Since Colette, my 1998 Honda Civic, recently celebrated 217,000 miles, I worried for her health as I moved from Iowa to Boston. Instinctively, I considered whether to pull over in Maryland to give her a break from climbing upward and coasting downward, turning, and plowing through downpours. At some point I realized a rest probably would not help. My car is not human.
When things are functioning properly, the only sense in which my car gets “tired” is in running out of gas, needing an oil change, or the like. Colette does not need sleep and her muscles do not need time to repair themselves. Too much walking will not break the bones in her ankles, and if she sits too long in front of the computer, she will not get sore. If she spends a day in the sun, her dashboard might crack. She will not, however, get a sunburn or sun poisoning or develop skin cancer. The dashboard can be replaced.
Yet when things are functioning properly, the only sense in which my car is capable of anything is insofar as she can obey the laws of nature. There is no freedom involved on the part of the car. No consideration of what is good, true, or beautiful “motivates” the car’s movement, and the car does not know where she is taking her passengers or why.
Although Colette didn’t need to stretch, sleep, or talk with friends during the long drive, I did. I am not a machine, and so I am capable of choosing health, a destination, and where to stop along the way. The economic system in which I live, by contrast, tends to mistake persons for machines and mistake the economy (and economic institutions) for persons.
The United States Catholic Bishops call for the re-ordering of this relationship: ”All human beings are ends to be served by the institutions that make up the economy, not means to be exploited for more narrowly defined goals. Human personhood must be respected with a reverence that is religious. When we deal with each other, we should do so with the sense of awe that arises in the presence of something holy and sacred. For that is what human beings are: we are created in the image of God” (Economic Justice For All, 28).
Labor is a precious aspect of human life in which our power and our vulnerability both emerge. We rely on labor because we are enfleshed. Enfleshed in time, we are in constant need of energy to maintain our homeostasis. We can be hurt because we are enfleshed; we heal because we are enfleshed; we can create something that we imagine because we have bodies. We have both the need for labor and the capacity for labor because of our materiality. And it is our flesh, in its connection to our spirit, that the Lord has promised to sanctify with our co-operation.
Personal sin prevents us from co-operating with the sanctification of our own and others’ flesh. So do structures of oppression and violence form our minds, hearts, and bodies in such a way that we fail to uphold the dignity of labor.
May every human being be set free from sin and oppression — free to create, to cultivate, to advocate, to repair, to serve, to construct, to heal, to clean, and to teach — free to be fully alive, for the glory of God. May the labor of every human being contribute to this freedom for all.