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home : opinion : perspectives

9/7/2017 9:00:00 AM
OUR NEIGHBORS' FAITH
'Radical solidarity:' Labor Day and how to love our neighbor
BY REV. EMILY MCNEILL


In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is asked a profound question: "Who is my neighbor?"

The person asking is a lawyer, and he is seeking clarification on his duty to "love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself."

As He often does, Jesus answers with a story. He describes a man who is beaten and robbed on the road to Jericho. Two religious leaders pass by him and do nothing, before a Samaritan -- a minority disliked by Jesus' audience -- finds the man and takes care of him.

The story of the Good Samaritan articulates one of the core values of the Christian faith: that we are our siblings' keepers. We have a responsibility for one another's well-being, the scope of which transcends the economic, cultural and political lines that divide us.

To answer the lawyer's question, anyone in need is our neighbor.

The word "solidarity" doesn't appear in the Bible, but I believe this modern concept is an apt description of what Jesus meant by loving our neighbor. In celebrating Labor Day, those of us who follow Jesus can learn from past and present workers' struggles about what it means to practice solidarity and love of neighbor -- not just interpersonally, but in our relationship to society as a whole.

The term "solidarity" dates back to the mid-19th century, and as the labor movement grew with the industrialization of the United States, it became a core principle of unions. For the union movement, solidarity is partly pragmatic. Workers who are fighting for better wages and working conditions only have the power to win concessions from their bosses if they are united. As the labor hymn "Solidarity Forever" puts it, "What force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one, but the union makes us strong."

But to see union solidarity as self-interest misses a greater moral contribution that organized labor has made to American society. At their best, unions have been voices of conscience, advocating for the poor and dispossessed. A commitment to solidarity helped inspire thousands of workers throughout history to risk imprisonment, injury and death so that poor and working people could have a better life.

The founder of the International Workers of the World, Eugene Debs, was part of the tradition of worker leaders who saw unions as part of a greater struggle for equality and opportunity that would not be complete until all people's basic needs were met.

When he was convicted under the Sedition Act in 1918 -- one of many times he was imprisoned for his union and political organizing -- Debs said this to the court: "Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on Earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free."

In Debs' time and our own, this radical expression of solidarity runs counter to American individualism and the profit-driven logic of capitalism. It resonates, though, with the teachings of our faith and the words of Jesus, who also identified Himself with the poor, the outcast and the prisoner.

In this time of division in our nation and world, Labor Day is an opportunity to recommit to the practice of solidarity and loving our neighbor - not only through acts of mercy like the Samaritan showed on the Jericho road, but also through joining the struggles for justice of those Jesus called "the least of these."

(The Rev. McNeill is the executive director of the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State. Co-chaired by Bishop Emeritus Howard J. Hubbard of the Albany Diocese, the non-partisan coalition is a statewide movement for social, racial and economic justice, grounded in moral and democratic values. Learn more at https://laborreligion.org.)





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