Monday, September 05, 2005

Labor Day Thoughts

"Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country." —— U.S. Department of Labor

Given the lessening clout of the labor unions in general, I propose that we think instead about the labors we have as a country to improve our national well-being. With the desolation wrought by Hurricane Katrina across four states, and the remembrance of the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks next weekend, it seems worthwhile to meditate on where we as a people need to improve.

Several writers have commented on the moral collapse in New Orleans:
This is a meme that will likely continue for a while. I know it's something I've been thinking about this week while looking for some concrete way to turn frustration into positive action.

Although I work in New Jersey, I supervise two employees who live and work in the vicinity of Pascagoula, MS. Both were incommunicado for several nerve-wracking days; one checked in on Wednesday morning, the other on Friday morning. Praise God both are safe and have homes they can live in. Last Wednesday morning, before I knew they were safe, I was anxious and frustrated that I couldn't do anything to help them other than pray and send money (I'm donating via the Salvation Army, UMCOR, and our company relief fund).

Seeing the pictures of the disorder in New Orleans got me thinking, though, because they reminded me of the ghetto riots in the late sixties as well as the riots in Los Angeles following the Rodney King beating trial. The pathology on display in New Orleans is hardly unique to that city, but exists all over the United States, especially in large urban areas.

I happen to live near Camden, where even dedicated social workers and church activists are starting to admit that after forty years and millions of dollars spent on welfare and social services, they haven't made an appreciable difference in the city's slums. I heard one minister comment that the only thing left to do is pray, since nothing they've been doing works anymore —— if it ever did. He went on to say that perhaps the church's efforts (in our case, United Methodist) had gone too far in providing value-neutral assistance just like the government, leaving out the Gospel message and its emphasis on an individual's salvation and accountability. This is pretty much the approach prescribed in the denomination's Social Principles. For example, this paragraph on Poverty states,
Therefore, we do not hold poor people morally responsible for their economic state. To begin to alleviate poverty, we support such policies as: adequate income maintenance, quality education, decent housing, job training, meaningful employment opportunities, adequate medical and hospital care, and humanization and radical revisions of welfare programs.
I sometimes wonder if mainline Protestant professional do-gooders hold poor people responsible for anything: victimhood is writ large in the policies supported above. Note the emphasis on creating utopia through government policies, with no imperative for direction action such as missionary work. I think John Wesley (not to mention William Booth) would be appalled. At least the United Methodist Committee on Relief is rather more pragmatic.

Fortunately, there are direct ways to improve society. My favorite is Habitat for Humanity, with its emphasis on providing a hand up rather than a hand-out. Our church has covenanted with Metro Camden HFH to build a house this year. I intend to be on that work team, as well as supporting it financially.

It's easy to focus on just one catastrophe such as Katrina or the tsunami, and forget to support the day-to-day efforts of charities closer to home. While I was writing checks this week, I also dropped a couple to my local Salvation Army and American Red Cross chapters. Won't you?

P.S. If you'd like some positive news about your tax dollars providing relief on the Gulf Coast, check out DefenseLink.