Friday, October 16, 2015

Work and honor: Speaking to the Soul, October 16, 2015

(This was first posted at The Episcopal Cafe's Speaking to the Soul for October 16, 2015.)

Detail from a window at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, Ferguson.

Earlier this week, a judge in the city of St. Louis, the heart of the metropolitan area where I live, ruled that the recently-passed law which sought to gradually raise the minimum wage to eleven dollars an hour by 2018 was unconstitutional under state law, since it contradicted the state minimum wage. There is a lot of push-back in some quarters against raising the minimum wage. Some people claim that such a raise will cost jobs and raise prices. It would be refreshing to actually look at, rationally, the costs and benefits, as well as the history of the minimum wage in this country, free of ideology. I am not so foolish to think that will happen anytime soon.

But one of the arguments against raising the minimum wage troubles me greatly. There is a narrative out there that states that those who work in what are called “menial” jobs do not deserve to earn what would be termed a living wage. This would be a wage that, if one is working 40 hours a week, would enable that person to be able to attain food, shelter, health care, transportation of some sort. There is a disdain inherent in this attitude that overlooks our interdependence on all sectors of workers in order to build a unified economy and a unified society.

Essayist and poet Kathleen Norris, in her book The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and “Women’s Work,” spoke of a moment of in-breaking clarity once when she attended a wedding in a Catholic Church. Being relatively unchurched, she was sitting at the back after the communion had been distributed, watching the proceedings, when she suddenly tugged on her fiance’s sleeve: “Look at that! The priest is cleaning up! He’s doing the dishes!” She goes on to explain her sense of wonder: “I found it remarkable—and still find in remarkable—that in that big fancy church, after all of the dress-up and the formalities of the wedding mass, homage was being paid to the lowly truth that we human beings must wash the dishes after we eat and drink. The chalice, which had held the very blood of Christ, was no exception.” Those of us who have served on the altar guild, or as acolytes, deacons, or priests, can affirm: even at the Lord’s Supper, someone’s got to do the dishes. And sweep, and polish, and press linen.

How easy it is to take for granted the holiness of simple, plain work in making our lives together! It is a common conceit that if one wants something to seem fancy, one must attach a fancy name for it. A good example is in Ms. Norris’s use of the word “quotidian” rather than its synonym, “everyday.” We downgrade the menial, repetitious, yet necessary labor upon which we are all dependent, and take it for granted that this kind of labor requires no skill and therefore deserves marginal compensation and no honor. Let’s also note that Ms. Norris’s title also places “women’s work” in quotations, as an acknowledgement that this label has been used traditionally to denigrate and marginalize said work—the cooking, cleaning, mending, and caring for the needs of the family-- that traditionally was performed by those within the household whose work was vital, yet unhonored.

Minimum wage workers are often engaged in the service sector of the economy, with making and providing access to food, cleaning, and caring for the needs of others. In other words, work that has ties very often to that same “menial” work once centered in the home. Work that also, traditionally, was unpaid. Work that is still not seen as “noble,” in and of itself--regardless of the alleged fascination with the so-called “self-made man or woman” that runs through American civic mythology. P. J. O’Rourke once remarked, “Everyone wants to save the planet; nobody wants to help Mom do the dishes.” Unpaid and low-pay work is often invisible work, but it is still work that matters. And it’s not just fast-food workers who have seen their work devalued over the last many years: masons, carpenters, mechanics, and other trades have seen their standards of living, and their ability to pay their bills, plummet.

In our gospel reading for this Sunday, Jesus asks us to reexamine the issue of status and privilege. James and John ask Jesus to give them positions of honor when he comes into his glory. As the other disciples catch wind of it and begin arguing among themselves, one imagines how patient Jesus must have been to see once again that his message has gotten completely lost.

Then as well as now.

Sometimes the greatest among us are those who are the lowliest- the ones whose labor in the most modest corners of the economy make it possible for others in more “esteemed, positions to do their own work more effectively. It is in the most self-effacing activity that we often show the most love for each other, or support our own disparate vocations. As the gospels show us again and again and again, it is in feeding each other, healing each other, tending to each other, comforting each other, that we are most united as community. The humblest work is that which Jesus commends to us as the greatest work, because it tends to basic needs. It is in the prosaic that self-giving is often found. Might we recognize the dignity inherent in such work, and in those who perform such labor, and honor that work not just with platitudes but just compensation?

(This was first posted at The Episcopal Cafe's Speaking to the Soul for October 16, 2015.)

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