“Remember to keep the Sabbath day holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. The seventh day is a Sabbath to Yahweh your God, you shall do no work that day” (Exodus 20:8-10).
How many times have you sat during a service only to hear some minister preach on this particular biblical passage? More than likely you heard the good reverend expound the virtues of honoring the commandment by worshipping God on Sunday.
You probably heard a sermon that advocated obeying the commandment so that a day could be carved out of our busy lives to study God’s word and worship God’s holy name. Or maybe the minister’s homily emphasized the importance of spending a day in fellowship with family and fellow believers.
Whatever message you heard, it probably emphasized taking a day off. But such sermons betray the fact that the vast majority of us have been taught to read the biblical text through the eyes of those who are economically privileged.
Justo González, a colleague and scholar, provides us with an alternative interpretation. He recounts a sermon heard at a church composed mostly of poor Hispanic parishioners. The minister began by asking how many within the congregation worked four days last week. Five days? Six days? Few in the congregation were able to raise their hands to any of these questions.
Then the minister asked how many would have wanted to work six days last week but were unable to find employment. Almost every hand went up. To this response, the minister asked, “How, then, are we to obey the law of God that commands that we shall work six days, when we cannot even find work for a single day?”
The privilege of having employment influences how we read the text, thus the dominant culture’s emphasis on taking a day off. These poor Latinos and Latinas teach those with economic privilege that God’s commandment is more than the capricious imposition of a deity to choose one day in seven to do nothing.
Rather, God establishes symmetry and balance in the created order. Working six days is counterbalanced with resting one. When we read this text from the position of economic privilege, we assume employment. We are blinded to the reality that segments of our society lack opportunities for gainful employment due to their race and ethnicity. By imposing upon the text our assumptions of class privilege, we are oblivious to the first part of the commandment, “six days you shall labor.”
Consider the unemployment figures released by the U.S. Department of Labor on Nov. 5. We all know that the report confirmed a 9.6 percent unemployment rate – a conservative number when we consider those who have given up looking for jobs or are working at part-time positions. What we probably missed is who is disproportionately unemployed.
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According to the report, 8.8 percent of the unemployed are white, below the national average. Blacks represent 15.7 percent and Hispanics represent 12.6 percent. These figures force us to deal with the failure of our society in keeping God’s commandment, “six days you shall labor.”
Our entire economic system comes into question. For our economy to work at top efficiency, an “acceptable” unemployment rate is required, usually at 5 percent. In fact, when the unemployment rate drops too low, the stock market gets jittery and begins a downward turn. Why? Because more money must be spent to attract workers.
Full national employment means companies are paying too much to attract and retain employees, which negatively affects their profits. When we consider that those who are unemployed are disproportionately people of color, we realize that our economic system is geared to prevent certain segments of our population from keeping God’s commandment, “six days you shall labor.”
Corporate America needs a reserve army of under-skilled and under-educated laborers to keep wages depressed. Why then are we surprised with the nation’s high school dropout rates? According to a study released in May 2009 by the Center for Labor Studies, conducted by the Department of Economics at Northeastern University, our nation had a 16 percent dropout rate in 2007. Within the black community the dropout rate was 18.8 percent. Within the Latino and Latina community, the rate was 30.1 percent.
Imagine what would happen if the white community suffered a 30.1 percent dropout rate. All of the nation’s resources would be made available to reverse this national tragedy. Failing our white children is unacceptable! Fortunately, these are not white students but students of color that benefit our stock portfolios if they remain under-educated and under-skilled so when they grow up, they can keep wages depressed.
We are naïve to think that the fourth commandment deals with taking a day off and going to church. To read the Bible through the eyes of those whose unemployment strengthens our retirement portfolios is to find divine condemnation.
Miguel A. De La Torre is professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology in Denver.