Monday, September 3, 2012

Capitalism and the Sabbath

Since today is Labor Day here in the US, I thought it would be appropriate to rerun a blogpost from last November.
    Perhaps nowhere is the clash between Capitalism and Christianity seen more clearly than on the issue of the Sabbath.
    Adam Smith famously maintained that in a free market economy an individual is "led by an invisible hand to promote an end which has no part of his attention." ". . .the study of his own advantage naturally, or rather necessarily, leads him to prefer that employment [of resources] which is most advantageous to the society" (Wealth of Nations, Book IV, Chapter II).
    Frankly, we think that this is a morally dubious proposition. Human nature is self-oriented, and self interest leads naturally to . . . the exploitation of others. Absent government regulation, an active labor movement, or some sort of moral restraint, the profit motive will lead the strong to take advantage of the weak, and frankly, leave them impoverished.
    We have been distressed to see businesses apparently acting without conscience. Convenience stores sell been, cigarettes, lottery tickets and pornography. The "entertainment" industry regularly exploits sex and violence. The food industry pushes oversized portions larded with salt, sugar and fat, creating an obesity pandemic. And most incredibly of all, we find pharmacies selling tobacco products in complete disregard for their own professional standards! It seems that all too often the public welfare is sacrificed on the altar of corporate profits.
    In the current economic crisis conditions in the labor market are especially heart-wrenching. Employers are reluctant to hire, and when the do it is often for part-time or temporary positions at entry level wages on the second shift with no benefits. We were especially appalled to find some local employers (non-union manufacturing jobs) with horrendous mandatory overtime policies. Employees are required to work up to seven days a week and from ten to twelve hours a day. One employer had its employees work 21 days straight. Overtime for the day shift can begin at 4:00 a.m. Under these conditions almost anything in the employee's personal life that requires attention can cost him his job. Apparently it is all legal here in Pennsylvania. Workers with families and obligations outside the job need not apply!
    Some of us are old enough to remember a time when there were "blue laws" – only a very few businesses providing essential public services were permitted to be open on Sundays. These laws have largely gone by the wayside, another casualty of modern "progress" and secular thinking, but in light of current conditions it might be time to bring them back.
    The Sabbath was ancient Israel's labor law. It placed certain restrictions on what an employer could demand from his employees. "Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord you God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your ox, nor your donkey, nor any of your cattle, nor your stranger that is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you" (Deut. 5:13,14; NKJV).
    Jesus once told the Pharisees, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath" (Mk. 2:27). The Sabbath essentially serves a humanitarian purpose, and it is not hard to see why.
    First of all, we need periodic rest. What our Creator knows is that physically, mentally and emotionally we need intervals between periods of work in which we can relax and refresh ourselves. We are not machines that can run continuously forever without maintenance! We work better on the other six days of the week when we have had time to rest on the seventh.
    Secondly, we need to spend time with our families. Marriages are collapsing and children are growing up without adequate parenting. We need to gather around the dinner table and reconnect. Where will America's future workers learn the values of honesty and hard work if not from their parents and churches?
    Thirdly, we need the Sabbath to keep life in its proper perspective. If all we ever do is work, if all we ever think about is money, then frankly we will become crassly materialistic and subhuman. We will sacrifice family, friends and faith on the altars of Mammon. Six days have been allotted for work, and on the seventh day we need to turn our attention to the higher concerns of life. We need to be in a house of worship thinking about God and how everything fits into the cosmic scheme of things. That, in turn, will give a sense of meaning and purpose to what we do on the other six days.
    Self-interest may be what drives the marketplace, but it is not moral. What God requires of us is a decent regard for the welfare of our fellow human beings. "Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you! . . .Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth" (James 5:1,4).

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