The Common Good
January-February 1997

Why Work?

by Julie Polter | January-February 1997

Commerce, call, and gainful employment.

My grandfather died late in the afternoon on an October day. My dad was called with the news in the middle of the second shift at the candy factory. They let him leave early. He stopped at home, changed into his daytime work clothes—jeans, white T-shirt, work boots, quilted nylon jacket—then headed to my grandfather's farm, a mile away, to take the cornpicker back to the field. It was harvest season. There was work to be done.

I can't separate questions of work and faith from a host of other things in my mind: Class and privilege. The labor movement and downsizing. The drive to create, the hunger to possess, the call to serve. Efficiency and monotony. Material needs and spiritual wants. Loving my neighbor and expressing myself. Economics, power, justice, prayer. The difference between savings and being saved. Everyday idols and everyday worship. Social status and unconditional love. Bread and roses.

"The basis for determining the value of human work is not primarily the kind of work being done, but the fact that the one who is doing it is a person," Pope John Paul II writes in the encyclical Laborem Exercens. Much work that isn't interesting or fun is vital to human life and community, and the ones who perform it—good people, bad people, just plain people—serve as the hands of God's providence. Work is good because the worker is made in God's image.

Beyond that, individuals may bring spiritual value to their work through their prayer and the way faith leads them to live in right relationship with co-workers and the job they are doing. Likewise, a person may produce a good product or perform a valuable service for intrinsically sinful motives (greed, status, domination). So we can't judge the religious value of work solely on its glamour or pleasantness or intricacy, or on the state of the soul of the worker.

While there are varieties of gifts and varieties of service, and sometimes the same Spirit, human sin also distorts work and creates working conditions that are simply awful. Every day people do work that is underpaid, dangerous, exploitative, or ultimately serving nothing other than someone's profit or another one's destruction. In a sinful world, sometimes not even the innate, God-given dignity of the person doing a job can redeem the work itself. The distortion is too deep.

A woman locked in a sweatshop, a prostitute, an international arms dealer, a cigarette-industry marketing executive—each is a person, reflecting the image of God. But work that is a trap, work that demeans, work that slaughters, work that destroys souls or the world—this isn't divinely ordained, nor divinely blessed.

Can any work take place in a total vacuum, with no effect on anyone, for good or ill? Almost any employment sits in an intricate web of relationships. A family is affected by the employment (or lack thereof) of its members. The workplace is a social location as well as an economic one, where for many people the majority of their interactions with others occur. A company or other employer—the structure that employs a group of people—has some sort of corporate relationship to those who work there as well as to other companies and other people who contribute to or handle its product or service. A person's work, whether it is service, art, or a product, is somehow received by others.

We can assert the dignity of all work, the sacramental potential in even humble tasks. But if we then turn away from those who work in conditions that are demeaning or dangerous, it is little better than saying, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled," to our brother or sister lacking clothes or food (James 2:15-16).

Follow the can of tomatoes on your shelf or the parts in your television back through stores and warehouses, trucks and trains; tumble with them back through machines and hands. Follow them back to the vine in the field, the never-pausing assembly line—and then look into the eyes of the one who is stooped over the vine, the one doing the same task 30 times a minute. She is God's sacred creation—not the TV part or even, perhaps, the tomato (modern hybrids being what they are). How much in wages does she need to feed her children? Is she getting it? Are the chemicals put on the fields poison? Is his workplace safe? If someone sexually harasses her or mocks her with a racial epithet, can she seek redress without losing her job?

These questions aren't rooted in privileged guilt, but rather in the responsibilities of relationship. Support unions and boycotts; train to be a better manager of people, not profits or status; speak up in support of the colleague in the next cubicle, workstation, or church; hold yourself and others accountable to doing work well and to being fully human in interactions with others. Even if you don't know their names, even if you are safe and secure in your own employment, even if you sometimes feel helpless in the face of global economics and office politics, even if: Honor the worker, not just the work.

Talking to my dad, years after he's retired from both the factory and the farm, I ask, What do you do when you're a candy sucker cook?

"The ingredients for a batch fed continuously into one of the kettles. We added the flavor and food coloring by hand after the kettle dumped it on the slab."

"Any flavor you wanted?" I ask.

"Naw, in order. You'd run through the flavors in order, then it would go out to the right wrapper machine." Cherry, grape, lime, pineapple, orange, lemon, strawberry, peach....

"The mixer would work it. You would too, reach in from both sides and pick up the candy and rotate it 45 degrees and drop it back in the middle between strokes by the mixer.

"Then you hauled the batch over to the batch roller. Sometimes it got stuck going into the machine and you'd help the girl get it into the machine. After the suckers were molded, they were carried by belt to the wrappers in the next room."

How often did you do a batch?

"Oh, every three minutes."

IN HIS BOOK ON the theology of vocation, The Fabric of This World, philosopher Lee Hardy describes how the Christian church—and the Western culture it so profoundly shaped—has swung back and forth between an understanding of work as self-fulfillment and work as self-denial, work as blessing or curse.

"The contemplation of divine truth...is the goal of the whole of human life," wrote Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologica. At that time, in the Middle Ages, the only truly holy vocation was that of withdrawal to a monastery to pray and add to the indulgences bank. (This was in marked contrast to the first monastics, who did not withdraw from labor, but did what they could to become self-sufficient in order not to participate in the wider economy, which was based on slavery.)

Then Renaissance philosophers rejected the emphasis on contemplation. As Hardy writes, God was "no longer the passive and distant pure mind," but "a cosmic craftsman." The way to draw close to and emulate God was through productive activity and domination of the earth.

Sixteenth-century reformer Martin Luther (driven in large part by a polemic against monastic orders) rejected withdrawal from the world as a path to holiness. God calls people where they are, he insisted—butcher, baker, candlestick maker; child, mother, husband. A true vocation was to love our neighbor through faithful performance of the duties that come with our "stations" in life.

Each of these approaches holds truth, and each has been subject to great distortion: For a time, corruption made monastic holiness a commodity; an emphasis on unfettered human capacity and skill collapses under the weight of pride and a scarred creation; some have insisted that life stations are divinely ordained to stifle uprisings and betterment by those lower on the ladder. The "Protestant work ethic" that began with Luther and was refined by John Calvin and other Reformed theologians had God's glory as its goal, but it has constantly been subsumed by industry and ideology to divert peoples' labor to political and economic glory.

Search for "meaning" or for an integration of spiritual longing and gifts with a paid vocation is not an esoteric, trivial, or foolish luxury. Striving for basic justice and dignity for workers who lack safety, a living wage, or job security is not an unspiritual pursuit. The call of the heart and the call of justice are both in the Bible. The prophets combined them. One or the other—or neither—may be the main focus of a person's work life. But an awareness of both is vital to a balanced and full faith life.

I strain to lift a box of something at my father's house. "When I was your age, I could carry a hundred-pound sack of seed on my shoulders while walking across plowed ground," he snorts.

It is left unsaid by both of us that I neither need nor want to carry a hundred-pound sack across my shoulders.

I graduated with honors in English. My father didn't say anything to me, but my cousin told me that my dad was very proud. He took the commencement program for my mega state university to their house and pointed out where my name was set apart from the several hundred others who graduated the same day.

"She should be able to get a good job," he told them.

ENCOURAGED BY A college pastor to connect my writing gifts and my faith to my career choice, I placed self-expression, spiritual values, and creativity as priorities when I sought work. But first (and maybe still) I wrestled with the question of usefulness. Members of my family had almost always done things that were inherently useful: Raised grain and livestock, made drill bits and candy, cut lumber, built ships, drove trucks, balanced books, sewn clothes. Those before my generation who had sought higher education were schoolteachers, ministers, and a nurse.

It would be unfair and inaccurate to say that when economic conditions allowed them a choice in job my relatives made their choice on a purely utilitarian basis—that getting the bills paid and making a product was the only satisfaction they sought. For example, those of my relatives who were farmers—and owned their own land—loved that land, being outdoors, the growing of things, and self-sufficiency. They met practical aims and endured some drudgery, and they found meaning and pleasure in their work. But still, work that didn't somehow meet everyday needs would be seen as suspect. There was a bias toward the concrete.

So I still sometimes ask the question, What good are words? I can find an answer, in part, in scripture: Through Word all was created. With words we tell the stories of where we are from and where we might go, and in this way help remake the world. I don't grow food, make tools, or heal the sick. But with words I try to further in practical ways the ends of justice (and mercy) and to communicate truth and beauty that might break hearts open and resurrect them one beat closer to the reign of God.

But the question of the "usefulness" or the purpose of work is increasingly pertinent in a time when "information" and services are the growth commodities. International corporate consolidation, restructuring, and the use of temporary employees in all types of work (from assembly lines to specialized professions) also undermine and fragment our understanding of who and what our work is for.

Neither virtual reality nor economic upheavals eliminate or replace a material world that has real needs; the faces of those we love or fear; the pull of faith; or the physical, spiritual, and emotional wounds of life. If our work primarily involves words or other information, we need an understanding of how that data are linked to concrete realities and experiences. If work structures or situations by design strain or negate our connection to co-workers or a sense of mission, then such structures need to be questioned. If we can't find the connections between data and people in our work, then either the other connections in our life need that much more attention or we need other work.

In "The Calling of Voices," an essay on vocation, Frederick Buechner writes:

To Isaiah, the voice said, "Go," and for each of us there are many voices that say it, but the question is which one will we obey with our lives, which of the voices that call is to be the one that we answer. No one can say, of course, except each for himself [or herself], but I believe that it is possible to say at least this in general to all of us: we should go with our lives where we most need to go and where we are most needed.

Faith always calls us back into relationship with our God and a world that is beloved by God. Our vocation is to follow Jesus and to spread the gospel. He moved, preached, and taught in the ordinary, work-a-day world. Sometimes he called women and men away from their households, nets, and accounts; discipleship meant leaving one's work and place. Sometimes he called women and men where they were; discipleship meant living differently in one's work and place.

Just as there was no single way to follow then, there is not now. God's call is on our whole lives, not specifically our career choice. What draws our heart, and where is our heart needed?

A PERSON IN their 20s now may have seven or eight jobs or careers in their lifetime. The upheavals caused by industry relocation, downsizing, and corporate consolidations are unnerving and damaging to people and communities, and reveal the facile lies rampant in much of the public debate over welfare. For the more comfortable, this same fragmentation may break up the idol that career can be. For some it may bring a needed reminder to work to live, not live to work. For others, it may turn them to look again at their work and its relationship to the world, and to see how they can offer justice and mercy in new and different ways—within or outside of paid employment.

Professor of ethics Donald Shriver describes how an ideology of "justification by work" is pervasive in our culture. He reminds us that this reverses the proper order of things as set out in Ephesians: "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God....For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for good works..." (2:8-10).

If we can place our work in a balanced rhythm with worship (and rest and play), it will keep us rooted in the grace from which our whole life flows. Kathleen Norris writes of Benedictines that they "regard all time as holy and seek to use it well....Moderation is essential, for, in the words of Amma Syncletica, a fourth-century desert nun, 'lack of proportion always corrupts.'"

A definition of liturgy is the celebration of the work of the people. We can be literal in this, holding up in recognition, litany, and prayer those in our congregations who volunteer and those who work for pay, those who are unemployed and those who have been promoted, those who care for young, elderly, or ill relatives, those who study, and those who are retired.

In the weekly worship I attend, we hold up in prayer a member of our congregation whose job requires him to work on Sunday mornings. In this brief moment we celebrate all of who he is—a child of God, who hungers to be at worship with his family and community, a father sacrificing to care for those he loves in the way that is possible at the moment, a brother missed from our circle. This, in the end, is what the people of God are to be about, in our worship and our work: to celebrate who and whose we are, people saved by grace and called by name.

Julie Polter is associate editor at Sojourners.

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