It’s always interesting that on Labor Day when the President of the whole country takes the occasion to address a political speech to unions in some city or another. It’s a sign of the times that the notion of labor has been reduced to a political or economic opportunity and meaning. As a point of fact, workers who belong to labor unions represent only about 10% or less of the workforce in the economic sector. But labor properly understood is certainly not limited in concept to the economic sector. That would suggest that people who do volunteer labor or those who work in the home are not really to be considered laborers. But of course that is absurd and is the result of the politicization and the economization of our whole culture and way of life today.
The Christian understanding of human labor and its dignity depends upon relating man’s work to the divine work of creation, which effectively grounds man’s dignity in God. In every kind of honest work, the human laborer is imitating God, whether he or she knows it or not. And every form of dignified and honest human labor brings dignity and honor to the laborer. Thus it is not only so-called “gainful labor” that should be honored today, but every form of labor that is capable of giving glory to God. That is the Christian understanding of labor in a nutshell, and the world around us knows little about this elevated concept of human labor.
This ignorance explains why the work of homemakers is so often not seen as a form of gainful employment or honored as dignified labor. This blindness not only shortchanges the full-time homemaker but also the labor that women who are in the nation’s workforce perform in their own homes. Unfortunately, their full-time job outside the home often does not exempt them from carrying the bulk of the workload in their own homes. It is simply a fact that vast numbers of husbands whose wives work outside the home do little to help them in their housekeeping. Likewise, full-time homemakers are rarely depicted as part of the “workforce,” even though their work in the home can easily be demonstrated to be an economic plus for their families.
In fact, from a Christian perspective again, this work that is done without any economic remuneration or recognition as valuable labor, can from God’s point of view be seen as among the higher forms of labor. Why? Simply because home labor is more often done out of love than the labor that we normally associate with labor in the economy. Don’t most of us honor voluntary labor in our society more than remunerated labor? Then why is it that we do not recognize the true dignity and value of work in the home? That fact is a true sign of the times.
However, even labor that is remunerated in the workplace can have a much higher dignity and estimation than comes from simply its economic remuneration. When the worker performs his or her labor in the workplace primarily out of love for his or her family, then this labor becomes something more than simply a job that pays off economically. Love for the family motivating one’s labor is what enables the worker who has a difficult or tedious job to do a good job in spite of its distastefulness. This love is what often keeps us working when the job is getting us down.
But there is even a higher motivation that can transform labor, any kind of honest labor, into a profound factor of growth in the laborer’s dignity and humanity. The Christian worker has been taught, or should be taught, that he or she should also do everything for the love of and greater honor and glory of God. When the labor consciously associates his or her work with the love of the family, supported by this work, and for the love and glory of God, then labor is truly a powerful force for good in human life. The world doesn’t understand this truth, but Christians should, especially when celebrating Labor Day.