Du Bois, Martha and Mary: The Message of Work We Perpetuate

15268-hard-work-doesnt-guarantee-successLately, well at least the last few days, I have been meditating on the concept of rest and play. Lord knows that I work too hard, every day, all day, and hardly leave enough room for the two in my life. As I spent time in my Word just this week, I mediated on Jesus’ words in Mark 6 – “Come away by yourselves to a secluded place and rest a while.” I told myself that this is what I needed and then spent the next 48 hours doing anything but, thinking that I simply had too much to do to rest.

Before going to bed last night, I pulled out a book I had been reading for a least a month – the Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B du Bois. Most of what I read, I could barely make sense of because I was just too tired and exhausted. But du Bois’ prophetic writing got my attention as I read these words:

“Among this people (black people) there is no leisure class… here ninety-six per cent are toiling, no one with leisure to turn the bare and cheerless cabin into a home, no old folks to sit beside the fire and hand down traditions of the past; little of careless, happy childhood and dreaming youth. The dull monotony of daily toil is broken only by the gayety of the thoughtless and the Saturday trip to town (or Friday night outing to Barnes and Noble). The toil, like all farm toil, is monotonous, and here there are little machinery and few tools to relieve its burdensome drudgery. But with all this, it is work in the pure open air, and this is something in a day when fresh air is scarce.”

In one paragraph, du Bois summed up my life and my family’s life up to this point. The moments of leisure and rest are few and far between and we usually force ourselves upon them, feeling utterly guilty (at least me) when we are not toiling that cursed soil (Gen. 3). Unable to find a fulltime permanent livable wage job, my husband pieces together work here and there, sometimes working between 70 – 80 hours a week. I recently took on an additional seasonal job, in addition to my fulltime work, just to earn a little extra money to pay outstanding hospital bills from last summer’s c-section. All of this does not speak of the time that we spend strategizing how we will get beyond this current point, looking for jobs, filling out resumes, networking (for my husband), or just cultivating relationships with family and friends, cooking, cleaning, writing, and the list of duties, responsibilities, and work goes on and on and on.

I know my family’s experience is not unique – many families of color and low income families spend their lives doing the same. Working. Toiling. Laboring. Just to barely thrive. Just to put food on the table, gas in the car, and clothes on our back. We are not living lavish lifestyles, neither do we wish to. We just want to get to a point where our income exceeds our expenses. It seems like a fleeting pipedream.

In spite of our hard work, the message that we keep receiving is that we are not working hard enough. Politicians, policymakers, government leaders, and generally that impenetrable 1% alike keep saying that the proof is in our lack of means, and blame our inability to make it on our lack of education, training and sexual habits – all untruths that misdirect the culpability of this inequity and place blame on the victim instead of the perpetrators of injustice.

After all of this, I go to pray. Mostly because its bed time and I need to say something to God before I go to sleep even if it was a few unintelligible words. But as I pray and reflect, I think about the passage in Luke 10 on Martha and Mary. I think about the cultural demands on women in that time (and throughout time) that forced them into a servant class, waiting on men left and right, cooking, cleaning, being the sole responsibility of their children and other things. These expectations, not Martha’s type-A personality or need to please, was what drove her to opt for keeping house as opposed to resting at Jesus’ feet like Mary did. In fact, we have to realize that Mary took a risk, placing herself among the men, positioning herself as if she was their equal in intellect, status and class.

Martha expected Jesus to rebuke Mary for her insolence. I am sure that any other man would have done that. Instead, Jesus challenges cultural norms and expectations and gives Mary permission to rest. His example invites Martha, and people bond to cultural demands everywhere to do the same. Rest. Shed the burdens and expectations of the society that surrounds you. Play and don’t feel guilty doing so. Just be and resist the demand to do.

The reality is that we live in a society that day in and out gives us a different message that is contrary to Jesus’ invitation to rest. People of color, immigrants, low income people and all of those who are economically vulnerable in any way, hear on a daily basis that they are not working hard enough.  And then society and powerful structures reinforce the need for people to work harder by keeping wages abysmally low, arguing that raising the minimum wage to even $9.50 an hour (mind you this is NOT a livable wage) will hurt job creation. In Minnesota, a family cannot subsist on minimum wage working a regular 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. No, that family will have to work upwards of 80 hours a week, oftentimes more than 90 just to afford a two bedroom market rate apartment. This is not rest, nor does it give room for people to rest. Its craziness.

I guess what I am trying to say is that our society needs to get to a point where rest and leisure is not just for the rich but for everyone. We need to get to a place where we are not driven by work 24/7 and make space to enjoy this beautiful creation that God made for all of us. Travel, art, museums, books, music, and sports, are all expressions of God’s creativity and reflect His glory throughout the world. We all should be able to access this simply for pleasure’s sake.

But of course rest has other benefits. Longer lifespans. Decreased stress and disease and better health outcomes. Higher quality of life. This makes rest even more important and likewise demands that we do something about the messages of work that this society perpetuates.

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