Going Into Labor, part 1
At the same time, Western civilization happens to inherit a tradition in which labor is punishment. In the Genesis story, the original humans ate “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” and Yahweh kicked them out of paradise, and gave them labor: gender-specific labor.
The woman’s labor is childbearing. Genesis says:
“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.” (Gen. 3:16)The man’s labor is working the fields.
“Cursed is the ground because of you. In toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread." (Gen. 3:17-19)So labor is what we have to endure because we ate of a tree and got called out. We go out of Eden and go into: labor. Tough break.
The interpretation of that Genesis story that makes more sense to me is one offered by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner in Eyes Remade for Wonder. Kushner suggests that the whole thing was a setup. Like any good parent, God knew that to grow up we would have to leave home and so put that tree there to create a pretext for kicking us out.
“We have read it all wrong. God was not angry. God rejoiced at our disobedience and then wept with joy that we could feel our estrangement and want to return home.”The return home, however, is not easy. It is, in fact, labor.
For the most part, though, we think of labor less as the work of "returning home" and more as punishment. When we can, we avoid it -- outsource it to Asia. We outsource factory labor and telephoning labor. We even outsource the childbirth labor. Someone creates an embryo in a lab, ships it abroad for gestation in a stranger's body, then takes possession again after birth. Overseas labor – of both kinds – is cheaper. Farmed-out childbirth is an industry in India, turning the rural poor into wombs for hire.
The trend to outsource our labor was satirized in “The Borowitz Report,” which ran this fake-news piece:
“Labor Day Officially Moved to China. First US Holiday to be Outsourced. Labor Day, one of America's most beloved and longest-celebrated holidays, has been officially moved to China, U.S. officials confirmed today. The Labor Day celebrations are expected to kick off Monday afternoon in Beijing with a barbeque attended by over seven million people and presided over by former NBA star Yao Ming. The transfer of Labor Day to China represents the first time in American history that an entire holiday has been outsourced, experts said.... Meanwhile, U.S. officials said it was looking 'more and more likely' that Thanksgiving would be relocated this year to India. 'At the very least, Americans will still be able to celebrate Thanksgiving by phone,' one official said. 'But they should listen closely because some menu options have changed.'"Well, that’s silly. Whatever work we may have sent overseas, we will always have the work of living here, and with it, our celebrations.
Labor day is a holiday – which originally meant holy day. So this is about the holiness of work – whether we work for pay or not. Whether or not labor seems to us to be a pain or a drudgery to endure just to pay the pills, there is before us also the prospect of labor as the path home. A holiday becomes again a holy day when, among other things, we honor the occasion with retellings of particular sacred stories -- stories made sacred by the meaning we give them.
What are the stories that consecrate Labor Day? I'm not sure Labor Day has any widely recognized sacred stories, so let me offer a story. I offer this as a candidate for adopting and making sacred through the widespread retelling of it every Labor Day. It is a cautionary tale of industrialist George Pullman, born 1831.
Pullman’s workers worked for him, lived in houses owned by him, paid their rent and their utilities to him, and shopped in stores owned by him, strolled in his parks. His aim was to solve the issue of labor unrest and poverty.
Next: So what went wrong?
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This is part 1 of 3 of "Going Into Labor"
Part 2: Why We Have Labor Day
Part 3: He Got the Optimism, Not the Humility