Just Economics on Labor
This Sunday is the Labor Sunday, and Monday is Labor Day. It is one of the national holidays, and as a nation, we honor the working people. In the late 19th century, as the Industrial Revolution took hold and the U.S. moved away from an agrarian society to a manufacturing society, people moved away from independent farmers to hourly laborers. As trade unions came into being to protect the workers, they pushed for recognizing the importance of laborers. They advocated setting a day aside to celebrate the contribution of those who work.
However, U.S. history on labor is filled with oppression and violence. Every major company, including Carnegie and Ford, all profited unfairly off the backs of underpaid workers. The reason child labor laws came into existence is because young children were forced to work in dangerous textile factories for pennies. Ford even hired thugs to beat up the workers who were striking for better wages and working conditions. Many died in the early labor protests. Today, anti-union sentiment is at its highest as workers are experiencing less legal protection than ever before, especially in the hospitality industry.
The laws in the Old Testament books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy tell a story of Israelites escaping Egyptian slavery and attempting to create a new economic society. The ideas such as working only six (6) days a week and having a day of rest were revolutionary. The idea that the alien servant in your home is to have a day of rest was unheard of. However, the most amazing idea to create an equitable economic system was the Year of Jubilee, when all the land returned to its previous owners every 50 years. If during the 50 years, if your family had to sell the land to survive, then you got the land back, and if you gained a lot of land during the 50 years, then you gave them back to those who owned it 50 years earlier. This created an equitable society where no one was permanently poor. However, there is no evidence that this was ever practiced.
In the New Testament, we see another revolutionary challenge of the economic system of the day. If a family was short on money, they often sold a member of their family into slavery until the owed money was worked off. In most of Europe, there was a cap of ten (10) years limit on enslaving someone. However, this limit did not apply if you had a slave from another country or region of the world. Usually, an alien was without any protection and could be held for their entire life. This reflected the xenophobia sense of superiority every culture had over another.
However, Paul challenges that when he sends Onesimus, a runaway slave, back to Philemon. It is clear that Onesimus had not worked off the entirety of his debt, and he still owed Philemon some years of labor. While on the surface, it appears that Paul is upholding the slavery system by forcing Onesimus, the slave, to return to Philemon, his owner. This was how it was argued by the southern churches in support of slavery prior to Civil War. However, in reality, Paul is turning the slavery system on its head.
Paul says that he is returning Onesimus not as a slave but as a “brother” to Philemon. Paul is not just saying that Onesimus is a “brother in faith” to indicate that they both now share the same faith, but because they now share a faith, they are a family. Paul ups the ante by elevating their relationship from economic relationship to spiritual relationship. By saying that Onesimus is a “brother,” Paul has freed him. The laws of most European countries were that you could not enslave a relation. Paul has made it impossible for Philemon to demand full slave service from Onesimus. This officially frees Onesimus.
Onesimus is now willing to go back and serve Philemon, but it will be of his own volition. Philemon is now asked to treat him as a family member and care for Onesimus’ well-being. They no longer have an economic relationship, haves vs. have nots, but now they are brothers sharing in mutual care and sharing everything equally.
Scripture is challenging our modern-day understanding of labor. Rather than minimum wage, we should be talking about equitable sharing of the benefit of labor. The Church must stand up, not only for better wages but a paradigm shift on how we think about labor as means of sharing the wealth.