During this Labor Day weekend, we explore the nature of “good works” and the work of justice that every religion requires of its practitioners. We explore the nature of creation, work and rest.
In the Jewish and Christian creation narratives, God creates the world in six days, and on the seventh, God rests. In Islam, God also creates the world in six days, and views his work on the seventh day.
The Eastern religions have differing ideas about the nature of God or if there even is God, and emphasize actions over specific ideas about creation. My religion, Unitarian Universalist, leaves it up to individuals to decide for themselves what they believe about the existence and nature of God and the creation of the world. It puts a lot of emphasis on scientific knowledge, as well as action to make the world better for all people — all living organisms — and the need to refresh our spirit and re-create ourselves in community.
In these United States, we generally do not bring our religious beliefs into our work world. And yet, workplaces are becoming more accepting of religious traditions that require adherence to their principles and requirements during the working hours. Our Muslim neighbors are required to pray in a particular way, five times during the day. Muslim women often wear head coverings as a symbol of modesty and devotion to God. Christians often wear jewelry in the form of a cross. My religion uses a stylized chalice in jewelry as its symbol. People are more productive and happy at their places of employment when they can be open about their religion. Open does not mean trying to convert others to one particular religion; that can make for an uncomfortable or even hostile work environment. The majority of people who are committed to a religion, and even those who are not, do not believe that their views are the only way, that everyone should follow one path. Yes, this is the majority. This freedom of religion is of course central to the formation and principles of this country.
The need for justice, for fair working conditions for all people regardless of their status or religion, is what brought us this national Labor Day holiday, this much appreciated three-day weekend for many workers. Work is where most people spend the majority of their time. Every person responds to their work in different ways: Some feel overworked, underpaid and isolated in a society fracturing along class lines. There are people in the working class who enjoy what they do, and people in the professional class who do not. There are people in the working class who make a decent living, and those in the professional class who are barely scraping by. We come to our places of worship as respite from how we spend the majority of our time. We come for kindness and comfort, that rough-worn hands and aching backs and tired spirits can be healed. We come with hope for equality, that those who labor to survive live to know justice. We come in love, for courage and friendship, that our bonds of solidarity be strengthened that we can work together for freedom. Many in church life feel that what we are called to do is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” This phrase was originally used by a newspaper person to describe the nature of journalism.
As early as the 1830s, women factory workers (mostly immigrants) fought for comfort from their afflictions, for better working conditions and better pay. The factory owners were making big profits from requiring the women to work long hours with little pay, no benefits, no compensation for injuries. It was the formation of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) in the early 1900s that really showed the injustice and disparity between factory workers and factory owners.
The tragedy of a garment factory burning and 146 women dying, reported by newspapers, shocked the country and showed the greed and excesses of industrial capitalism and made clear the need for the reforms unions were calling for. Sadly, there are still factories in this country that use immigrant labor in the same way. Conditions such as these call for people of faith to act for justice, to honor the ideals this country was founded on, by immigrants to these shores.
From the beginning of this country, workers have also come together for fraternal mutual aid societies, unions, political parties and community organizations in which their united voices may be amplified and their power multiplied. That spirit of solidarity and mutuality reflects the basic principles Unitarian Universalism — the respect for the dignity of every individual; for justice, equity and compassion; and even the web of existence of which we are a part.
The web of existence is being stretched too thin in these days; there is little rest for the weary. We can find comfort and strength in our religious homes. We need the comfort, absolutely. And we need the strength to do what must be done to correct the injustices piled on to those who have little power. We need to find ways to work together and “pray with our legs, with our feet.”
In the 19th century the abolitionist, activist, politician and author Frederick Douglass said, “I prayed for 20 years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” During the height of the 1960s civil rights era, on the march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, Alabama, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said “I prayed with my feet.”
What was his point? That his marching, his protesting, his speaking out for civil rights was his greatest prayer of all.
The Dalai Lama has said, “Dangerous consequences will follow when politicians and rulers forget moral principles. Whether we believe in God or karma, ethics is the foundation of every religion.” Some of our politicians and many business people have forgotten moral principles. People of faith and goodwill are called to prayer in action. Take action so that 27 million Americans are not held hostage by the richest 8,000 Americans. Stand together as people of faith and goodwill with the founding principles of Unitarian Universalism — that every person has inherent worth and dignity, and justice, equity and compassion can be in all human relations.
The Rev. Donna Renfro began serving the Unitarian Universalist Church of Brazos Valley in September 2018. She has served congregations in The Woodlands as well as New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York.