Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
In a few days, our families will gather together and celebrate Labor Day. For a number of years now, I have prepared a labor day article for one of our local newspapers, The Examiner. In this email, I would like to share it with you.
Also, since you are receiving this email, know that you have the ability to also post to the list. So, if you have a Labor Day comment, and it is a reflection of our Catholic values, I invite you to share it with our 250+ list members.
Finally, if you have not see the 2014 USCCB Labor Day Statement, here is the link: http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/labor-employment/labor-day-statement-2014.cfm .Blessings,
Fr. Sinclair Oubre, J.C.L.
Spiritual Moderator of the Catholic Labor Network
Americans love to look upon the Statue of Liberty, and see it as a symbol of our most basic value: individual freedom. However, by only seeing the Statue of Liberty in this way, we conveniently ignore where the statue came from, and the words that are actually engraved on its base.
After all the derisive comments that we Americans make about the French, we have to acknowledge that the Statue of Liberty was a gift to the people of the United States from the people of France.
This was not the first gift that France gave the United States. The British army would have rolled up General Washington and his troops in short order if General Lafayette and French forces had not intervened. If it wasn’t for Lafayette, we would be living in the southern provinces of Canada.
The base of the Statue of Liberty does not contain a quote from Ayn Rand’s John Galt in Atlas Shrugged, proclaiming the individual’s rights and freedoms. Rather, it addresses the poor of Europe, who looked to the United States as a refuge from their crushing economic poverty, and the state of continuous war.
The second strophe of New Colossus reads:
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Sadly, before the Statue of Liberty was erected, and these words were inscribed, Americans were already reluctant to welcome the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free. This country’s citizens fought a horrific war over the humanity of enslaved Africans.
At the same time, many Americans suffered from hybernaphobia or Anti-Irish sentiments. Irish immigrants were often rebuffed by signs reading: “No Irish Need Apply.” They faced persecution, discrimination, and hatred by Americans who were already here.
On the west coast, Chinese immigrants received this same hostile welcome. Brought to the United States to meet the labor needs of the Gold Rush and the building on the transcontinental railroad, Chinese immigrant workers were looked upon with suspicion, and as a threat to white workers. In response, the US passed the Chinese Exclusion of Act of 1882, which barred immigration from China for 10 years under the penalty of imprisonment and deportation.
These very people, who were often disparaged, were the one’s who mined our gold, dug our coal, and died in our mines. They built the railroads that stitched our nation together, and died along its tracks.
This hostility to workers is not limited to immigrants. America has a history of hating their worker citizens when they have had the audacity to become visible, or insufficiently compliant.
This year, America observes the 75th anniversary of the American classic, Grapes of Wrath. Set in Oklahoma and California, John Steinbeck tells the story of the Joads as they are driven from their dirt farm in Oklahoma by the great Dust Bowl to California. In California, they are not welcomed as fellow citizens and American refugees fleeing from a great natural disaster, but as cheap labor, a burden on society, and potential victims for rogue deputies.
In our own community, both our Black and White Cajuns tell stories of discrimination because of their accent, their non-English background, and their Catholic heritage.
Looking back upon our own history, we either forget it, (the French gave us the Statue of Liberty and helped us win the Revolutionary War), or reframe it so that it focuses on hard work and success (forgetting the 130+ Chinese workers who died building the western leg of the transcontinental railroad, or the 4,000+ Irish immigrants who died of yellow fever in building the New Basin Canal in New Orleans).
I believe that we have and continue to exploit domestic and immigrant workers because we do not truly see their face. Rather, we make them objects that invade our field of vision, and prevent us from seeing the world the way we want it to be.
The great Jewish philosopher Emanuel Levinas was well aware of this human temptation. After his French unit was captured by the German army, Levinas spent the Second World War in a German prisoner of war camp. Here, he pondered the inhumanity of the Nazi’s, and their ability to torture and kill without empathizing with the humanity of the other person.
Levinas came to the insight that if one allows himself or herself to see the other person, the other person then demands that he or she be recognized as a person. “In the face, the Other expresses his eminence, the dimension of height and divinity from which he descends.” (Totality and Infinity, page 262)
On the other hand, if one blinds herself or himself to the personhood, “the face,” of the other who stands before her or him, then there are no eminence, no height or breadth, and no image of God before him or her.
As we ponder the massacres being carried out by ISIS, as we hear stories of modern slavery and human trafficking, and as we see images of bombed civilian neighborhoods, we want to scream, “How can a human being do this to another human being?” Yet the answer is as old as humanity, “They can do these things because they do not see the face or the person of the other.”
Our country continues to struggle with the tension produced by the words on the Statue of Liberty and its reaction to immigrants. With the recent influx of immigrant children, we have choices: Will we see the face of these children, and thereby see their humanity, and our divine bond as sons and daughters of God, or will we see them as other and as objects?
The Spanish philosopher, George Santayana, reminds us, “Those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat their mistakes.” Let’s remember our past with the descendants from Africa, let us remember our past with the Irish and Chinese immigrants, let us remember our past with our own Cajun grandfathers and grandmothers. If we do so, we will treat our new immigrants differently, and we will finally bring to life the words on the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me . . . ”