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  • Writer's pictureThe Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples

More Than Justice Required | May 1, 2022 International Worker's Day by Rev. Dr. Dorsey Blake

What a wonderful day today is! I rejoice in its sunny and gentle invitation to come alive again and experience the splendor and opportunities it presents. On this special day, I appreciate the gifts that have not only made my life better but also the lives of so many for over one hundred years.

Today is International Workers’ Day, May Day. In 1889 an international federation of socialist groups and trade unions designated May 1 as a day in support of workers and in commemoration of the Haymarket Rebellion and Massacre in Chicago, 1886. It recognizes the extraordinary work of the Labor Movement to establish economic reforms for workers such as the eight-hours/day working day. Such reforms have enhanced the work and lives of biological relatives, friends, known and unknown sojourners for more than a century. What is often missed or dismissed, sometimes intentionally because of its socialist leadership, is the spiritual nature of the movement. I contend that it was a modern expression of what Jesus had proclaimed nearly two millennia prior. The labor movement was concerned that people were being turned into machines as they worked on machines, twelve hours/day, six days a week. With such a grueling schedule what time was left for sabbath, for spiritual refreshment, for dreaming? What space was open for pursuing horizons of aspiration and hope, landscapes of laughter and lightheartedness? These essential aspects of being human require a bit of luxury away from the grinding, nearly unending demands of production. Production had replaced God. What time was there for recreation, for education, for mystery? What time was there for doing nothing, for just “be-ing?” Could women and men celebrate the joy and pleasure of just being alive? What about their bodies, their health, their spirits, their humanity? The anthem of the movement Eight Hours called for: "Eight Hours for work. Eight hours for rest. Eight hours for what we will."

The first two stanzas are below:

We mean to make things over, We are tired of toil for naught With but bare enough to live upon And ne'er an hour for thought. We want to feel the sunshine And we want to smell the flow'rs We are sure that God has willed it And we mean to have eight hours; We're summoning our forces From the shipyard, shop and mill

Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest Eight hours for what we will; Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest Eight hours for what we will.

The beasts that graze the hillside, And the birds that wander free, In the life that God has meted, Have a better life than we. Oh, hands and hearts are weary, And homes are heavy with dole; If our life's to be filled with drudg'ry, What need of a human soul. Shout, shout the lusty rally, From shipyard, shop, and mill.

Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest Eight hours for what we will; Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest Eight hours for what we will.

Rev. Jesse H. Jones(music) I.G. Blanchard (lyrics)

The song calls for a healthier us as well as a healthier U.S. (United States). It posits that the cost of the outer work, the seen work, production, is much higher than that of the tools and material used. It costs the soul, the inner life, the inner world. It reduces the child of God, to the subservient of capital. People and a people cannot live long on that, where the outer rends the inner. The little financial compensation is not worth the erosion of personality.

Whether they used the words or not, the leaders of the movement called for moral reformation through confrontation with the employers and industrial system that oppressed. Indeed, the employers and system had a moral responsibility to provide the workers with both bread and roses.

And that moral responsibility is still with us though it often seems missing in action. Uneasy with the socialist connection with the labor movement, President Grover Cleveland chose to make the first Monday in September Labor Day rather than recognize May 1, May Day, International Workers ‘Day.

A good Presbyterian, he should have recognized that what the socialists proposed was less radical, anti-capital than what Jesus declared.

Below is a translation of the twentieth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Clarence Jordan interpretation.

“The God Movement is like a farmer who went out early in the morning to hire some field workers. Having settled on a wage of ten dollars a day, he sent them into the cotton field. Then about nine he went to town and saw others standing around idle. So he said to them, ‘Y’all go on out to the fields, and I’ll pay you what’s right.’ And they went. He did the same thing about noon, and again around three. Then about an hour before quitting time, he saw some others just hanging around. ‘Why have y’all been knocking around here all day doing nothing?’ he asked. ‘Because nobody has hired us,’ they answered. ‘Okay, then y’all can go out to the cotton fields too,’ he said. At the end of the day the farmer said to his field boss, ‘Call the workers and pay them off, starting with those who came last and continuing to the first ones.’ Well, those who came an hour before quitting time were called up and were each paid ten dollars. Now those who got there first thing in the morning supposed that they would get much more, but when they were paid off, they too got ten dollars. At that, they raised a squawk against the farmer. ‘These latecomers didn’t put in but one hour, and you’ve done the same by them as you did by us who stood in the hot sun and the scorching wind.’ But the farmer said to one of them, ‘Listen, buddy, I haven’t mistreated you. Didn’t you and I settle on ten dollars a day? Now pick up your pay and run along. I’m determined to give this last fellow exactly the same as you. Isn’t it okay for me to do as I please with what’s mine? Or are you bellyaching simply because I’ve been generous?’ That’s the way it is: Those on the bottom will be on top, and those on top will be on the bottom.”

I can relate to those first workers. I think I would be upset too if someone received wages equal to mine who only worked a fraction of the time I worked. That does seem unjust. But that is not seeing the situation through kin-dom eyes or as Jordan puts it, the nature of the God Movement. The first workers did receive what was agreed as just compensation for their work. No remuneration was set for those later workers. They just trusted the owner to be just. That, however, does not mean that they expected the same wages as the initial workers. Already we see a stark difference between the later workers and the workers in industrial America where there was no trust that the employers would be just. In fact, it was known that they were not. That is why they had to be confronted.

In the parable Jesus is illustrating characteristics of the kin-dom, the nature of relationships. Jesus is saying that there must be a relationship beyond that of justice. They must be mercy, compassion, generosity. It may be just to say that we will no longer discriminate against Black people, but that justice is compromised if efforts beyond justice are not undertaken. In the God Movement, the needs of the people must be met regardless of what they produce or do not produce. People must take care of themselves, their families, their sense of worthiness and somebodiness. Much is required from one who has much. Jesus’ disciples understood this and incorporated it into the life of the early church. Those who had shared with those who did not. And there was no poor among them.

A new non-competitive consciousness is needed in the God Movement. If I have what I need, why should I complain if others that I think did not work as hard as I did also have their needs met?

A Twentieth Century version of this understanding put forth by A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and Martin Luther King, Jr. They proposed a Freedom Budget enunciating that:

For the first time, everyone in America who is fit and able to work will have a job. For the first time, everyone who can’t work, or shouldn’t be working, will have an income adequate to live in comfort and dignity. And that is freedom. For freedom from want is the basic freedom from which all others flow.

There is linkage between this parable in Matthew chapter twenty with that in chapter nineteen. In that chapter a rich young man raises the question of what good deed must he render to inherit unending life. He leaves bereaved because Jesus’ answer requires a personal change in basic assumptions that he cannot accept, that would leave him bereft of what he loves most—more important even than eternal life – his possessions. His dilemma is that he is possessed by his possessions. How can he give up that which gives him status, somebodiness, influence, pride? He was incapable of cultivating the generosity of spirit essential to spiritual growth. He could not empty himself of the object that has enslaved his soul, causing the emptiness, and give that object (possessions) to the poor who need possessions and are his sisters and brothers and then follow Jesus. That would mean disciplining himself in trusting that in the radical mysteries of Life there is the awareness of your needs and the assurance that God will supply your needs according to the riches of the universe. That will happen even though with your need to control you might not know on any night where you’ll end up sleeping.

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