LABOR DAY CELEBRATION
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Palm Springs, California
September 01, 2019 – 10:30 AM
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Genesis 23:1-6 | Song of Wisdom
1 Corinthians 3:10-13 | Matthew 25:31-46
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
When we think of Labor Day, we commonly think of unionized workers celebrating victories over oppressive employers. Those workers are certainly to be commended for their courage, their vision, and their sacrifices that brought us the forty-hour work week, minimum wage, and other labor protections. We must never lose sight of our mission as Christians to be ministers of justice, to fight against oppression and degradation of all kinds involving all workers, no matter what they do or where they are.
In the ensuing years since the beginning of the labor movement, the relationship between employers and employees, and between people and work in general, has undergone broad change and will continue to change. In the words of the song we sang to open today’s Mass, “New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth.”
One of those new occasions that teach new duties, is the massive presence of immigrants in the labor force. Time has made beyond uncouth the ancient ideas of our conservative sisters and brothers. Their ideas about immigrants are nothing but downright oppression and racism. One of those ideas is prosecuting and deporting those who enter the United States without documents. Our conservative sisters and brothers call them “illegal aliens.” I call them human persons in search of a better life for themselves and their families.
Somehow, according to those with a legalistic view of both life and religion, immigration laws are more important than human compassion. For Christians, the opposite is true. Christians, answer not to human laws, but to a higher law, that of God. In the eyes of God, compassion is justice.
For Christians, the immigration laws have become an unjust burden on people who have done nothing morally wrong. Their only so-called wrong was disobeying laws designed to maintain cultural homogeneity and/or economic advantage. Please understand: I have no problem with rounding up and confining dangerous felons and gang members. They need to be taken out of circulation to protect everyone. All nations have a right to respond to the legitimate security concerns of their inhabitants.
But I emphasize, “legitimate.” My homily today is addressed to protecting the twelve million undocumented workers who pose no threat to anyone. I refer to the millions of people whose lives are integrated into the social fabric of the United States. These people earn a paycheck, pay taxes, and support themselves and their families, and just like people with documents, they sometimes turn to the social safety net when times are bad.
Dangerous individuals excepted, every nation has the duty to welcome and care for immigrants. Why? To use a phrase common to our evangelical sisters and brothers, “The Bible tells me so.”
Starting in the Old Testament, God calls us to welcome, and care for, immigrants, whether or not they have papers. In today’s first reading, we learn about the death and burial of Sarah. She was about ninety years of age when she gave birth to Isaac. She lived to be one hundred twenty-seven. (I hope my wife lives at least that long). She died in Hebron in the land of Canaan, which would eventually become the land to which Moses led the Israelites to establish their nation. But in the days of Abraham, it was inhabited by a tribe called the Hittites. Abraham was, to them, an alien. He went there to mourn and weep for Sarah like any husband would at the death of his wife. When he arrived, he said to the Hittites, “I am a stranger and an alien residing among you; give me property among you for a burying place, so that I may bury my dead out of my sight.” The Hittites answered Abraham, “Hear us, my lord; you are a mighty prince among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our burial places; none of us will withhold from you any burial ground for burying your dead.” Here was Abraham, an outsider in distress. Rather than ask to see his papers, the Hittite inhabitants extended hospitality to Abraham by way of a burial place for his wife. On the cover of today’s booklet are the dead bodies of a father and daughter who died attempting to emigrate from Mexico into the United States. I don’t think the Federal Government offered their family a burial ground in the United States.
The Bible has lots to say about the proper treatment of immigrants. Our conservative sisters and brothers claim to be Bible-believing Christians, but they don’t know their Bible very well. The truth is, the Bible has a lot to say about immigrants and immigration. The Biblical message is very clear. Excluding and discriminating against immigrants is simply wrong. It’s what the law calls “malum in se”, meaning, bad, in and of itself.
In the book of Leviticus, we read, “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” You will recall from Biblical history that the Israelites immigrated into Egypt because they were hungry. The author of Leviticus no doubt was aware of the prior history of the Israelites. More likely than not, Leviticus was compiled sometime after five hundred forty B-C, about the time of the return of the Jews from the Babylonian exile.
The Israelites were immigrants in search of a better life for themselves and their families, just like our Latino sisters and brothers in the caravans from Central America. Both were migrating the escape oppressive regimes. You will probably recall the Exodus, that wonderful story we read at Easter Vigil, where the Jewish people are liberated from slavery under the oppressive Pharaoh where they lived in very unfavorable conditions. The author of Exodus reminds the Hebrew people not to oppress aliens because they, too, were once aliens when they were in Egypt. To paraphrase Exodus, God told the Israelites, “You must not oppress foreigners. You know what it’s like to be a foreigner, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.” If you recall the narrative of the Book of Genesis, the Jewish people experienced famine and immigrated to Egypt so they could be fed. The price, however, was to be slaves to the Egyptians. They were not welcomed as sisters and brothers in need. Instead, the Egyptians took advantage of their necessities and exploited their labor.
In telling refugees America does not welcome them, we are not allowing love to cast out fear. To contemplate love in a world now living in an age of terrorism is a challenge indeed. But history has shown us that when fear pervades a society, more often than not the society reacts unwisely by choosing and supporting strong, authoritarian political leaders who are expected to scapegoat and decimate those who are the objects of popular fears.
And let us not forget that Jesus Himself was a refugee who with His parents fled for safety into Egypt when King Herod decreed the slaughter of all male infants because Herod feared one of them would become a rival king to threaten Herod’s power. Herod was a terrorist with a crown. whose despicable decree forced the Holy Family to flee into Egypt. The Holy Family was in the same situation as refugees from Central America.
The prophet Ezekiel tells us that the children of aliens and native-born children are to be considered equals. Doesn’t that sound like something Jesus would say? So why can’t we do that here in the United States in the Twenty-First Century? We see people fleeing the poverty imposed by inadequate wages, substandard living conditions, and political oppression in Central America and elsewhere. What they have in common is that they were fleeing human inhumanity to other humans.
There is not much difference between slave labor and labor at wages not sufficient to provide a basic standard of living. And that, my friends, is the theological significance of Labor Day and why it should be celebrated by the Church at large, not just here at Saint Cecilia’s.
Labor Day, at bottom, has always been about workers not getting paid enough for their work and working under humane conditions, a theme that stretches back deeply into human history and is still with us today. Unscrupulous employers exploit undocumented workers by paying them low wages and forcing them to work in unfavorable conditions, knowing they will not complain due to fear of deportation. This employer behavior directly contradicts Catholic Social Teaching, which tells us that, if the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected, that is, the right decent and fair wages and working conditions. An immigration policy which legalizes the presence of these workers will bring a swift and sure end to the exploitation of these workers, who will feel more secure about hiring attorneys and complaining to government agencies to protect their rights.
Another angle our conservative sisters and brothers use to manipulate public opinion against immigration is telling lies to incite fear. Lying is objectively wrong. The virtue of truth is a recurring theme of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Today’s opening hymn paints a graphic picture of the ongoing struggle between truth and falsehood. And you will recall the story of Peter the Apostle on the night before Jesus was crucified. Peter denied he knew Jesus. Yet he wept in guilt after realizing he, in fact, had lied. The Devil is the father of lies and the author of fear. Yet we hear our conservative sisters and brothers serve up those sound bites on Fox News that “immigrants take jobs away from United States citizens.” The facts are, the unemployed workers of the rust belt whose political preferences do not support their economic self-interest are not lining up to take jobs that employ many undocumented workers, such as processing chickens and catfish in food factories, washing restaurant dishes, cleaning hotel rooms, and heavy manual labor in the construction industry.
Another lie we hear is that immigrants bring crime. Again, not true. There is substantial statistical evidence that, despite the publicity of particularly high profile incidents, immigrants actually commit crimes at a lower per capita rate than native-born people. While immigrant populations in the United States have been growing fast since nineteen-eighty, crime during the same period has dropped. As immigration increases in American metropolises, crime decreases. Why? Poverty, not immigration, breeds crime. Immigrants receive wages that they spend in the community and use to pay taxes, which improves the overall economic health of the communities in which they live.
We also hear from our conservative sisters and brothers that immigrants are a drain on society because allegedly, they received large amounts of social welfare benefits. Nothing could be further from the truth. According to the conservative think tank called the Cato Institute, “Overall, immigrants are less likely to consume welfare benefits and, when they do, they generally consume a lower dollar value of benefits than native-born Americans.”
From a Christian viewpoint, the social safety net is a moral imperative, not a wasteful endeavor that shames those who use it. Over the past few weeks on Facebook, I have told my friends that I will be preaching on immigration. Some of them have reacted negatively, and told me, “Why don’t you just preaching the Gospel?” Well, that is exactly what I am doing today. You heard today’s gospel beautifully sung by Deacon Sharon, where Jesus tells us with regard to how we treat strangers in need. Simply put, Today’s Gospel tells us exactly what to do.
What are we supposed to do with hungry people? Feed them.
Naked people? Clothe them.
Thirsty people? Quench their thirst.
Sick people? Take care of them.
Prisoners? Visit them.
And strangers? WELCOME THEM! Get that. WELCOME THEM. That is exactly what we’re supposed to do with immigrants. WELCOME THEM!
Welcoming immigrants into our workforce is also the right thing to do for very practical reasons. Contrary to the right-wing street version of the facts, the United States is experiencing a labor shortage, which is particularly acute for agricultural workers, again, the very work immigrants have traditionally performed. The fact is, crops are rotting in the fields in Central California. This drives up the price of food and wastes the food that hungry people need for survival. Jesus calls us to feed the hungry, but anti-immigrant policies are making that more difficult.
So what is at the root of opposition to immigration? Fear of people who are different, and in particular, people who are not white. Here’s how I know that. At the Statue of Liberty is a poem by Emma Lazarus, born in New York City to Sephardic Jewish immigrants in eighteen-forty-nine. Part of that poem, known as The New Colossus, reads, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” However, a government official, one Ken Cuccinelli, proposed re-writing that poem to include only people of European ancestry. The present government and its supporters have no desire to comprehensively reform the immigration system to give documents to undocumented workers or to make documented entry into the United States easier. That is nothing but unbridled racism. It is “cultural imperialism”, the notion that the white culture of the United States that arose among those who immigrated from Europe over a century ago is superior to that of Africa, Central and South America, and Asia. These anti-immigrant people are opposed to the presence in the United States of cultures other than theirs. They oppose the co-existence of diverse cultures, where culture includes racial, religious, or cultural groups and is manifested in customary behaviors, cultural assumptions and values, patterns of thinking, and communicative styles.
God, however, sees things differently. God loves all of humanity, regardless of race or nationality. A close-minded attitude towards other cultures has no place in a Christian community. As Paul’s Epistle to the Romans reminds us, “God shows no partiality.” The “my culture is better” movement is more often than not driven by pure fear. Many people fear those who differ from them. Fear of the unknown and fear of change are part of the human condition. For Christians, the issue is how to we respond to that fear? The answer is with unconditional love, the same kind of love God shows us. As the First Epistle of John tells us, “God is love. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”
In very simple language, any fear of another person simply because that person is different than you are, is not Christian. God does not want us to differentiate ourselves from others or exclude others from our lives based on the fear that they may incite within us because they are different from us. Saint Paul tells us in Galatians, “In Christ, there is neither male nor female nor Jew nor Greek.” That’s the approach God wants.
No matter who you are, God made you in God’s image. The Book of Genesis says it succinctly: “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” This short verse set the foundation for human rights in Western civilization for the past two thousand years. It’s why the United States’ Declaration of Independence states that all are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, namely, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Immigrants are coming to work in the United States to improve their lives, to be free of oppression, and to live happy lives. None of that depends on documents or an immigration process. Those rights come from God, not a government.
Your creation as a human person in God’s image endows you with divine dignity. That is the foundational principle of Catholic Social Teaching. As paragraph one thirty-two of the Compendium of Social Teaching tells us, “A just society can become a reality only when it is based on the respect of the transcendent dignity of the human person. The person represents the ultimate end of society. The social order and its development must invariably work to the benefit of the human person… not the other way around.”
A just immigration system must be built on those objective principles, not electoral politics. Being made in the image of God makes humans valuable by the mere fact of being created human. Only if we’re made in God’s image can we be something different than every other living thing. Being made in the image of God makes all humans equally valuable, no matter what skin color they are, where they were born, or those who their parents are.
We hear it said, over and over, that the United States is a country of laws, and that upholding that laws regarding immigration and all else is paramount. Jesus would not agree with that proposition. For Jesus, compassion and forgiveness were paramount, not respecting laws or social norms. That is what Jesus expects of us. He calls us to welcome strangers, not turn them away because they don’t have documents. My message to our government is to go and do exactly that. AMEN.