The Common Good
September/October 2005

The Work Ethic

by Rose Marie Berger | September/October 2005

Through work we not only transform the world, we are transformed ourselves.

I love my job.

I love my job. It’s good, creative, and challenging work. I am paid well above a living wage. (In 2000, more than 25 percent of U.S. jobs paid less than $8 an hour—the amount necessary to lift a family from poverty.) I have health insurance (45 million Americans don’t) and a four-week vacation package (most Americans get two weeks, if that). Additionally, every seven years I’m offered a sabbatical to be used for renewal, education, and rest.

In 35 years, Sojourners has lived out its Christian values toward the dignity of work and workers in a variety of ways. The 1981 Catholic encyclical "On Human Work" summarizes these values well: "Through work we not only transform the world, we are transformed ourselves, becoming ‘more a human being.’"

Sojourners, unfortunately, is an exception. Too many U.S. workers do not labor under conditions that encourage them to be "more a human being." The guiding ethos in many U.S. workplaces has shifted toward prioritizing stockholder and CEO wealth over worker health and well-being. (CEO pay increased by 12 percent between 2003 and 2004, while rank-and-file compensation increased only 2.2 percent.) The systematic dismantling of labor unions by special interests and the inability of labor unions to retool themselves to meet the needs of a post-manufacturing job market have allowed worker conditions and management accountability to decline. The impact of corporate scandals such as the Enron and WorldCom bankruptcies, which left thousands of workers without their 401(k) savings, might have been lessened if those companies were unionized or had cultures that promoted worker dignity.

WHAT DOES THE Bible say about work? What values, perspectives, and practices do we emulate in our own work? How do we treat those who work for us? What attitudes toward work did we receive from our parents, and what are we passing to our children?

Traditionally, there are two distinct interpretations of work presented in Genesis. In Genesis 1, God works creatively. God rests. And God saw that all of it "was good." When humans imitate God, work and rest are seen as a generative whole that is both blessed by God and gives honor to God. In Genesis 2 and 3, work is a curse placed on humans as a result of breaking covenant with God. The split between these two interpretations continues to influence Christianity and the cultures in which we live.

The biblical narrative also presents two fundamentally opposed economic systems that arise from human labor: the system used in pharaoh’s Egypt where capital is amassed by dehumanizing slave labor, and the generative gift economy of Israel where the cycle of redistributing wealth downward toward the poorest creates a stable and healthy standard of living for all. The prophets rail against the former and strenuously promote the latter.

Throughout history Christian reformers have served as correctives to unjust economic systems and defended the rights of the worker. St. Benedict’s sixth century rule for monastic life demanded that monks engage in physical work, rather than withdrawing from the world into "religious work." His rule helped ensure that the monastic economy did not run on the backs of serfs or slaves. "Ora et Labora," preached Benedict. "Work and pray."

Sixteenth century Protestant reformer John Calvin also promoted dignity in common work. As an initiator of what’s called the "Protestant work ethic," he encouraged merchants to conduct their businesses with the same scrupulousness, honesty, and diligence as they conducted their spiritual lives. He also was clear that any "superfluous wealth" the Christian might obtain should go directly to the poor.

In 1986, the U.S. Catholic bishops issued "Economic Justice for All" addressing similar issues. "The capital at the disposal of management," they said, "is in part the product of the labor of those who have toiled in the company over the years." Workers must be stakeholders in the decisions made about a company’s profit. It’s not acceptable to leave workers defenseless.

How can we talk about what our work means to us in our work places, churches, and families? How can we audit our personal economies to see how they match our faith values? "Human work is done wisely," writes theologian Ellen F. Davis, "when it proceeds essentially from a desire to honor God...."

Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet. She blogs at

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