Work and Society

Jesus unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.” Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. He said to them, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Luke 4: 17-20

 

Today in the United States is Labor Day. The significance of the day has become as a marker of the end of the “summer” season, the last long holiday weekend before the beginning of a new work and school year. It is perhaps telling that, other than the last visits to beaches and the last family gatherings around the barbecue, there are no shared civic modes of recognition and celebration. In a time of great civil discord and unrest, it may be time for our society to reflect on the spiritual significance of work and the place of labor in a full and distinctively human life.

In today’s gospel from Luke, we see that Jesus comes to know his work, his mission in life, his vocation, in the words of the Prophet Isaiah. He is to spend his days and his efforts in bringing “glad tidings to the poor,” proclaiming “liberty to captives,” healing the blind, and freeing the oppressed. In Jesus’ time, as in ours, there is plenty of work to do. To be a believer, however, is to trust that the One who creates us also gives, in the gifts of each of us, all that is required for the work. No one of us has to do it all. Yet, each of us is called to play our part and is distinguished by the gift we have to offer. If we separate work or labor from the expression of the deepest call of the person and the donation of what each person has been given in order to give it to the world, we betray humanity’s very call and destiny.

The great danger in the capitalist ideology that drives our social relationships is that it turns everything into a commodity to be “bought and sold.” This can and has come to include the human person and his or her work. We have, thus, forgotten the significant place that work holds in a person’s sense of appreciation of him or herself. Our work in the world is our way of giving expression to who we are, of giving away the unique gift we have received.

As an adolescent, I had a very powerful personal and familial experience of this truth. My father had for most of his life worked as a pressman and stereotyper for the local newspaper. At the age of about 48 or so, and when I was 12, he and the other workers at the paper went out on strike for better wages and benefits. The owners of the paper, however, brought in outside labor to break the strike. As a result, he never returned to work at that paper where he had worked most of his adult life. For the rest of his working life, he would work part time at various papers throughout the region, but he never again would have the consistent and reliable work he had earlier known. I realized at the time that something very significant had changed in our family, but it was only in retrospect that I came to understand what a devastating effect the lack of steady and reliable employment had on my father’s spirit and on our familial relationships.

In the days of lead-plated printing presses, creating those plates and installing them on the presses was extremely taxing and difficult work. Yet, I recall the pride with which my father would show me, as a young boy, the process, and the final product that was that day’s edition which he experienced as, in good part, the work of his hands. After losing that job that he had held for so long, however, he never again felt that same pride and sense of potency. For, it is in our work and in the outcome of our work that we can see and feel our human potential, even our own reason for being and our unique place in the world. Although I could feel the difference in our family, I could not, at the time, understand how deeply lessened as a person my father felt at the loss of this way of expressing his talents and providing for his family. Without a sense of personal potency, we become depressed. To exist is to stand out, to make our mark, in the world. The “body of Christ,” the “social body,” that we are is as strong and coherent as each of its members. There is always plenty of work to be done. It is only human sinfulness and greed, the craving for the accumulating of great wealth without social benefit, that keeps others from being able to do their work for the benefit of all.

As for so many in our society, the work that my father did no longer exists. Fortunately, the grueling and dangerous labor of pouring lead into the molds and lifting the heavy plates onto a printing press is no longer necessary. Much of what was once the work of human hands is now mechanized or non-existent through technological advancement. Yet, the promise that these advances in technology promised have not been realized. The deep source of much of my own tension and suffering as a young adolescent has not passed with that advancement but seems, rather, to have spread throughout our society. In just two or three generations, we have profoundly changed our ways of working but have left unchanged our social structures. In an address last June to the Confederation of Trade Unions of Italy, Pope Francis said:

The capitalism of our time does not understand the value of the trade union, because it has forgotten the social nature of the economy, of the business. . . . The economy has forgotten the social nature that it has as a vocation, the social nature of business, of life, of bonds and pacts.

Human work takes on a different dimension when seen in its social significance. It is not a mere commodity to be purchased by the affluent at the least possible expense to themselves. It is the gift of God in each human person that is meant to be expressed as a gift for the world.

The spiritual traditions do not give us any roadmap for how to change a culturally impoverished sense of work. The do, however, summon us to awaken to the place of work in our own life and to the appreciation of the work of others. In our secular, functional, and capitalistic culture, we have come to separate work from our life as a whole and from the social order. Far too often, our work is but a product that we offer and for which we are paid. Yet, in the deeper sense, our whole life is a work and a mission. The way that we do our work is reflective of the depth of our love and engagement in the world. For this reason, it becomes understandable that problems with work go hand in hand with problems with leisure. As our work becomes more and more dissociated from the desires of our hearts, so our leisure becomes more and more a mode of disengagement rather than engagement. Our leisure activity as well as our work loses its social dimension. So, we “veg out” before the television for leisure, rather than deeply being with and engaging with others, in the same way that we put in our hours at work rather than being deeply and creatively involved with the effort.

Perhaps the leisure of this holiday will afford us the opportunity to listen to our own call and mission in the world. May our work tasks, whatever they be, reflect who we most truly are and how God calls us to be for the world, and may our leisure be a space in which we welcome and share our love with others.

 

You have chosen a beautiful motto for this Congress: “For the person, for labour”. Person and labour are two works that can and must stay together. Because if we think and talk about labour without the person, labour ends up becoming something inhumane, which by forgetting the person forgets and loses itself. But if we think of the person without work, we are saying something partial, incomplete, because the person is fully realized when he or she becomes a worker: because the individual becomes a person when he or she opens up to others, to social life, when he or she thrives in work. The person thrives in work. Labour is the most common form of cooperation that humanity has generated in its history. Every day millions of people cooperate simply by working: educating our children, operating mechanical equipment, dealing with paperwork in an office … Work is a form of civil love: it is not a romantic, nor always an intentional love, but it is a true, genuine love, that makes the world live and carry on.

Pope  Francis, Audience with Delegates from Trade Unions of Italy, 28 June 2017

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