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A Christian Understanding of Work


Proverbs 6: 6-11
2nd Thessalonians 3:6-15
John 9:1-5

Several decades ago we began hearing of the “Protestant Work Ethic.” Some people thought they had come upon the notion among early-day Protestants that material prosperity was a sign, even the sign, of God’s favour. Christians were to work hard and prosper in order to secure God’s favour, or to give evidence that they had already secured it. In addition the so-called Protestant Work Ethic was supposed to have boosted the modern addiction known as “workaholism.” Workaholics don’t merely work hard; they work compulsively. (Plainly a psychiatric judgement has been rendered here, since compulsiveness is a manifestation of neuroticism.) Workaholics are obsessed with work; they work fifteen hours per day, day-in and day-out, sacrificing spouse, children and health. If they work any less they feel guilty and unworthy. Their holidays are the most stressful time of the year for them, which holidays they customarily abbreviate in order to flee back to work. They need work the way a “junkie” needs cocaine. (I want to say in passing that the so-called Protestant Work Ethic, the notion that work justifies us before God can’t be found anywhere in the thought of the Protestant Reformers.)

Some people maintain that the bad publicity surrounding the “P.W.E.” has precipitated a pendulum swing all the way over into the opposite extreme: people are reacting to work-addiction by escaping into non-work-addiction. Work is now done less well, less responsibly, less conscientiously. Work now appears often to be regarded like diphtheria: to be avoided if at all possible. The ultimate paradox and perversity, of course, is the person who works ever so hard at avoiding work.

Where do we stand as Christians?

I: — In the first place we must acknowledge that work is a divine ordinance. According to scripture God ordains that we work, men and women. (Homemaking is work; in fact it’s hugely important work, and remains work whether done by housewives or househusbands.) Work is as much a part of the God-instituted order as is the earth’s revolving around the sun. God commands us to work. His command is a blessing. Work is therefore good, and good for us in that it enhances our humanness. God has made us working creatures.

Yet not everyone has thought this to be the case. The ancient Greeks regarded work as demeaning, beneath highborn men and women. Aristotle insisted that no one be allowed citizenship unless he had forsaken trades work for at least ten years. Philosophers like Aristotle should have to do no more than reflect. In the Middle Ages in Europe work was considered beneath an aristocrat. Jesus, on the other hand, was a labourer. Paul was a tentmaker. And since King Saul, royal ruler of all Israel , was found ploughing behind oxen, it’s plain that the Greek and Hebrew minds are polar opposites with respect to work. The Hebrew mind insists that work is good; God, after all, works himself, and has constituted us working creatures whose humanness is threatened by non-work. Without work we lack something essential to human wholeness.

It’s for this reason that unemployment is so very serious. The worst consequence of unemployment isn’t poverty (dreadful as poverty is); rather it’s loss of self-esteem. As self-esteem evaporates, self-deprecation sets in. Demoralization follows. Soon the unemployed feel themselves dehumanized, even disgraced. (I noted years ago that when church members lose their job they often cease attending worship, and reconnect with church life only when they are employed once more.) Not to work, not to be able to work, not be allowed to work is to be on the road to inner fragmentation.

Admittedly, however, there are some people who don’t want to work. Work is too much bother. They’d rather be kept. They won’t work as long as they can sponge off their parents, off their children, off their disability or employment insurance, off government “goodies.” (Let me make a parenthetical comment here. In my experience the poor are rarely those who sponge off the social welfare system. The poor — who are as intelligent as anyone else — lack the social sophistication and the social contacts need to exploit the social welfare system. The poor customarily lack access to the levers that have to be “pulled” in order to make the social welfare coffers ring; lacking such access, they lack the opportunity to exploit. Those who are adept at finessing the system, I have found, are those who have the “tools” needed to pry money loose where they know it is kept. The middle class, I have discovered, is more adept at exploiting social provision than the poor.)

The apostle Paul came upon some people in Thessalonica who had decided not to work. “We hear that some of you are living in idleness,” he remarked, “mere busybodies, not doing any work.” His approach to them was blunt: “If you don’t want to work, don’t expect to eat.” God ordains work. It’s good to work.

II: — But is work good without qualification? Is work always and everywhere good? We frequently hear work spoken of as a curse. People who speak like this have seized half a truth: work itself isn’t a curse, but in a fallen world (according to Genesis 3) work lies under a curse.

When we speak of a fallen world we mean a world that rebels against God; a world that defies him, disdains his way and word and truth; a world that flaunts its disobedience of him. Such a world can’t fail to be characterized by greed and deceit, hostility and strife. In such a world work becomes an occasion of frustration, and the workplace a battleground. God intends work to be the sphere wherein humankind exercises its stewardship of the creation and cooperates under him for humankind’s well-being. In a fallen world, however, God’s purpose is contradicted, with the result that work becomes the scene of self-seeking and quarrelling, exploitation and rancour. In a fallen world the blessing of work is riddled with the curse of frustration and hostility.

We moderns have short memories. We tend to forget that only 150 years ago children worked fourteen hours per day in factories and mines under conditions so very dangerous and damaging as almost to defy description. Only 150 years ago? That long ago in Britain and continental Europe , but today in so many countries of the world children are granted no relief.

My grandfather began working for a major automaker almost from the beginning of car manufacturing — in other words, in the days before the autoworkers’ union. A car engine, weighing several hundred pounds, travelling on an overhead conveyor, would fall from time to time and crush a worker on the assembly line underneath it. When workmates bent over the bleeding pulp ( i.e., what was left of the man) a company official would hasten to the scene and snarl, “Get that thing (the mangled worker) off the line and get back to work.” My grandfather used to tell me of loading freshly painted car axles onto railway boxcars throughout the morning. By noon he had wet paint up to his elbows. At lunchtime he wasn’t allowed to wash his hands: there was no provision for washing. A company official would walk throughout the factory, and then point out to the foreman a worker whom the foreman was to suspend without pay for three weeks. The worker had done nothing wrong. The company policy, however, was to promote a “reign of terror” designed to keep workers cowering before sheer arbitrariness. (Needless to say, the suspended worker had a family to support.) When workers attempted to organize in order to protect themselves, company officials had Walter Reuther and his brother (the first leaders of the autoworkers’ union) beaten so badly they were both hospitalized for six months.

“That’s old stuff,” someone objects; “we live in a different era.” It isn’t so different that the workplace has ceased to be a scene of frustration and hostility. Ralph Nader, the American lawyer and advocate who represents consumers (he was also a presidential candidate in the last USA election), exposed dangerous defects in consumer goods only to have private detectives “tail” him night and day hoping to catch him in “compromise”; i.e., a situation with a woman which could then be used to ruin him and destroy his credibility. This operation continued for months, companies always denying it. It was only in the light of public exposure and a threatened lawsuit that Nader’s harassment ceased.

But of course extreme is always matched to extreme. If employers behave indefensibly, so do employees. We read of situations in Britain where for the slightest matter involving an employee, British workers will shut down an industrial operation completely. One of my relatives, a white-collar union steward in a Canadian business office, found employees approaching her frequently inasmuch as these employees resented being disciplined for habitual tardiness. They couldn’t seem to understand why the company was opposed to chronic lateness. (My relative, by the way, maintained that any adult who couldn’t get to work on time didn’t deserve a job. Shortly she was relieved of her steward’s position.) Few things are more frustrating, not to say costly, than hiring people to do a job only to find that their “protection” allows them to do as little as possible, as slowly as possibly, and as shabbily as possible.

Obviously it’s silly to suggest that employers as a class are demons while employees as a class are angels. In a fallen world employer and employee alike are going to be exploiters, given the opportunity. Both will tend to push their exploitation all the way to criminality. That’s why we find corruption, bribery and beatings within worker organizations supposedly pledged to the well-being of the worker.

III: — Where does all this find us as Christians? We know that God ordains work to be a human good, an essential ingredient in our humanness, even as we are aware of hostility and conflict in the workplace. Then what expression does our witness assume?

i] The first aspect of our Christian witness is both plain and simple: we are to do as good a job as we can. Integrity in the workplace is bedrock. A day’s work is to be rendered for a day’s pay, or else our “witness” is no witness at all and we are merely part of the problem. Paul tells Timothy, a much younger man, that work done should be work of which a worker need never be ashamed. This kind of work, the apostle continues, “adorns the doctrine of God our Saviour.” It’s a most unusual notion, isn’t it: what we do conscientiously, consistently, competently in the workplace “adorns the doctrine of God our Saviour.” The quality of our work lends attractiveness and credibility to the truth of God by which we are known. Integrity in the workplace is bedrock.

Are you aware that the chartered banks write off millions of dollars every year? Bank employees pilfer it. (Please note that the banks lose vastly more money to employee theft than they lose to “hold ups.”) The manager of a department store in suburban Toronto tells me that every year $600,000 in cash and merchandise disappears from the store. Little of it is shoplifted by customers; nearly all of it finds its way into the pockets of employees. A foreman working on the Trans Canada Pipeline tells me that at the beginning of the year he purchases twelve dozen pipe wrenches, and by year’s end his crew has stolen all 144 of them.

We mustn’t think that integrity pertains only to money and goods. Integrity pertains to time and attitude and diligence as well. Today employers wince when they think of the outlook of so many who make up the work pool. They wince when they think of the carelessness, slovenliness and indifference that pretends to be doing a job. The Christian’s work is to be conscientious, consistent, competent — and therein “adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour.”

ii] There is yet another Christian responsibility: we must try to understand the situation of those whose work is especially stress-riddled, or whose work is especially unfulfilling, boring, even mind-bending. Some of us work at jobs we find stimulating and rewarding. We are very fortunate; we are also very few. Most people work at jobs that don’t use anywhere near their resources and abilities. For this reason they crave more holidays and earlier retirement. We must endeavour to understand the plea of these people when they speak of the dehumanization and danger peculiar to their job.

Red Storey, an outstanding hockey referee of yesteryear, says he refereed when every NHL game was “survival night.” Recently I have found more and more schoolteachers, for instance, describing their situation in terms of survival. The public has become largely impatient with teachers, perhaps with some justification. At the same time, test after test has indicated that inner-city elementary schoolteaching is the most stressful job in North America . In addition, the public doesn’t know, among other things, that boards of education have asked newspapers not to write up incidences of classroom assault on teachers for one reason: it was found that whenever classroom assaults on teachers were printed in the news media, such assaults increased.

Think of the people who work at jobs that are mind numbing. When I was a university student I had a summer job I shall never forget. I sat at a table where I picked up one sheet from each of three piles (i.e., I was collating them), pushed the packet under an electric stapler (“kerchunk”), and set the stapled item aside. One day I stapled 10,000 units. I didn’t count them. By the end of the day I was in no condition to count. I happened to have used an entire box of staples, and there were 10,000 staples per box. My mother tells me that when I arrived home after work, anyone who so much as looked at me risked annihilation. Some people are consigned to jobs like this throughout their entire working life, with individual and domestic and social consequences that are not to be dismissed.

I readily admit that I know little of industrial relations; I know little of the research done concerning the social and psychological and domestic effects of different kinds of work. But if the church is ever going to attract someone besides the upwardly socially mobile, then we shall have to learn to listen to people whose work experience is very different from that of the professional types who tend to assume that everyone’s on-the-job rewards parallel theirs.

iii] A third responsibility is that our congregation must reflect the gospel truth that work is what people do; work is not who people are. We must never be seduced into the mentality that sees people as more valuable or less valuable just because the job they do is paid more money or less. Paul insists that in Christ Jesus there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither male nor female, neither slave nor free. For “neither slave nor free” read “neither minimum wage-earner nor company executive.” In his Corinthian correspondence (2nd Cor. 5:16 ) he states that Christians are to “regard no one from a human point of view.” The “human point of view” is the attitude that ignores someone who earns $20,000 per year but flatters someone who receives $200,000 (the sort of person we are extraordinarily pleased to see affiliate with our congregation.) This attitude has no place in the Christian fellowship.

Several years ago I attended a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous where a newcomer, a university professor, newly rendered sober through the AA movement, needed a sponsor. A sponsor is an AA friend of greater maturity and wisdom who can steer a newcomer around the pitfalls that might trip up his newfound sobriety. The sponsor assigned to this professor happened to be a truck driver. And the professor wasn’t ashamed to admit that the truck driver possessed a maturity, wisdom, discernment and experience in this area of life that he lacked. Surely the Christian fellowship can’t be found wanting here, when to us is entrusted the truth, “In Christ there is neither slave nor free.”

Perhaps you are thinking that the three points I have made concerning our Christian responsibility don’t go very far in overturning the turbulence in the work world. Still, they give us a starting point for understanding God’s mandate concerning work and the world in which we have to work. In any case, as our seventeenth Century Quaker foreparents liked to say, it’s always better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

Victor Shepherd
September 2006