There is a spirituality of labor, and a definite approach to work that Christianity has upheld over the millennia. Labor Day weekend is a good time to reflect on this legacy. Bottom line: Christian faith sees dignity in work, and dignity in those who labor. It partners with God in defending justice for workers.
As a child who came of age in the 80s, I remember what a huge labor and protest period it was. I know, this is another eighties from the one often described by those enamored of Reagan. But as I think back retrospectively, I think it is fair to say that as a child of the 80s, I learned the value of the human by those who stood up for workers and the dignity of labor.
Although not all the protests I remember were labor movements, most were, and they were often led by people of faith. Desmond Tutu’s leadership in anti-apartheid in South Africa. Liberation theologians’ role in rising Central American solidarity. Thomas Merton’s participation in nuclear freeze and anti-nuclear protests. The devout Roman Catholicism of Lech Wałęsa and the solidarność he led as a labor activist in Poland. The grape strikes of Cesar Chavez.
Strangely, the church in North America is designed, by design, to aim mostly for middle class folks. As a result, because the church is set up to attract middle class members, it’s message is conformed to middle class needs.
Yes, the church talks a lot in some quarters about diversity, race, gender, sexual orientation, and these are important powers & principalities the church is called to address: but it is probably class division more than any other divider of humanity that the church struggles most to overcome.
There is we might say more than anything else a middle class captivity of the church in North America.
And Lord have mercy if the pandemic hasn’t illustrated the anemia of such a captivity.
As a result, if we are going to talk about worker justice in North American churches, we will have to address not only justice for workers themselves, but also illuminate the extent to which the current church’s message is so captive to middle class and suburban values that it is deaf to the needs of the working class, and the working poor in particular.
Of the many inequalities in our country currently being exacerbated by the economic system and the alt-right libertarian policies of the ruling elite, it is the issues around labor that are most central, the issue that centers and amplifies so many others.
This really shouldn’t come as a surprise. The biggest social justice movements in modern American life have been often centered on issues of labor, and informed by moral insights of the church. The prophets speak first and foremost to the churches themselves, and from the lines in solidarity with the workers.
Think of some of the most significant moments in the last 100 years: the four million American worker strike of 1919; Dorothy Day founds the Catholic Worker, 1933; Fair Labor Act passes in 1938; largest strike wave in U.S. history 1946, sets the course for the post-war era; march on Washington for jobs and freedom 1963; Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated in Memphis during garbage workers strike; Cesar Chavez organizes the National Farm Workers Association; the Interfaith Worker Justice Center was founded in 1991.
The heart of the Christian faith beats with the blood and sweat of worker justice. The church unaware of this, or resistant to it, risks anemia. Part of the repair, the way towards wholeness that breaks down class division, is simple awareness. Churches even if conformed to middle class values can do a better job living among and serving in working class contexts when they are at least aware of their own captivity. When they don’t, they alienate working class people, which is likely one reason working class participation in the life of the church is declining.
Unfortunately, like many other social justice issues, the old adage applies: Nothing about us without us. So the middle class church, or the North American church captive to middle class values, will not be able to extricate itself from such a captivity, nor will it adequately address all the needs of the work class and the poor. We will be, as always, better together. In fact, because we bring different values and orientations to the table, we will cast a larger and more robust vision for how faith and human thriving intersect.
If working class (and urban) people have been disenfranchised from church life, the unfortunate consequence is that this may account for some of their lesser level of civic engagement. Like voting.
What we know rather definitively is that “churches have served, for most of the nation’s life, as pipelines to all kinds of civic engagement.”
So our reasons for focusing on workers’ rights as people of faith is multi-faceted. First, it is a healthy church growth strategy. The more we shift the culture of our churches, seeking to be responsive to the vision and needs of the working class, the more we might find such communities become part of our congregations. Then in our churches, with many classes serving side by side, we may discover shared vision that increases our civic engagement and imagination.
In which case, we might have an 80s all over again, post-2020, but the other eighties, not the one so many suburban churchgoers yearn for. Focused on workers’ rights, we might usher in a new era of organizing and solidarity.
We need such organizing, because the landscape of work and institutional life has shifted so dramatically between then and now, it takes considerable creativity and faithful commitment to find the ways for worker-led and faith-led organizations to continue fighting for the dignity of labor, and the livelihood and good of all.