, 2017
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community, Palm Springs CA
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Sirach 38:27-32A Wisdom 10:15-19, 20b-21
1 Corinthians 3:10-14 Matthew 6:19-24
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
When I meet someone new, one of the first questions I ask is, “what sort of work do you do?” I ask that because more than anything else, our work, or lack of it, at least partially, describes who we are. The response to that question gives me an insight into someone’s soul. What work one does is part of one’s identity.
The work we do is bound up with our dignity as human persons. Human dignity is the cornerstone of Catholicism. Psalm eight sings our praises. We were created “a little lower than the angels and crowned with glory and honor,” and given dominion over all creation. Catholicism gets its focus on human dignity from Jesus Himself. Recall the story of the crippled woman healed on the Sabbath, to which the prevailing religious authorities objected. Jesus responded by saying, “don’t you untie your donkeys and lead them to water on the Sabbath, yet I shouldn’t heal this woman? What Jesus taught here was caring for people because they are people! Jesus teaches us mercy. Jesus taught us to do mercy. It is in doing mercy that we affirm and respect human dignity.
The Book of Genesis tells us that all humanity, no matter who or what we are, were created in God’s image. Being the image of God the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone. The human person is capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession and of freely giving himself or herself, and entering into communion with other persons. And the human person is called by grace to a covenant with God the Creator, to offer God a response of faith and love that no other creature can give in our place. God’s life and love is inherently imprinted on all of us.
Human persons were made for work. God enlisted humanity to assist in creation by designing us to develop our gifts and potentialities. Human work is part of God’s design for the universe. Our work is our continuing participation in God’s creation. All things, even those created in earthly factories, were created by God, who continually participates in all we do. The human person is the source and goal of all economic life. As Pope Paul the Sixth so aptly put it in his encyclical, Octogesima Adveniens, “the beginning, the subject and the goal of all social institutions is and must be the human person.” That would include work.
Today, we celebrate work, as such. What is work? Work means productive human activity, other than what we do to survive, like eating. The activity of the animal kingdom undertaken for survival, such as finding food or building a nest, is not work as we know it, because it is fulfillment of an instinct, not a voluntary act. Thus, work is unique to human beings in contrast to other creatures.
Not all work of value is paid work. As a priest, I am paid nothing. Many people work as volunteers for churches and other organizations doing valuable tasks without payment. Parents who stay home to take care of young children are another obvious example, but over the last two weeks, we have seen people in Texas working hundreds of hours as volunteers to rescue the victims of Hurricane Harvey and help them recover from devastating floods.
Although work, whether paid or not, defines what it means to be human, it’s a fact of life that most people who are working are doing so to earn money to pay their survival. Most people have no choice but to work to support themselves, lest they descend into homelessness, hunger, and all that besets those who are without money. Much of the population in the United States lives paycheck to paycheck, with no savings. According to a recent study by the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, for about half the population, an unexpected expense of four hundred dollars, say for example, a car repair, would mean either borrowing money or selling items of value. For a wealthy person, however, a four hundred dollar car repair is an expected cost of doing business, but for many, it is a major life trauma. Nowhere has this been more true than for the victims of Hurricane Harvey, many of whom were comfortably middle-class but now face the hardship of uninsured losses from an unexpected natural disaster.
A lack of even a small amount of accumulated wealth also limits their freedom to leave a job in an abusive working environment. A stark choice faces them: either tolerate abuse or descend into poverty. Most workers have no choice but to submit to a weaker position in a power relationship where the stronger party is not only in control, but makes decisions that serve their own interests rather than the interests of the weaker party.
The power differential in the workplace became particularly acute in the course of the industrial revolution. Goods that had previously been the pride of craftspeople such as those described in our first reading became mass-produced by machines. Instead of the person who made the goods receiving direct payment from the person who purchased them, the money went to the company owner who owned the machines that made them and paid the worker to run the machines. The company owners had no economic incentive to provide safe machines to the workers coupled with a strong incentive to pay those workers as little as possible. Companies used human beings as mere instruments for money-making. Labor was a commodity to be purchased at the lowest possible price, forcing workers to lower their economic expectations to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. The more labor, the more competition for available jobs, and the lower the wages paid, and the lower their standard of living.
Because the workers lacked the money and political power to change their situation, the company owners took advantage of them. Workers faced long hours, unsafe and unhealthy worksites, and job instability. During economic recessions, many workers lost their jobs or faced sharp pay cuts. If workers were hurt on the job, there was no such thing as workers’ compensation to pay for medical care and lost earnings. The general public became concerned with industrial accidents only when scores of workers were killed in a single widely reported incident, such as the many coal-mine explosions and factory fires. From these conditions arose labor unions, who took collective action by way of strikes to force higher pay and better working conditions, and laws mandating a minimum wage, a maximum work week, compensation for injured workers, as well as regulations to address health and safety concerns. All of this furthered the dignity of workers and their work.
To paraphrase Pope John Paul the Second in his encyclical Laborem Exercens, work is a good thing for the human person, a good thing for humanity, because through work, we not only transform nature, adapting it to our needs, but we also achieve fulfillment as human being, and indeed, in a sense, we become “more a human being.” But when work is reduced to an activity for mere survival, it no longer has any dignity in and of itself. As Pope Leo the thirteenth correctly noted in his encyclical, Rerum Novarum, “working for gain is creditable, not shameful, to a man, since it enables him to earn an honorable livelihood; but to misuse men as though they were things in the pursuit of gain, or to value them solely for their physical powers – that is truly shameful and inhuman.”
When employers exploit workers, people no longer work because it gives them a purpose and identity. They work because they must to do so, not because they want to do so. I myself was an employer. I first owned an insurance adjusting company for seven years, then a law firm in Orange County for six years, and another law firm in Palm Springs for fourteen years. I paid my people as well as I could, paid their health insurance in full, and did all I could to give their lives some degree of human dignity. I thought of my employees as family, not just workers. The result was I did not become as wealthy as I could have been had I looked out only for myself. Unfortunately, most other business owners think differently than I do. For me, paraphrasing today’s second reading, the mercy taught by Jesus was the foundation on which I built my economic life.
Applied to Labor Day, to be merciful is not just a virtue, but a command. Although company owners may have higher standing in human society, in God’s sight, they are no more significant than the workers they employ. One’s abundance of money or possessions does not make one person more worthy than another in God’s eyes. Yet we live in a society where the amount of money one has determines one’s ability to live with dignity or not. That is a well anticipated result when survival becomes a matter of competing with other people for money or resources. The stronger will prevail. That may be reality, but it is a reality that should not be.
We, acting as individual Christians, are not going to change that anytime soon, and not without collateral damage. However, workers do have an inherent right to organize for change, whether that be through labor unions, the Courts, or the political system. Our goal is an economy that serves people, not people serving the economy. We must do this. The human and moral costs of an economy without mercy that puts money before people are substantial. Unemployment leads not only to material poverty, but spiritual poverty as well, when workers neglect their spiritual lives to concentrate on mere survival. An ever-increasing gap in both income and wealth between the richest and poorest people produces social unrest that often leads to violent crime and property destruction, often directed at immigrants, sexual minorities, and other vulnerable groups. Young women and men fresh out of college with mountains of debt are unable to successfully start their lives so that they can contribute their best talents to the economy to benefit not only themselves but the rest of us as well. Older people are unable to achieve a dignified retirement. All of this occurs because the wealthiest among focus on money first, not mercy. We are seeing the results every day of serving money first and God as an afterthought, if at all. To serve mercy, is to serve God.
The causes of most unemployment are globalization and automation, not immigration. The economy is no longer local to a community, state, or nation, but is the entire world. Goods are manufactured and services provided wherever the cost is least. A good example is customer service to the United States from India, the Philippines, and elsewhere, made possible by both cheap labor and fiber-optic cables. Not only are we part of a global economy, but the work itself is more and more automated by robots and artificial intelligence. You call somewhere for service and talk to a voice-recognition system. The result has been devastating to American workers, particularly those in rustbelt industries, who grew so desperate that last fall they relied on the empty promises of an unqualified demagogue to elect a President who would exploit their worst instincts by exploiting their fears of immigrants, who come to the United States just to make a better life for themselves. The notion that immigrants are stealing jobs from Americans is nonsense. Yes, immigrants do jobs white American won’t touch, but particularly troubling is the notion that Americans are somehow more valuable than foreigners. The truth is, Americans are no better or worse in God’s sight as anyone else. The people of India, the Philippines, China, and all the other places who provide goods and services to us, are just as much God’s children as Americans are.
Trump, however, is just a bump in the long road ahead. Politics notwithstanding, globalization, robotics, and artificial intelligence are not going to stop, and are going to continue to cause disruptions in human life by breaking familiar economic and social patterns. No amount of ideology of whatever stripe is going to stop it.
We will not be able to maintain the dignity of human persons by doing things the way they’ve always been done. The twin realities of both the global economy and advances in technology require a new social contract, built on different philosophical assumptions. The maintenance of human dignity, and in fact the survival of the world, depends on recognition that we are, in fact, one world, and that placing the responsibility for each person’s survival on the back of each individual person, plus continued competition among people for survival of the fittest, is no longer a tenable set of propositions.
As much as it may conceptually offend proponents of free markets and individualism, the time has come to consider not only the universal single payer health care of every advanced country but the United States, but universal basic income as well. Technological advances will require fewer people to do the work necessary for human survival. A universal basic income will restore the dignity of work for the human person, because more and more people will do work they want to do and love to do, rather than work at something they would rather not do, just to survive, for example, music, art, literature, and yes, ministry. People will put their heart and soul, not just their bodies, into what their work. Then, we will truly be able to cooperate and engage with God in the ongoing creation of the Universe. But most important, we need to see a re-ordering of power relationships, where those providing labor and those providing capital share fairly the fruits of production, acting as partners. Absent the unequal power relationship of the traditional employer-employee, master and servant relationship, work can and will reacquire its inherent dignity. To paraphrase Pope Francis, we must say no to an economy of exclusion, no to an idolatry of money, no to a financial system that rules rather than serves, and no to inequality that spawns violence. That can only happen, however, when we see our fellow humans not as competitors or threats to who we are, but as a reflection of the same love with which God created us. AMEN.