Dignify Labor Day with Intervention

By Michaela O’Donnell

September 4, 2020

De Pree Journal

Labor Day. Labor Day. Labor Day. Why do we celebrate it? What should we do to mark the holiday?

For me, the holiday is often about enjoying a long weekend off from work. We BBQ with friends. Plus, as a native Midwesterner, Labor Day marks the end of summer. One more chance to wear those white pants before the calendar flips toward fall, anyone?

This Labor Day, I find myself in a surprising place. I find myself drawn to the book of Exodus. Why? Well, I think it has to do with the fact that I come from a union family. One of my grandpas drove a beer truck. The other was a postal carrier. They were both in unions. So, I grew up hearing stories that had common themes of organizing, protest, and pursuit of fairness. They both came of working age in the 1940s, which meant they did so at the tail end of a long standing labor movement. At the heart of the labor movement was pushing back against system that sought to exploit people’s work for the sake of profit.

Since almost the beginning of time, humans have had such a complex relationship with work. That which God dignify in the garden has long been coopted as a tool of exploitation for the sake of power and profit.

The book of Exodus has a lot to say about exploitative systems. It opens with a new ruler in power. Pharaoh is depicted as a fearful man—a man who was scared of the Israelites because they were more “fruitful and powerful” than his people, the Egyptians. I can’t help but wonder why Pharaoh was such  mean guy. What was so broken in him? What was his pain? What were his problems? Who hurt Pharaoh as a boy? 

In Pharaoh, we see wickedness mixed with power.  This is a terrifying combination. What results is a hostile takeover with one goal: prohibit the fruitfulness of Israel—prohibit the thriving of God’s people. Pharaoh’s strategy: enslave the Israelites so that their labor is not a means of dignity and communal contribution, but instead a tool for Egyptian power and oppression.

But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites13 and worked them ruthlessly.14 They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.

Exodus 1: 12-14

Pharaoh sought to ruthlessly carry out his strategy to strip the Israelites of dignity and use their bodies as his own. Unfortunately, this kind of abuse is not a once-in-humanity kind of story. An honest look at history includes far too many instances of one people group exploiting the labor of another people group. It includes far too many instances Here in America, our chief grievance is of course the stealing of Indigenous land and the forced, unpaid labor of Black people at the hands of colonizers seeking to establish their own nation.

During the time of the labor movement, folks in manufacturing were working 70-hour workweeks without breaks and under harsh conditions. So, working class folks organized together in the form of unions, strikes, and protests to leverage their collective power, demand better conditions, and fight for reasonable work hours.

The sin of human exploitation demands faithfulness in the form of intervention. Where there is no dignity, there must be push back. When work is no longer a means to bear fruit and worship God, it becomes the responsibility of the faithful to speak up, speak out, and demand dignity.

So, today, what ought Labor Day remind us to do? Let’s go back to Exodus and take a cue from Moses—the one called to usher in liberation for the enslaved Israelites. Moses is the one whom God chose to help free the people from the hands of the Egyptians. What would Moses do? Moses would intervene.

One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and saw their forced labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsfolk. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.

Exodus 2: 11-12 NRSV

I have such mixed feelings about Exodus 2:11-12. On the one hand, I am so moved by Moses’ compulsion to intervene. It seems to happen before he knows it. He can’t not do something when he witnesses abuse.

Remember that at this time, Moses was living in Pharaoh’s house—he lived in the center of the most powerful place in the land. This afforded him certain privileges. But he was also Hebrew by birth. He was in a sense both part of the oppressive culture and also part of the oppressed.

You likely remember that as a baby Moses was kept alive by the boldness of his mother in the face of an order that sought to extinguish him. When Moses’ mother eventually could hide him no longer, she placed him in a basket in the river. As providence would have, it was Pharaoh’s own daughter who found Moses and intervened. Like Moses’ mother, Pharaoh’s daughter went against the order of the time—the order decreed by her own father to kill Hebrew babies like Moses. Pharaoh’s daughter spared Moses and took him in as her own.

I like to think that it’s these two women—one living as an oppressed Hebrew and one living in the most powerful place in the land—are who formed Moses as an intervener. He is conceived and rescued by intervening women—which in part prepares him to answer God’s call to advocate on behalf of Israel. It might even be what makes him a man who can’t not act in the face of abuse.

But on the other hand, I can’t get behind how Moses intervenes in Exodus 2. He meets gruesome violence with more gruesome violence. The text tells us that Moses looked around and when he was sure that no one would see, that he killed the oppressor and buried his body. Let’s just admit that his response is intense.  That while protest and pushback and sometimes even destruction are necessary in the pursuit of equity, it’s hard to meet violence with violence. But, I also wonder if it’s Moses’ intense compulsion to intervene in the face of injustice that God chooses to harness and play such a key role in widespread liberation.

Though each individual person and their work matters to God, the story of Exodus helps us to see that God wants not just one Israelite to be free from one Egyptian, but all people to be free from systems that seek to dominate and exploit them. God is for the oppressed. God is for dignity.

The responsibility for intervention in the face of exploitation is not just a task for the oppressed or for privileged folks with special power. It’s not just for labor unions or for a good man who lives in the king’s house. Intervening is an inherently biblical invitation and Christian activity.

It’s as simple and as complicated as this: when people’s labor is being exploited for the sake of  power and profit, we must ask ourselves what our role is. When humans take the act of work which God intends to be good and fruitful and for the sake of the common good and twist it into a tool for dominance and strip it of it’s dignity, we must notice and intervene.

So, on this Labor Day weekend, how might God be inviting you to notice and to intervene? You might not be compelled to go as large scale as forming a union. I cant imagine that God is calling any of us to a violent attack this weekend. So, you may have to think more local and specific.  Where in your community or your workplace might the dignity of work be void? Who might be struggling to make progress because the system you’re in seeks to hold them back? How do you actually contribute to exploitation in your practices, spending, and relationships?  In all of this, how might you mark Labor Day by both celebrating and dignifying the task of human work by joining in the holy task of intervention?

On this task of intervention, I find it important to remember that intervention must be for all. It’s sad for instance that the unions that pushed for regulation and the Labor Day holiday had their insider/outsider power dynamics. For example, during one of the culminating events of the time period—the Pullman Railroad Strike of 1894—Black men who worked in train cars were excluded from striking alongside their white railroad colleagues. So, even the resistance had exploitive power dynamics. Even the resistance had an inequitable hierarchy. Even the resistance could have used some intervening.

How might we notice and attend to who’s being left out this Labor Day? How might we intervene? In this, may we remember that we’re made in the image of an intervening God—a God that so cared about the world that the Son was sent to earth to minister to and sacrifice on behalf of all of us.

Labor Day. Oh Labor Day. Oh Labor Day.

Michaela O’Donnell

Mary and Dale Andringa Executive Director

Michaela is the Mary and Dale Andringa Executive Director Chair at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership. She is also an assistant professor of marketplace leadership and the lead professor for Fuller Seminary’s Doctor of Global Leadership, Redemptive Imagination in the Marketplace progr...

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