Commentary

Labor as vocation: made in God’s image!

The ‘Cries of he Workers” quarterly column

Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages (Jeremiah 22:13).

In contemporary politics, economics, and especially theology, the issue of labor is noticeable by its absence. Capital, the market, and consumerism are emphasized, but labor is overlooked. We are constantly reminded that we are consumers, and that we must consume to fulfill our vocation. (During previous wars we were told to tighten our belts.
During this one we were told to consume!) In our contemporary society, consumption is sacrosanct and unrestrained, while labor is banished to a dark shadowy world as the “other,” unhappily undertaken only to meet our needs. Labor is privatized, while leisure, pleasure and consumption are publicized — because these reflect our success and blessings from God. So we see labor, especially organized labor, as anathema to our consumer gods.

Theology, especially Reformation Theology, is at its iconoclastic best when it carries out a fundamental critique of myths, idolatry and status quo orthodoxies that barricade truth. Labor clearly fits into this theological task. It is insufficient in these circumstances to look for a quick fix, shallow activism and familiar “solutions,” based on the old simplified assumptions. When we engage in this kind of activism the solutions define the problems rather than the other way around.

Precisely in such a context, faith, theology and ethical commitments should raise and sustain questions which might otherwise not surface. It is here that questions must emerge for the formulation of new judgments. Some of the traditional confessions and beliefs help mark out fresh areas of investigation and action. Through such discussions and action, basic convictions are stimulated, tested, and clarified. Thus it is a function of the religious community not merely to support specific public proposals bearing on the present issues of labor (immigration, unemployment and others), but to enrich the discussion that surrounds such proposals so that they bear the mark of our faith, especially the Gospel and the Reign of God.

Typically it is argued that the Scriptures clearly locate labor in “the Fall” — the biblical event that plunges humanity into brokenness and sin (Genesis 3:16ff), but that is not its only location. Humanity was given the vocation to subdue and have dominion over the earth and all creation (Genesis 1:28ff, Psalm 8:5-8). The labor of tilling the earth was already human vocation before the Fall (Genesis 2:15), as well as the labor of naming all creatures (Genesis 2:19ff ). This is part of being in the image of God who also labored when creating. In naming we become co-creators with God, because thus we differentiate what God created in generic form (from bird to hawk, for example). Besides showing the fundamental worth, value and dignity of humanity, these Genesis narratives also show that human labor has a clear significance in creation. Scripture also points out that defrauding workers is a grievous sin, and their cries reach the ears of the Lord and incur harsh judgment (Deuteronomy 24:14-15; James 5:4). In Scripture, the metaphor for ministry and witness is labor (Matthew 9:37-38). This is confirmed by Paul: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:9-10); and “Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy” (Ephesians 4:28).

The Church has always taught the principle of the priority of labor over capital and until very recently it stood hard against usury. In this spirit the best ecclesial document is Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, Laborem Exercen (1981). Labor is clearly a matter of public concern, not a private issue. It is, therefore, also a concern for Christian ministry, mission and especially ethical witness.

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Amjad-Ali, Ph.D., Th.D., is the Martin Luther King Jr. Prof. of Justice and Christian Community and is also the Director of Islamic Studies Program at Luther Seminary in St Paul, Minnesota. He has degrees from institutions of higher learning in Great Britain, Germany, the United States and Sweden and has taught at many universities around the world. He has been active in national and international civil society institutions and is published extensively.