For most people Labor Day just means the official end of summer and a nice long weekend to take the boat out on the lake one last time. Ironically, the people we should most be celebrating and remembering today, the men and women who do the back breaking work that keeps this countries capitalist wheels greased probably do not get the day off. Especially in September when harvest is in full swing for many crops, my guess is that migrant workers that harvest our food are in the fields on Labor Day… laboring.
So what is there to celebrate this Labor Day, particularly when unemployment is at 9.7%? Well, may I suggest that we really celebrate workers and work, not by taking a vacation, but by reflecting on the men and women whose sweat in the soil feeds us every day. Perhaps this remembrance will cause us to reflect on what work is and what work is for, maybe to develop a theology of work even.
I’ve pointed out recently that I need to read, hear and express thoughts in ways that are not so rational and propositional. I’ve been trying to read more poetries and stories. So, to celebrate Labor Day here is an appropriate poem I found at the Poetry Foundation’s website.
To the Negro Farmers of the United States by Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson
God washes clean the souls and hearts of you,
His favored ones, whose backs bend o’er the soil,
Which grudging gives to them requite for toil
In sober graces and in vision true.
God places in your hands the pow’r to do
A service sweet. Your gift supreme to foil
The bare-fanged wolves of hunger in the moil
Of Life’s activities. Yet all too few
Your glorious band, clean sprung from Nature’s heart;
The hope of hungry thousands, in whose breast
Dwells fear that you should fail. God placed no dart
Of war within your hands, but pow’r to start
Tears, praise, love, joy, enwoven in a crest
To crown you glorious, brave ones of the soil.
Speaking of a theology of work, what are you familiar with? It’s something I want and need. I feel like before I can begin to speak about Sabbath, I need to understand work. I have Volf’s WORK IN THE SPIRIT on my shelf, though I haven’t read it yet. Any other books or other things you’ve come across?
I’m familiar with a little thing I like to call WORK! Just kidding. I don’t know of any good books, but out here at the farm I’m learning from the school of hard knocks.
Some of Scripture, Culture and Agriculture touches on the issue of a theology of work. Wendell Berry talks about it some though I couldn’t say where off the top of my noggin.
And I think you’re right on: we learn work by working, just like we learn prayer by praying and we learn patience by dealing with difficult people. WB has probably formed my idea of work more than any other person. I just wonder what a theology of work looks like for those who do not work the ground. Is other work viable work? WB and Ellen Davis (it seems) are agrarians seeing work chiefly through Genesis 2.15 eyes: “till and keep the earth.”
I guess my question is, How can I help the people in my congregation, less than 1% of whom are farmers, see their work as being a part of God’s new creation? How can I encourage these people to see their work as not separate from God’s mission but as the locus in which God’s mission must take place? I need a theology of work for the businesswoman, the teacher, the stay-at-home parent, the missions pastor. Is child-raising work? Or is it Sabbath? Or can it be both?
yeah… on one hand, i would say we definitely have to challenge ourselves and others to move closer to the earth. everyone can grow their own food, even in apartments. there is a sense in which we should be challenging people to see how Genesis calls us back to the earth.
on the other hand, we have to meet people where they are at. it’s difficult for me to be too sympathetic right now, probably my own myopia. i feel like the question is what is the purpose of the work that we do. if you sell insurance, how does that fit into God’s will for the world? most of our work in the US is disconnected from the earth and the impact it has on the earth.
that’s not very helpful for you dealing with a congregation, though. maybe a theology of work needs to think through the ethics of the work we do, but also simple things like the way we treat people in what we do. How can the way I do my job be a spiritual discipline, a force for positive change to those around me. I wish I had a good book for you. Unfortunately my take right now is more antagonistic because I’m immersed in working the earth and seeing our disconnect from the kind of work God intended.
I’m also working through your question about agriculture, culture and God’s intentions for creation. Hmmmm… should probably work up a post on that.