For most of us, the arrival of Labor Day weekend marks the bittersweet finale to the season of vacation and rest. Commentator Mark Edington usually feels wistful about summer’s end — but not this year.
Edington is rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Newtownville, Massachusetts, and director of the Amherst College Press.
I can hardly believe I’m saying this, but I’ve never been more eager for a summer to end.
Remember when summer was the season of slow news cycles? When we’d get stories about crop circles, or pie-eating contests? There’s been so much hard and heavy news this summer that you might have trouble remembering how it began.
Well, it started early, with the kidnapping of some three hundred school girls by Boko Haram in northern Nigeria. They’re still missing. But it’s been hard to remember that after June’s massacres in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Or the violence in Ukraine that looks a lot like becoming a full-scale war, after claiming the lives of 283 civilians on an airliner in July.
Then there’s been the next chapter of war between Israel and the Palestine; the collapse of South Sudan’s hope into chaos; a raging Ebola epidemic in West Africa;
eleven million displaced people in urgent need of help in Syria; the rise of a malignant jihadist movement in Iraq; the spectacle of an innocent American journalist beheaded on YouTube; the resurgence of our own worst racial injustices; and, of course, the continuing and near complete dysfunction of our own federal government.
This year, Labor Day seems more like a goal line than the end of summer. If we can just get there, maybe this will all end?
Of course, the point of Labor Day wasn’t just to create a day-off for working people, for the folks whose toil makes possible our whole prosperity. It wasn’t just to make a point about the need for fair wages or economic justice. The larger point of Labor Day is — and always was — about dignity.
When the workers marched in the streets of Lawrence in 1912, they chanted for Bread and Roses. Not only for adequate wages, but for the chance to know beauty; to experience the graceful. To have the chance to make meaning out of life, in whatever way that seemed best.
That basic idea — the deep quest for human dignity — ties together the stories of this sorrowful summer. Whether it’s the right of young women to have access to education, the right of citizens to determine not just their leaders but their laws, or the right of all people to have freedom of conscience — these are all ultimately questions of whether human dignity is essential, or merely peripheral.
Our summer of struggle leaves us facing that basic question: How do we assure the possibility of dignity for all people? How do we slow the growing divide of economic disparity: How do we make a system based on a fundamental commitment to human equality and freedom of conscience.
There’s a lot to do. I’m sort of glad it’s time to get back to work.