Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in 2015.

We are about to enjoy a long Labor Day weekend. For 120 years Americans have taken this day off, though few us know, exactly, why. It’s a holiday that’s largely lost its meaning, that’s no longer what it once was or what its creators intended. We can be thankful for that.

Labor Day dates back to 1893, when the Pullman Company found itself in the throes of a national economic crisis. Demand for the company’s railroad sleeping cars had nosedived, and George Pullman, the company’s owner and founder, was forced to lay off hundreds of workers. He then slashed the pay of his remaining employees but left the rent for their company-owned homes unchanged.

Workers seethed as they struggled to provide their families with food, clothing, and shelter. Desperate and out of options, they went on strike, demanding lower rents and higher pay.

Eugene Debs, the American Railway Union (ARU) president, rushed his membership to their cause, and across the country railroad workers boycotted trains carrying Pullman cars. Violence flared, railroad cars were burned, and mobs of nonunion workers charged into the fray.

The story was splashed across the pages of the nation’s newspapers, forcing President Grover Cleveland to act. Under pressure to calm nervous railroad executives, Cleveland declared the strike a federal crime and swiftly deployed 12,000 troops to break it. The violence escalated, and two men were killed when U.S. marshals opened fire on protesters in Kensington, a small town outside Chicago.

On Aug. 3, 1894, the strike ended, Eugene Debs was jailed, the ARU was disbanded, and Pullman employees — humiliated and with nowhere to turn — swore an oath that they’d never again join a union.

The crisis ended, but for Cleveland (and Congress) another one loomed. The president had alienated a vast block of voters during an election year, and he now groped for a way to make peace. Legislation sped through the House and Senate, and the bill that created Labor Day arrived on Cleveland’s desk a mere six days after troops had subdued the striking workers.

The history is mostly forgotten, and today the tension between labor and capital no longer turns violent. So Labor Day marks the end of summer and the beginning of fall, and not much more. It’s a day off work, for no particular reason.

A Day In Need of New Meaning

What if God’s people laid claim to Labor Day? What if, year by year, we methodically transformed it into a celebration of innovation, responsibility, creativity, and living fully as the image of an industrious God?

Our country could use a reimagined Labor Day. The nation’s workforce is shriveling, and for a slew of crippling reasons. A barrage of new studies reports that the share of “prime-age men” — those 25 to 54 years old — who aren’t working has more than tripled since the late 1960s. Another paper reports that from 2009 through September 2014, the percentage of the working-age population that actually works (or is looking for work) has dropped by 3 percentage points and now stands at roughly 63 percent. That means that 7.4 million Americans have stopped looking for work or, in the case of many young people, never bothered to look. In effect, writes Steve Moore, a Forbes magazine writer, during the current economic recovery nearly as many Americans have either left the workforce, or never entered it, as have found a job.

A number of men have simply concluded that work won’t do much to improve their lives. As a December 2014 article in The New York Times explains, these men have easy access to federal disability, fewer of them are married — meaning they have no responsibility to provide for others — and with the Internet, they’re not as isolated as they would have been a generation ago.

But there’s a steep price for their absence, not just for these men and their families but for the entire country. A smaller workforce means a slower economy, which means that fewer taxpayers are forced to fund the government even as more and more people dip into the public coffers.

If You Don’t Work, You Don’t Eat

In his second letter to the Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul dealt with circumstances that bear some resemblance to ours. Paul wrote this letter because, among other things, he was concerned about pervasive idleness in the local church. He had addressed the issue before, but little had changed. So in 2 Thessalonians Paul put it bluntly: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” Note, he doesn’t say, “If anyone doesn’t work.” Paul’s not scolding the sick or legitimately disabled; he’s peeved with those who are able to work but for some reason won’t. In 1 Timothy 5:8, he touches on a similar theme. There he writes, “ … if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”

In both cases Paul’s tone springs from the fact that we are the image of God, and that means we work. We work not only to create but also to provide. We see this from the first page of Scripture: God works, and by that labor He provides us with food, water, air to breathe, the sun to keep us warm, shade to cool us, and the raw materials we need for a satisfying life. It follows then that we — being His image — do the same. We work to provide for ourselves, our families, friends, and communities, and by our work we exhibit the nature and character of God.

Paul’s intensity, then, is rooted in the fact that when people refuse to work and fail to provide, they’re something less than what God intended. So are their families and neighborhoods.

A Growing Number of Non-Providers

We’ve created a culture where men feel less pressure to work because they have no responsibility to provide. It’s now estimated that only 28 percent of jobless men (as opposed to 58 percent of women) live with a child under 18. There’s a strong correlation, says the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), between the decline in male employment and this withdrawal from marriage and fatherhood.

Philippe Bourgois, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania, believes that “When the legal, entry-level economy isn’t providing a wage that allows someone a convincing and realistic option to become an adult — to go out and get married and form a household — it demoralizes them.” In a New York Times article Bourgois says, “It’s not a choice that has made them happy. They would much rather be adults in a respectful job that pays them and promises them benefits.”

Unemployed men struggle, not only with the loss of income but with a loss of dignity. They suffer, reports tell us, both mentally and physically. We shouldn’t be surprised. They ache because they’re created in the image of a hardworking and generous God and are meant to reflect His character.

A reimagined Labor Day would throw light on the wisdom of Proverbs 13:4: “The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied.” Our country could use a day to reflect on how, by being industrious, we find satisfaction. We could use a day to reflect on success stories — like that of Dr. Ben Carson — that illustrate how, with hard work, we “raise the poor from the dust and lift the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes” (Psalm 113:7-8).

It would do our culture good to remember that when people go to work they enter into the flow of life and become woven into society. They become part of something bigger than themselves, and something that might energize their souls. Without work — whether it’s paid or volunteer, blue collar or white collar, in the home or on a jobsite — human beings become devoid of purpose and are relegated to the margins of a vital society.

When a culture devalues work, there’s not only a high price to pay emotionally and spiritually, there are financial costs, too, and they’re equally crippling.

The Costs of Devaluing Work

When a culture devalues work, there’s not only a high price to pay emotionally and spiritually, there are financial costs, too, and they’re equally crippling.

Since 2010, the federal government (American taxpayers) has provided the jobless with $520 billion in benefits. We might be relieved, then, to learn that during the past five years the unemployment rate has been cut in half, from just over 10 percent in 2010 to 5.3 percent today. But labor statistics — hidden in a clever shell game — are impossible to follow. The unemployment figures have, in fact, dropped, but since 2003 there’s been a 44 percent increase in disability claims. And in 2011 alone, taxpayers paid $250 billion to millions of Americans who claimed to be disabled. That’s 7 percent of the entire population. So even as employment picture brightens, the federal government is redistributing more money to disabled workers than it spends on food stamps and welfare — combined.

“That’s a kind of ugly secret of the American labor market,” says David Autor, an economist at MIT.

In a report, “Unfit for Work: The startling rise of disability in America,” NPR writer Chana Joffe-Walt demonstrates how disability has morphed into a welfare program for those who lack the education or skills needed to find a new job. She also demonstrates how it has trapped them in lifelong poverty.

Once people go on disability, Joffe-Walt says, they almost never go back to work. Of those who were in the program in 2011, she reports, fewer than 1 percent have returned to the workforce.

These people lack training, but there’s one more reason for this: People on disability also qualify for Medicare, the government health care program created for seniors. So, bottom line, taxpayers provide each disabled worker with about $13,000 a year plus Medicare. For 99 percent of these former workers, that’s better than a minimum wage job with no health benefits.

Our society, then, has created a “benefit” that ensures its “beneficiaries” that they will not work, they will never get a raise, they will never again derive any meaning from their job, and they will be poor for the rest of their lives. That’s the deal, Joffe-Walt says, and it’s a deal that 14 million Americans have taken.

Let the Thief No Longer Steal

Many of the healthy people who claim disability aren’t out to game the system. They’re our neighbors who need help, and who are surrounded by politicians, bureaucrats, and former employers who encourage them to take what the government offers, and what’s “rightfully” theirs. They live and breathe in a culture where it’s normal to take what isn’t yours.

Ephesians 4:28 is familiar: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” The verse underscores what we know by common sense and God’s common grace: We’re not to take what others own; rather, we’re to work so that we can give. But it’s hard to calibrate a cultural moral compass in a culture where our foundational institutions — government, business, education — have for decades assured people: You don’t need to work, you don’t need to provide, you don’t need to participate in the progress of society.

A Diminished View of Gratitude and Giving

By twisting our basic values we’ve not only trampled God’s image, we’ve also bred resentment. The taxpayers who are forced to foot the bill grow cynical, and our communities, instead of being unified, are divided — makers on one side, takers on the other. For those who have a “right” to disability and welfare, there’s no reason to be grateful, no urge to repay the kindness, nor any desire to do for others what’s been done for you.

This perverted view of work and welfare also leads to a distorted idea of what it means to give. Giving, of course, is an act of stewardship. When we give, we distribute our resources the way we see fit. Paying taxes is required, and the money goes where the tax collector spends it. When we pay taxes, we’re not choosing to love our neighbors; we’re merely obeying the law.

That not only puts distance between those who pay and those who receive, it also removes a moral dimension from our lives. Instead of choosing to help, taxpayers are forced to pay, and they’re robbed of the opportunity to come alongside their needy neighbors.

Again, the Apostle Paul helps us. While in Corinth, he expected to collect financial help for the church in Jerusalem. Paul sent a few men ahead, just to make sure the plans were in order. As he sums this up in his letter, he tells them, “The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” Then he writes: “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:6-7, emphasis added).

In his message to the Galatians, Paul urged them to “not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:9-10).

Just as Paul implores the idle to work, he encourages everyone to give. By doing so he assures us that we will benefit, and others will too. But to experience the reward, we have to make the right choice. To know the satisfaction of giving and helping, we must be free to spend our time and money the way we choose, and to live in the aftermath of our choices.

Valuing Work, Providing a Safety Net

Giving, sharing, providing, and employing our gifts for the sake of others — these make life worthwhile. And yet our culture urges us in the opposite direction, persuading us that the poor have nothing to give and are therefore entitled to take what others have earned, and arguing that the wealthy have no responsibility other than to fund a nameless, faceless, and morally indifferent bureaucracy.

1 John 3:17 says, “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” In Galatians 2:10, Paul writes, “Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.” The theme is scattered across the Scriptures — Matthew 25:39-40, Acts 2:45, Acts 4:35, and Romans 12:13 among other places. God expects us to care for the poor, but He never tells us how. In the short term, it makes sense to give money, food, and clothing. These, we know, are only Band-Aids, but when people are starving and without clean water and when floods have destroyed our neighbors’ homes, a stopgap solution can be the difference between life and death. Still, the food and water will soon be gone, the clothes will fade and rip, and the poor will still be poor.

Nevertheless, a decent society, and especially a wealthy one, provides a safety net. As a nation, we want programs that meet our neighbors’ urgent needs. But we also want a culture that rejoices in work. We need a culture — informed and shaped by God’s people — that celebrates what it means to provide — to live as the image of a creative, industrious, redeeming, renewing, and extravagantly generous God.

It would do us good to take a day off and reflect on what that means.

About the author, Richard Doster

Richard Doster is the editor of byFaith. He is also the author of two novels, Safe at Home (March 2008) and Crossing the Lines (June 2009), both published by David C. Cook Publishers.

6 Responses to Reinventing Labor Day

  1. Gwendolyn Brussell says:

    Thank you. I am encouraged and eager to share this article. It put me aright.

    It is accurate, thorough, and so needed

  2. Bobby Griffith says:

    I disagree with this article. Labor Day is a fantastic celebration of human dignity, which was the goal of the Labor Movement. It is a reminder that even good economic systems are corrupted with sin and evil. It is a reminder of courage. It is a reminder that people stood up for treating workers well. Those are Christian values.

    I would encourage folks to read the stories found in numerous Labor histories. We do not need to turn everything into the Protestant work ethic. We can have one day to honor those who fought to be treated with dignity because they were made in the image of God.

  3. Al Lutz says:

    I would like to add the words from the Apostle Paul as found in Ephesians 4:28
    “He who has been stealing
    must steal no longer,
    but must work,
    doing something useful,
    with his own hands,
    that he may have something
    to share with those in need.”
    Al Lutz

  4. Pingback: Selected News Stories from Around the World* — Monday, Sept. 5 | The BibleMesh Blog

  5. Bruce Golden says:

    Richard … interesting article and perspective… I do however think many of these unemployed are effectively “gaming the system”. I know a contractor here in my county who does roofing and re-roofing…hard hard work and he is on full disability … he has located the local doctor who does “examinations” that prove disability and then uses the local lawyer who files canned disability claims. This contractor mostly uses similar “disabled” in his business so all are connected in this disability con.
    almost all of those I know and know of claiming disability do work…few just sit at home … most of the disabled(?) work in a cash only economy so our government (and we the people) do not share in the taxes that should be paid…

  6. Jason Method says:

    Thank you for the article.

    We have found, at Hope Presbyterian Church in Lawrenceville, NJ, that even in a supposed wealthy area, many struggle with employment, careers, and living costs. So it is important to help others network and offer coaching from others. We do this informally, but proactively. It is a ripe opportunity for those in, and outside of the church. One of our other elders held a successful job-hunting seminar for the community.

    We also try to provide financial coaching, as many need advice, and we’ve had to be very generous in raising money for the Deacon’s fund.

    There is always tension between getting folks to do all they should, and being generous. Such ministries can help everyone grow in faith.

    Jason…