Rest is a radical act. Putting down the plow (or the computer) and refusing to toil any longer is downright revolutionary. Honoring the sabbath, particularly when everyone else around you disregards it, is political and institutional warfare.
Placing boundaries around one’s work and time is so jarring to societal norms because we live in a society that demands constant production. Similarly to the Israelites when they were slaves in Egypt, we are expected, no coerced, to keep turning out profit so that
Pharaoh America, can build a bigger empire. In exchange for working hard, we are told that we can expect a good life. We should expect success. But so often, the majority of us yield very little return for the time we spend toiling the empire’s soil.
This is the reality for many people in America, however, it is even more true for low income people and people of color. People who fall within these demographics often struggle to make ends meet, not because they have failed to work hard but because they have not been fairly compensated for their hard work (or because they have been so stigmatized that they have not even been able to find labor). In other words, people are working their butts off for zilch.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition’s Out of Reach 2014 report bears witness to this. The report found that in 2014, the average wage that a full time worker needed to earn in order to be able to afford a two bedroom apartment was $18.92. “This national average is more than two-and-a-half times the federal minimum wage, and 52% higher than it was in 2000. In no state can a full-time minimum wage worker afford a one-bedroom or a two-bedroom rental unit at Fair Market Rent.” According to the report, in order for a minimum wage earner to be able to afford housing they would need to work an average of 80 – 90 hours a week, depending on the state.
Most often, those who have to work like this are balancing 2 to or more jobs. Thus, hours of traveling and commute between the jobs have to be added to the already strenuous burden of a 80 – 90 hour work week leaving little time for rest or time spent with one’s family. Maria Fernandez is just one of perhaps millions of people for whom this was true. Juggling four jobs, Maria had little time to stop and put gas in her car let alone sleep. Pulling into a convenience store for a quick nap, the gas container that she kept in her car overtuned which leaked out toxic fumes that she inhaled, causing her untimely death.
This is what empire does to its people! And the even more tragic reality is that in many cases, empire does not care. People like Maria become casualties of war and imperialism; statistics that get thrown around by political pundits to advance their own agendas. Very few pay enough attention to connect the dots between Maria’s death and our country’s insatiable thirst for more, built on the backs of the poor. Enough never is enough.
At least not until the oppressed declare, “enough.” Until the oppressed rise up and resist, refusing to participate in a system that continues to exploit them, oppression endures. Until those who are held captive to mandates of working hard begin to shake its ideology and demand reciprocity, freedom, and a whole new way of being, Pharaoh will continue to demand their labor if not their very lives.
This is why the Israelites demand for liberation amidst Pharaoh’s thirst for more was so extremely radical. In fighting for their freedom, the Israelites expressed their absolute refusal to continue to be exploited by empire. They declared that they would no longer be slaves but also that they would no longer participate in the economics of the empire by exiting the land.
It is not enough to be liberated from the physical chains of slavery if the economic structures that were created as a result of slavery remain intact. If the economic structures remain as they are, one has to either leave the land, as in the case of the Israelities, or refuse to participate in it. Otherwise, our freedom is not really freedom, but new forms of slavery that continue to demand our labor (minimum wage job earners) and our blood (mass incarceration and police brutality).
What would that refusal look like for millions of Americans whose bodies are exploited for profit every single day? What would rejecting the ideology of working hard mean particularly when, in many cases, to not work like a maniac comes with its own set of consequences?
To me, refusal sometimes simply looks like ‘no.’ No to Pharaoh, no to the cultural expectation to work til I drop, no to the urge to add another demand, another meeting, another project, to an already overflowing plate. And ‘yes,’ yes to self-care, boundaries, relationships, healing, and long life. Yes to rest even when Pharaoh tells me that I should be working.
Is no radical? Yes – it is. When you say ‘no’ to Pharaoh and ‘yes’ to true freedom, love and happiness, trust and believe that he will not be happy. As in the case of the Israelites, no often comes with retaliation and sometimes further exploitation. This means that fighting to say no just so that you can rest comes with a cost. But it is a cost we must be willing to bear if we will ever secure the justice that we all fight so passionately about.
So today, I am saying no. In spite of the cost my no may entail, I proclaim it so that I may be truly freed from an economic system that continues to hold me captive. And Pharaoh? Pharaoh can go kick rocks.