Free Time/Free People Statement

Rabbi Arthur Waskow


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Americans today work longer, harder, and more according to someone else's schedule than they did thirty years ago. We are all witnesses to the rise of an economy that instead of serving human needs, dehumanizes many of us.

Our religious traditions teach that human beings need time for self-reflective spiritual growth, for loving family, and for communal sharing. And the earth itself needs time to rest. Today's high-stress economy and culture — damaging to workers and toxic to the earth — preclude this sort of spiritual deepening.

We call upon our own spiritual communities to undertake a campaign for FREE TIME/ FREE PEOPLE — affirming our religious obligation to change the present patterns of overwork.

We call upon American political, economic, and cultural leaders —

  • — to reduce the hours of work imposed on individuals without reducing their income;

  • — to strongly encourage the use of more free time in the service of family, community, and spiritual growth;

  • — and to make work itself sacred by securing full employment in jobs with decent income, healthcare, dignity, and self-direction.

We call upon religious communities to reach out to the labor movement, environmentalists, women's organizations, forward-looking business leaders, neighborhood and community-based organizations, and family-oriented groups to secure these changes in American life.

We ourselves will work to advance these goals of FREE TIME/ FREE PEOPLE, and will make available information on how individuals, religious congregations, other groups, and our society as a whole can take steps to free time for family, free time for community, and free time for personal renewal.



For many of us, the hardest work we do is finding time to rest.

As the folk-singer Charlie King says, "What ever happened to the 8-hour day? When did they take it away? . . . When did we give it away?"

This is no anecdotal oddity of the driven baby-boomers. In The Overworked Americans, Juliet Schor reported in analytic detail how most Americans work longer, harder, and more according to someone else's schedule than they did thirty years ago. This life-situation crosses what we usually see as class lines: Single mothers who are working at minimum wages for fast-food chains feel desperately overworked, and so do wealthy brain surgeons.

Why is this happening? Because doing, making, profiting, producing, and consuming have been elevated into idols. While corporate profits have zoomed and the concentration of wealth has increased, real wages have remained stagnant for twenty years, and the pressure has intensified to work harder and longer, just to stay in the same place. Varied communities and cultures, eco-systems and habitats, regional economies and grass-roots citizenry have all suffered from the voracity of these idols.

At the root of our religious and spiritual traditions is a critique of these idolatries. We know that human beings need time for self-reflective spiritual growth, for loving family, and for communal sharing. And the earth itself needs to be nurtured by human communities that allow for it to rest, to renew itself from meeting human needs. Yet the workings of American society work increasingly to squeeze dry the time for spirit, family, and community.

What Americans need is Free Time to renew what it means to be a Free People:

    • Free Time for hands-on childrearing and for loving rather than violent or disconnected family relationships;
    • Free Time for neighborliness in neighborhoods;
    • Free Time for personal spiritual growth;
    • Free Time for active citizen participation;

In short, a self-renewing rhythm of time to help individuals and society heal from overstress and burnout.

"Free time" means not only the nourishment of freer individuals, but the nurturing of a free people — a society — that can take joy in family and community, govern itself democratically, achieve social justice, heal the environment, and seek its spiritual growth.

And Free Time has an effect upon work-time as well. To feel a sense of dignity at work and to feel that our work is worthy and sacred requires that we see ourselves as free human beings. Only people who have some time free from work to shape loving families, caring communities, and self-reflective spiritual growth can see their work as itself a worthy partnership with the Creator in co-creation of the world. Without that sense of dignity, rooted in economic as well as spiritual realities, work becomes ill-paid, ill-respected, dishonored, and degrading, rather than dependable, financially sustaining, meaningful, honorable.

Moreover, a society driven by work is likely —as ours does — to treat the earth, the air, the oceans as mere objects and tools of work and exploitation, rather than sacred aspects of Creation. Free Time is essential to the healing of the earth, as well as the healing of society.

Much of the public dialogue in America worries more about unemployment or "disemployment" than about overwork. But the two are intimately connected:

  • Many of us, because many jobs are badly paid or are chopped up into "temporary" or "part-time" jobs by employers seeking to avoid paying benefits, feel forced to take two or three part-time jobs, each of them inadequate and ill-paid, in order to make barely enough money to meet our basic needs. In this way, "underwork" drives people into overwork.
  • Where employers feel themselves not accountable to the public or the labor movement, some ignore or evade existing laws that restrict "overtime," and force workers into working longer hours for less pay than laws on the books provide.
  • And many of us, when employers increase profits by "downsizing," find themselves working far harder and longer to replace one or two workers who have been dismissed.

Overwork is not the degradation of one social or economic class alone. From well-paid brain surgeons to single mothers serving fast-food hamburgers, many Americans feel driven.

If jobs with adequate income and dignity were available to all, no one would be forced into overwork. If our culture affirmed dignity more than greed, few would be seduced into overwork.

The Bible: Free Time, Open Space

The Biblical tradition teaches how to shape such a society:

On the one hand,

"Keep the day of Sabbath-ceasing, by hallowing it, as YHWH has commanded you. For six days you are to serve and do all your work; but the seventh day is Sabbath-ceasing for YHWH your God — you are not to do any work. Not you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, nor your donkey, nor any of your animals, nor your sojourner that is within your gates — in order that your male and female servants may rest as one-like-yourself. You are to bear in mind that serf were you in the land of Egypt [or "Narrow-Place"; in Hebrew, the word for "Egypt" also means "tight-and-narrow"] . . . therefore YHWH commands you to observe the day of Sabbath-ceasing." (Deut. 5: 12-14)

And when it comes to work:

"Now when you harvest the harvest of your land, you are not to finish to the edge of your field in harvesting, the full-gathering of your harvest you are not to gather; your vineyard you are not to glean, the breakoff of your vineyard you are not to gather. — Rather, for the afflicted and the sojourner you are to leave them, I am YHWH your God!" (Lev. 19: 9-10)

"When you cut down your harvest in your field, and you forget a sheaf in the field, you are not to return to get it; for the sojourner, for the orphan and the widow it shall be. . . . You are to bear in mind that serf were you in the land of Egypt/Narrow-Place, therefore I command you to do this thing!" (Deut. 24: 19-22)

In Biblical tradition, every landless person — most famously, Ruth the Moabite, immigrant from a despised nation — was entitled to walk onto the land of any farmer, to glean and eat from the corners of the field and whatever the harvesters had missed. This was not Boaz' charity. It was law. And Ruth's work was not demeaning, it was the work that most people of that era did.

Ruth's ability to do this honorable work depended on the regular field-workers' limiting themselves in their own work: They put limits in space as well as the Sabbath limits in time upon their work. They did not pursue every ounce of economic efficiency, nor did they overwork themselves to gather every grain of barley. For their work to be honorable, they had to allow Ruth the space for honorable work. For Ruth to be able to rest and renew her spiritual life, she had to know that honorable work was available.

Honorable work, and restful renewal: both aspects of responsibility. Ruth, like every other citizen or foreigner, like every worker, even the earth itself and all its life-forms, was entitled and obligated to make Shabbat, the Sabbath. Time for self-reflection, time for family, community, and citizenship, time for God and spiritual pursuits.

And this need for rest was not felt by human beings alone. The earth itself, says the Bible (in Leviticus 25) is entitled to rest. One full year of every seven, the earth must be given time to rest. No organized sowing or reaping; human beings could eat what they had stored up in advance, or what the earth gave freely as it had millennia before to hunting-gathering societies. For one year, no slaves, no bosses. Rest for human beings from their toil, rest for human society from its hierarchies, rest for the Earth from its being simply used.

And what if human beings refused to allow this resting? Then, says Leviticus 26, the earth will get to rest anyway — on their heads! Through famine, drought, exile, disaster, the earth would rest. This law of rest is not merely being nice; it is the law of gravity.

What do we mean by time for restful self-reflection? Do we mean turning away from community and society into individualistic fantasies and the mass media — or into a rhythm that society itself could breathe in, a rhythm that would breathe society? Let us hear what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote about the Sabbath:

To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money, . . . on which man avows his independence of that which is the world's chief idol . . . a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow men and the forces of nature — is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for man's progress than the Sabbath?

(The Sabbath [Farrar Straus and Young, 1951], pp. 27-29.)

The Spiritual Challenge

Doing, working, making are not intrinsically evil. Modernity has made possible much that is valuable. But a society that never pauses to catch its breath and reflect on its values, never pauses to love and affirm community and family — such a society makes Making into a grotesque mockery and turns production, consumption, and overwork into idols.

Religious and spiritual communities can help individuals, families, congregations, and neighborhoods change this pattern in their own lives. Indeed. we have a special obligation to each other as members of communities of faith to help strengthen our spiritual lives in this direction. Together we can move in the direction of sharing work, encouraging rest, strengthening family and community, and living more simply — rather than piling up still more and more costly material goods by working yet harder and harder, longer and longer.

To do this, we will need to strengthen the spiritual life that arises through far more joyful festivals, far more deeply loving families, and far more soul-satisfying prayer and meditation. For those who are spiritually famished are almost certain to gobble up material goods; the spiritually well-fed can more easily choose to limit their material intake.

But such changes within our own communities of faith will be extremely hard to protect so long as we are vulnerable to overwhelming cultural and economic pressures to reward only Production/ Consumption with money and with prestige.

So to protect the sphere of Being, religious and spiritual communities must also take action to change the social institutions that make for the idolatry of Doing.

What Can We Do?

We must seek for everyone what Ruth the Moabite received: the right to time for self-renewal in family, neighborhood, community, and spiritual life, rooted in the right to a decent and honorable job with a decent and honorable income.

How do we in our high-technology society achieve what the Bible describes for farmers, shepherds, and tree-keepers?

One key to winning the changes is to shape coalitions among groups that now see each other as alien, or hostile. The well-off and the poor both suffer from being driven into overwork; so they can work together to end it.

So we invite labor unions, family-oriented groups, women's organizations, environmental organizations, and forward looking business leaders to join in a campaign for Free Time/ Free People.

The creation of Free Time could be accomplished in many different ways. One of them, however, we regard as profoundly and strategically important: making more time available for face—to-face neighborhood and community volunteer activism.

Such a beginning would free volunteers to put new effort into grass-roots democratic change and grass-roots communities and institutions, like our congregations themselves. It would make possible more grass-roots effort to achieve Free Time.

And it would give new breathing-time to many overworked and many ill-worked people to once more meet their neighbors, renew their own selves, and rediscover their deepest visions of a sacred world.


This statement was developed by an inter-religious consulting committee initiated by The Shalom Center, 6711 Lincoln Drive, Philadelphia PA 19119.

Additional signatures are welcome. Send them to the address above, with addresses, phone numbers, Email addresses, and organizational affiliations (for identification only)

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