Faith Matters: Honoring those who labor among us: At the root of Labor Day is the prophetic concern for justice and equity

  • The Rev. Rosemary Dawson in the Trinitarian Congregational Church in Northfield. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Pastor, Trinitarian Congregational Church
Published: 9/1/2023 3:00:36 PM
Modified: 9/1/2023 3:00:02 PM

As you read this article, we are celebrating Labor Day, which is often seen as the last chance to enjoy a long summer weekend. Of course, that is not the origin of Labor Day.

In fact, Labor Day was designed to be a day of respect and honor for those who labor. It was President Grover Cleveland who established the first federal holiday of Labor Day. This presidential act did not come as a lark, but in response to the work of labor unions and workers’ rights advocates. They pressed society to care for those who were the backbone of the nation’s economy, and through them many of our employee rights and benefits have been gained — a 40-hour work week, days off, holidays and vacation, sick leave, health insurance, disability workers’ compensation, and a number of other benefits.

Deeper than Labor Day’s holiday fun or the desire to honor workers, is the prophetic concern for justice and equity for those who are hard-working and yet are vulnerable to mistreatment. The prophets of the Bible often spoke to those in power to do what is right for the weak and vulnerable. The New Testament as well demands uprightness and impartiality among people of faith. And, of course, Jesus was known to care for all people with equity, whether they were rich or poor, marginalized or esteemed. He acknowledged everyone as children of God.

Such a call to strive for justice and equity for all laborers recognizes the value, not of the work, but of those who do the work. Often our society judges the ‘worth’ of work by the quality of labor — deeming the back-breaking work of bodily labor as less than that of ‘head work.’ Yet, in Genesis, God gives Adam, and all mankind, the first task of caring for creation; God “put mankind in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15).

God honors mankind in the humble, hard work of laboring for and with the earth. Can we do any less? Do those who labor to put food on all our tables deserve less respect or support than those who consume their fruit? And if the most humble of workers are of such value to the basic needs of society, how can we disregard anyone’s service?

Such questions (and values) have important implications for our society. The need, breadth and depth of a social safety system is not simply charity, it is justice. The demand for a living wage, fair housing practices, guest workers, employment access and safe work environments are a call for righteousness. This is not to negate the needs and concerns of those who are better off, but to establish a baseline of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. 

Often God’s blessings are found with the abundance of resources, but this is not ‘all for me and none for you.’ God’s blessings of prosperity and peace are meant to be blessings for all people. The reason God calls for us to give heed to the ways of equity and justice is that we get it ‘wrong way round’ so very often.

Perhaps this Labor Day, as we enjoy the last days of summer, we can take a few minutes to reflect on our own understanding of the values we hold of labor and neighbor. Perhaps we can consider some possibilities for greater justice and righteousness, and take steps, just one practical step, to care for those who labor among us.

The Rev. Rosemary Dawson is the designated pastor of Trinitarian Congregational Church, Northfield. Our worship service is Sunday mornings at 10 a.m. and we hold “Nourish Your Spirit” discussion groups on Monday’s at 10 a.m. We also work closely with the Northfield Food Pantry and host Franklin County Community Meals every fourth Thursday of the month.


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