Labor Day commentary: For big problems, we need bigger dreams
“We’ve got big problems,” says United Church of Christ Minister of Economic Justice Sekinah Hamlin in a commentary for Labor Day 2020. “We need bigger dreams.”
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” – Jeremiah 29:11
Hope and a future. Just like the Israelites stuck in exile, God has powerful plans for our families and our communities currently trapped in economic turmoil. It’s high time we take up God’s good work and help our brothers and sisters find the hope and the future that’s awaiting them.
The bonds of low-wage poverty and work-first, family-second labor policies have drained the resources and hope from our communities for too long. Wages have not kept up with the cost of living, meaning people working low-wage jobs are forced to work more hours (or more jobs) just to keep their families fed. Work culture has swallowed family time, refusing employees even the right to care for their loved ones by refusing to offer reasonable paid leave. And with schools closed due to COVID-19 and inadequate access to affordable child care, even making it to work has become an impossible juggling task for many families.
We’ve got big problems. We need bigger dreams. This Labor Day, it’s time to move toward the hopeful future God has in store for us. That means we need to reimagine a society in which none of God’s children fall through the cracks of a broken economy. A society where there is no longer a 10 percent that owns 70 percent of the resources, while other families are forced to take on impossible debt burdens in order to provide their loved ones with higher education or life-saving medical treatment.
First, we need to ensure that everyone has access to a guaranteed, equitable, livable income. Family care is holy work – God’s work – and it must be given the respect and support it deserves. Breadwinners shouldn’t have to decide between making money and providing care to the vulnerable in their lives. Neither should folks providing for their families be exploited by unsafe working conditions or unjust pay because of their line of work, their gender or the color of their skin. In order to keep exploitation at bay and income inequality from widening even further, we must put protections into place to provide safe harbor to economically vulnerable families. Policies like raising the minimum wage and Universal Basic Income help to bridge that gap in resources, but it’s just the starting place.
As a society, we have left those we have abandoned economically to make ends meet by taking on unmanageable debt. From unexpected medical debt to unmanageable student debt to predatory payday loans, our people are drowning because they have basic needs, like health care and education for the workforce, and nowhere to turn but lenders. Part of bringing justice and hope to our society requires that we offer mercy and debt relief to those who have fallen on hard times because we provided no safety net. Most urgently, we must strive to close the racial wealth gap, which is the product of over 400 years of stolen resources, rigged systems and unequal opportunities. Until we address our nation’s shameful history firmly and directly, with a focus on making reparations for the wrongs committed, God’s hope and future will not be available to us. Transformation only comes after repentance, and the debt we owe to Black descendants of slaves, whose ancestors built this nation’s wealth with their unpaid sweat and labor, is one which we must repay with interest.
As we look back to the stories of our Hebrew ancestors, we know that God is always working – with or without us. This Labor Day, let us step into our role as God’s hands and feet, fighting for justice and economic security for all people. And then, may we “run with endurance the race that is set before us.” Amen.
The Rev. Sekinah Hamlin is Minister of Economic Justice, Justice and Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ.
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