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Work to Live or Live to Work

September 2 is Labor Day, a federal holiday. Most Americans look forward to Labor Day because it means a three day weekend off from work.

"Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns. Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin" (Deuteronomy 24:14-15).

In the late 1800s, at the height of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, the average American worked 12-hour days and seven-day weeks in order to eke out a basic living. Despite restrictions in some states, children as young as 5 or 6 toiled in mills, factories and mines across the country, earning a fraction of their adult counterparts’ wages.

People of all ages, particularly the very poor and recent immigrants, often faced extremely unsafe working conditions, with insufficient access to fresh air, sanitary facilities and breaks.

As manufacturing increasingly supplanted agriculture as the wellspring of American employment, labor unions, which had first appeared in the late 18th century, grew more prominent and vocal. They began organizing strikes and rallies to protest poor conditions and compel employers to renegotiate hours and pay.

In World War II, my maternal grandfather was an electrician in the Navy's famous Seabees. After WWII, he continued to work as an electrician and was always a member of a labor union. He often expressed gratitude for the electricians' labor union ensuring workers were treated fairly.

The labor movement in the 19th century fought for the rights of workers who were being exploited by their employers. This resulted in more days off, better wages, paid vacations, and many other benefits workers have enjoyed.

In the Letter of James in the Bible, there is a very forceful warning against rich oppressors of workers: "Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts" (James 5:1-4).

Workers deserve to be treated with dignity and fairness. Economic systems of productivity and consumerism are good, but they are not gods. Our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodities.

But even today there is still a seductive pressure from the market place. Families may feel helpless in a wheel that keeps on turning faster, never stopping. Do we work to live, or do we live to work?

The goal of life is not selling and buying products and services. The goal in life is to be loved and to love. Economic systems such as capitalism must serve this higher goal of love.

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