Paul L. Caron

Sunday, October 30, 2022

NY Times Op-Ed: How To Keep The Sabbath And Fight Back Against The Inhumanity Of Modern Work

New York Times Op-Ed:  How to Fight Back Against the Inhumanity of Modern Work, by Tish Harrison Warren (Priest, Anglican Church; Author, Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep (2021) (Christianity Today's 2022 Book of the Year)):

Warren 3When a careerist culture meets a digital revolution that allows unlimited access to work, something’s got to give. And in America, that something tends not to be work demands but is instead the human soul. The rise of digital technology requires us, as a culture, to re-examine what it means for work to be humane. As we do so, we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us in the labor movement. They offer us a model for how to begin this re-examination.

The Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries birthed the labor movement, which attempted to curb the excesses of capitalism and new technology. There was a time when hunter-gatherers and then farmers worked only as much as they needed to survive, which, according to a report by NPR, was often less than 40 hours a week. With the introduction of factories, work hours grew longer and less flexible. The labor movement fought to change both culture and policy to limit our work weeks, and the 40-hour week eventually became a norm. What’s clear is that people didn’t suddenly become lazy and want to work less. Instead, a change in technology created a new way of work that demanded a response. We find ourselves facing this again with today’s digital revolution.

In the early labor movement, a broad and diverse base of religious people found common cause around Sabbath laws. These laws (often called blue laws) are now usually seen as examples of antiquated, puritanical, even theocratic impulses: prim religious people running around trying to make sure no one enjoys a beer on a Sunday afternoon. Advocates of Sabbatarianism, however, saw their work as an act of resistance to greed and a fight for the laborer.

When Philip Schaff, a 19th-century Swiss German theologian, immigrated to the United States, he was impressed by the ability of ideologically disparate religious groups to collaborate politically to solve social ills. For Schaff and many others, a key issue in the burgeoning industrialist economy of the North was the preservation of time for worship, rest and family life to preserve the dignity of the worker. They looked to Sabbath laws, in part, to help achieve this. Schaff stressed that keeping the Sabbath wasn’t merely a religious observance but served a civic function. It was a practical way, through time itself, to treat workers as valuable humans with whole lives to be lived.

I don’t expect us to put blue laws back on the books. I understand that most Americans — including religious Americans — no longer observe a strict day of rest. I also understand, of course, that the Sabbath lands on different days for different religious traditions. Still, with the boundaryless work of the digital age, with consumer pressure for retail stores and e-commerce companies to remain open at all times, and with our unholy worship of productivity and convenience, the spirit of these laws is more needed than ever before. What practices now limit “our restless activity as a nation”? What resources are there in our culture to curb the “degrading worship of the almighty dollar”?

At the very least, workers ought to be able to completely shut off from work one day a week or more — no email, no notifications, nothing. My family attempts to avoid all digital devices from Saturday night to Sunday night, some weeks with greater success than others. This aids our goals for our Sabbath day: rest, play, worship and delight. This practice has shaped our family life, our work, our habits and our very bodies. ...

The theologian Marva Dawn, who wrote “Keeping the Sabbath Wholly,” would talk about not just taking a weekly day of rest but also cultivating a “Sabbath way of life” — a life in which a healthy rhythm of work and rest characterizes each day and each week, a life in which we can do good, hard, meaningful work and then truly leave it behind. This is the kind of life I want for myself and for every other glorious, limited human being.

Editor's Note:  If you would like to receive a weekly email each Sunday with links to the faith posts on TaxProf Blog, email me here.

Other New York Times op-eds by Tish Harrison Warren:

Faith, Legal Education | Permalink