Theology of Work: Flourish

Sunday will soon turn into Monday. The sun will set on the Lord’s Day–the Christian Sabbath–and rise again at the beginning of a new work week. This intimate connection reminds me of Jewish theologian and Civil Rights activist Abraham Heschel’s comments on work’s relation to the Sabbath:

Image result for the sabbath heschelAdam was placed in the Garden of Eden “to dress it and to keep it” (Genesis 2:15). Labor is not only the destiny of man; it is endowed with divine dignity. However, after he ate of the tree of knowledge he was condemned to toil, not only to labor “In toil shall thou eat … all the days of thy life” (Genesis 3:17). Labor is a blessing, toil is the misery of man. The Sabbath as a day of abstaining from work is not a depreciation but an affirmation of labor, a divine exaltation of its dignity. Thou shalt abstain from labor on the seventh day is a sequel to the command: Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work [Ex. 20:9]…The duty to work for six days is just as much a part of God’s covenant with man as the duty to abstain from work on the seventh day.1

I thought of this while reading this piece on developing a theology of work in the face of growing protectionism. As the author explains (in this admittedly long excerpt),

[T]he failure of modern conservatism to combat trade protectionism is not just a failure to communicate economics; it’s a failure to promote a holistic philosophy of life and a healthy theology of work, one that’s oriented not toward a self-constructed “American dream,” but toward an authentic pursuit of full-scale freedom, good stewardship and human flourishing…Though it will pain many Americans to hear it…work is not ultimately about you. Yes, work provides sustenance and stability. Yes, it puts bread on the table and a roof over our heads. Yes, these are baseline comforts of a stable society, and yes, self-preservation is a good thing.

But we are no longer isolated hunters and gatherers. We live and work within a far-flung economy, and our hands are united with a large community of people. We are part of civilization, a glorious handiwork of human laborers — creatures made in the image of a creative God — working and collaborating together, and that is a good thing.

As Lester DeKoster reminds us, work is ultimately about “service to others and thus to God.” With this theology at our backs, the economic fruits of free trade are simply fruits: byproducts of humans working and serving together as God created us to do.

“Work restores the broken family of humankind,” DeKoster writes. “Through work that serves others, we also serve God, and he in exchange weaves the work of others into a culture that makes our work easier and more rewarding … As seed multiplies into a harvest under the wings of the Holy Spirit, so work multiplies into a civilization under the intricate hand of the same Spirit.”

…If work is about service to others, no longer should Foreigner X or Migrant Worker Y or Unskilled Laborer Z be viewed as “stealing your job,” though the frustration will surely persist. Instead, we should realize that they, like us, are finally able to participate in the global economy, offering their own forms of service and their own unique gifts and talents in new and efficient ways. They are participating in God’s grand design for work.

Through this lens, the prospect of job loss is no longer an occasion to mope about what was or wasn’t an “American job” in years gone by. The pain and nostalgia will likely endure, but we can remain hopeful and confident in knowing our work is not done. In these cases, job loss is simply a signal of how we might best use our time on behalf of others. It’s an opportunity to adapt and retool, to serve the community in new and better ways, as uncomfortable and inconvenient as it may be. That’s going to require an entire shift in the imagination of America, but it’s one that will revive and replenish far more than surface-level economic growth.

Happy Sabbath. And happy Monday.