Why Work? A Christian Reflection
- Rev. Dr. Marcus Braybrooke
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Rev. Dr. Marcus Braybrooke, President, World Congress of Faiths
'A theology of work would not suffice to address all problems of work in contemporary societies. A large scale critique of the present reality of work and a plausible alternative proposal is necessary: a task that can be accomplished only by theologians, economists, political scientists and cultural anthropologists working together.'
Where better to start on this task than at a conference of 'Globalisation for the Common Good' that brings together just such a combination of expertise with the added blessing of an interfaith dimension?
The Christian Tradition speaks both of the positive value of work as the call to share in God's creation and its enslaving possibilities because of human sin.
The positive strand links human creativity with God's creativity. In the Genesis account of creation God gives Adam and Eve the task of caring for the animal and natural world. (I have problems with the AV word 'dominion', which has been used to justify the exploitation of animals and natural resources). We are told that man is made in the image of God so human stewardship should reflect God's way of loving dealing with us.
Human work in one sense plays a part in the continuing creativity of God. Jesus said, 'As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me.' The Bible implies that God was not only the Creator of the world but that God's continuing activity holds all life in being. Many of the pictures of God are as a worker: potter, farmer, shepherd, builder and I suppose one could include King. 'Who,' God asks Job provides food for the raven ... or hunts for prey for the lioness?'
Human beings are, in a sense, God's employees. As Martin Luther put it, Human work 'is God's mask behind which he hides himself and rules everything magnificently in the world.' The papal encyclicals Rerum novarum and Laborem exercens echo this teaching. For example, Laborem exercens says:
'Created in God's image, we were given the mandate to transform the earth. By their work people share in God's creating activity....Awareness that our work is a sharing in God's work ought to permeate even the most ordinary daily activities.
By our labor we are unfolding the Creator's work and contributing to the realization of God's plan on earth. The Christian message does not stop us from building the world or make us neglect our fellow human beings. On the contrary it binds us more firmly to do just that.'
Humans, therefore, - as the Offering of bread and wine and money at the Eucharist should symbolise - should see their work, as an offering to God - a view the seventeenth-century poet George Herbert expressed in a well known hymn:
Teach me, my God and King;
in all things thee to see;
and what I do in anything
to do it as for thee.
All may of thee partake;
nothing can be so mean
which, with this tincture, 'For thy sake'
will not grow bright and clean.
A servant with this clause
makes drudgery divine;
who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,
makes that and the action fine.
Herbert recognises that 'sweeping a room' is as much an offering to God as the work of those who have so called 'vocations.' White collar workers often think of themselves as 'superior' to blue collar workers. Ben Sirah, in the book of Ecclesiasticus, said that 'the wisdom of the scribe depends upon the opportunity of leisure: only the one who has little business can be wise.' In the Hellenistic world, the life of leisure and contemplation was valued more highly than manual work - there were slaves to do that. This attitude may have influenced monastic life, although the rule of Benedict insisted that monks should work. Luther, like, Muhammad, Guru Nanak and Gandhi insisted that the spiritual life should be lived in the world. 'Work means any activity by human beings, whether manual or intellectual.'
Teaching about the priesthood of all believers should not mean that certain callings, such as to the priesthood or a monastic life, are regarded as more important. John W Gardner said, 'The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity, and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because philosophy is an exalted activity, will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.' Thomas Carlyle, a nineteenth century philosopher, suggested that instead of the monastic phrase ora et labora, 'work and pray,' the motto should be 'labora est ora' - work is praying. Indeed, Ecclesiasticus 38, 34 speaking of the craftsman and labourer may be translated 'their daily work is their prayer.' As Helen Keller said, 'The world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also be the aggregate of each honest worker.'
How do we decide what work, if it genuinely a service of others and of the community, is more important than the work of other people? We hardly notice if members of Parliament take a three months recess, we would be really worried if refuse collections had a three weeks break. I sympathise with George Bernard Shaw's view that we should all be paid the same. Shaw believed that income for individuals should come solely from the sale of their own labour and that poverty could be eliminated by giving equal pay to everyone.
Jürgen Moltmann, a Protestant theologian, has said that in their daily work humans are 'co-workers in God's kingdom, which completes creation and renews heaven and earth.' God will purify, transfigure, and receive into his eternal kingdom all good and beautiful things that human hands have created. More recently the environmental theologian, Fr Thomas Berry, went further and spoke of human beings not just as God's agents, but as 'co-creators' with God, who by what they do can help to shape the future of Mother Earth for weal or woe.' This implies that the coming of God's kingdom and indeed the future of life on this planet are in human hands.
This high view of work means that human beings should find personal fulfilment in meaningful work. Unemployment, as we know, is damaging and scandalous. So the millions unemployed in Europe could take their governments to the European Court and complain that their human rights have been infringed by the lack of work. It has also been observed that the Bible has no teaching about retirement. The loss of meaningful activity can be a cause of depression among older people.
I ought to add that meaningful work does not have to be paid work. Who can put a price on the loving care of parents? Think too of the contribution of volunteers to the well being of our society. Is prayer to be counted as work? Thomas Merton suggested that the contemplative person was the true revolutionary because he or she saw through the lies and superficiality of public life. 'In the night of our technological barbarism, monks must be as trees which exist silently in the dark and by their vital presence purify the air.'
Meaningful work - although we could have along debate about what qualifies as 'meaningful activity' - is an offering to God because it is a service to the community, because Jesus taught that we should see God in every person.
We should use the particular talents and opportunities we have been given for the benefit of others. As a teenager I was taught to see higher education as a privilege which carried with it responsibility to use what I learned to be of help to others. I cannot recall the question of what I would earn came into it - if it had, I would have been unwise to be a clergyman.
Yet in emphasizing the positive value of work, it needs to be remembered that it is not the only good. Work is not whole of life - and of this the command to do no work on the Sabbath is witness. We should beware of the burden that a 'work ethic' can cause. It upsets the work-life balance and may lead to a self-satisfied and unsympathetic attitude to the 'undeserving poor.' and avoid being 'work alcoholics.'
Important as work is in the Bible and Christian tradition, there are other rich dimensions to human existence. As I have said, the Biblical insistence on observation of the Sabbath - a day of rest - remind us of the place of worship, family life, play and relaxation and the arts. I was once in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem and recall the wonderful sense of peace. I think the last time I was in a city which observed a traditional Sunday was in New Delhi.
Quite apart from religious considerations, in my view, modern society has been impoverished by losing a day of rest. It is one more way in which a price tag has been placed on every activity including the arts and sport. Perhaps even worse is the crippling effect on education of valuing it only in cash terms. The fact that work is only one dimension of human life means that the true purpose of education is to help young people develop their full potential - to be what God intended him or her to be - which brings me back to where I began. The hope that through work we find fulfilment in serving others rather than being enslaved by wearisome toil.
This brings me to the perhaps to the more realistic view of work, also to be found in the Christian tradition. Karl Barth recognised that the first reason for work is for people 'to earn their daily bread and a little more.' Anthony Harvey is equally realistic. 'For the great majority of human beings, work is and always has been a necessity for survival, a laborious condition of human existence... for a minority it is an opportunity for creativity and personal fulfilment; for a privileged few it is an optional activity, variously regarded as a virtuous service to others, a remedy for boredom or an obstacle both to pleasure and to the higher reaches of philosophical enquiry.' The great Hindu reformer Swami Vivekananda when, at Cape Cormorin or Kanyakunasi, he dedicated himself to the service of 'My God, the wicked; my God, the afflicted; my God the poor of all races,' said 'We are so many sannyasins wandering about and teaching the people metaphysics - it is all madness. Did not our Gurudeva use to say "An empty stomach is no use for religion."'
As Luther said, the idyllic picture of work in the first chapter of Genesis only lasted for a Sunday afternoon. By chapter three, Adam and Eve have sinned. Adam is told:
'Cursed is the ground because of you;
Through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow, you will eat your food
Until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken,
for dust you are and to dust you will return.'
The original intention of work is not erased, but the pain and sweat of toil is acknowledged. The Israelites experienced this to the full when they were slaves in Egypt. Slave masters were put over them, who 'made their lives bitter with hard labour in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in fields; in all their hard labour the Egyptians used them ruthlessly.' Within living memory, many Jews were to experience even more murderous oppression and exploitation.
The Bible does not condone such oppression. God hears the cry of the Israelites and sends Moses to rescue them. Through the centuries some Jews and Christians have been inspired by the Bible to struggles for justice and to oppose slavery and all exploitation.
In Biblical times, Israelites were allowed to own slaves. Hebrew slaves had to be freed after six years, but slaves 'from the nations round about you' could be kept for life.' Even so, all slaves were members of the household and entitled to rest on the Sabbath. Maimonides summed up rabbinic teaching on slavery by saying, 'It is permissible to work the slave hard; but while this is the law, the ways of ethics and prudence are that the master should be just and merciful.'
There was a similar ambiguity in Christian attitudes to slavery. This is evident in Paul's letter to Philemon. Paul sends Onesimus back to his owner Philemon, but says Onesimus should no longer be treated as a slave 'but as a dear brother.' . Augustine saw human inequality as a consequence of the Fall. Many Christians accepted and profited from slavery. Other Christians, conscious that in Christ, there is 'neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female,' campaigned for its abolition. Perhaps there is the same ambiguity today. Our comfortable life style results in considerable measure from and unjust and exploitative pattern of international trade and finance: but as Liberation theologians have insisted, 'God is on the side of the poor.' Many Christians with people of all faiths are engaged in developmental and relief work and like Kamran campaigning for a more just world.
A Christian perspective on work, while recognising that many people are glad of any work on offer just to survive, sees meaningful work as important for personal fulfilment, as a service to others and as an offering to God. It is tragic that so many people are enslaved by desperate poverty or their worship of Mammon.
Miroslav Volf and Gordon Preece in The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, ed. Adrian Hastings,
Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 760
Genesis 1, 24
Job, 38, 41 and 39.
Quoted by Volf and Preece
Laborem Exercens -papal encyclical of Pope John Paul II, para 25
Ecclesiasticus 38, 24
Laborem Exercens, Introduction.
Quoted by Ben Wetherington III in Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor, William B Eerdmans,
2011, p. 79. No source given
Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present, Riverside edtn 1965, p. 196
Quoted by Ben Wetherington III in Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor, p. 67. No source given
I cannot trace the exact quote but there are several references to it on the web - see Wikipeadia
Quoted by Volf and Preece, p. 760
Thomas Berry, 'The Cosmology of Religions' in A Source Book for the Earth's Community of Religions,
CoNexus Press, 1995 edtn, p. 95
Quoted by Kenneth Leech in The Social God, SPCK, 1981, p.47.
Quoted by Volf and Preece, p. 760
Anthony Harvey in Christianity a Complete Guide, Ed John Bowden, Continuum, 2005, p. 1244
Quoted in Marcus Braybrooke, Togetherto the Truth, CLS, Madras, 971, pp. 139-140
Genesis, 3, 17-19.
Genesis, 3, 7.
Deauteronomy, 23, 17
Leviticus, 25, 44-6.
Deuteronomy, 5, 14-5
The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, Ed John Bowker, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 907.
Philemon, verse 15.
Galatians 3, 28