Monday, September 15, 2014

Work is a Curse, Right?

It’s easy, perhaps too easy, to think of work as a curse. We all have days (weeks / months) when our work seems like a curse. When I’m in the middle of yet another online crisis at work, the internet seems to be blowing up on and it seems to be all aimed at my organization, and my boss sends an email questioning why I used a particular word in a Facebook comment, yes, work can seem like a curse.

What came first, work or the curse?

The image that immediately comes to mind: Adam and Eve have been caught eating of the tree of knowledge. God is not pleased. Adam is told that he will now work by the sweat of his brow. Eve is told about the pain of childbirth (another kind of work).

Work is a curse, right?

Actually, the answer is no. In the Bible, work came before the curse. The first work recorded in the Bible was the work of creation, God’s work of creation. “God saw all he had made, and it was very good.” Adam and Eve lived in the garden and their work was to take care of it.

Work was a good thing.

Work is still a good thing.

But it’s humanity – we humans – who continually screw it up. In Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, Christopher Smith, John Pattison, and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove speak to the productive and protective elements of work, and they speak to where we usually get it wrong.

They point to Adam Smith (1723-1790), the “patron saint of capitalism.” Smith didn’t look at work for its inherent dignity, they say, but only for its usefulness. “The purpose of work is production, and the sole purpose of all production, said Smith, is consumption…Thus, work is a means to an end.”

The dignity of work disappears. The inherent value of work itself disappears. Work is only important for providing us money to buy stuff and pay for services.

It’s Smith and the Industrial Revolution that gives us what we know today as the pervasive division of labor. We do different things to enhance production. This is so common to us today that we don’t realize how radical it was in the 18th century.

Increased production and improved manufacturing comes at a price, and the price includes alienation.

Smith wasn’t alone. Later, Frederick Taylor (1856-1915) came along to subdivide work into minute components, with even more alienation and fragmentation. The authors of Slow Church point out that Taylor’s The Principles of Scientific Management (1911) was the first business bestseller. It especially found a welcoming audience with – surprise! – Vladimir Lenin in Russia.

Today, Slow Church argues, we have McDonaldization, how we are to act and move in every situation. This has extended beyond the workplace to the home and to the church. (I can personally attest to the impact that business and business executive thinking has had on two different churches we attended in St. Louis.) (It was not a good thing.)

Should there be an alternative? And is the church the institution to point the way to an alternative?

We’ll consider those questions next week.

I’ve been discussing Slow Church for the past several Mondays. Today’s discussion is the first of two parts on the chapter entitled “Work.” I’ll conclude the discussion of the chapter next Monday.

Related: Jim Wood at The High Calling’s Mission / Work channel at Patheos has a similar discussion, Is Work a Curse or Inherently Good?

Photograph by Ian L via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission. 


Paul Stolwyk said...

What does it mean to be made in the image of God. Setting aside all the historical theological answers and just answering in context of Gen 1 and 2 ... one of the answers is work.

David Rupert said...

"McDonaldization" ? Oh that's good. Not everything needs to be efficient! Not everything needs to be maximum value or productive.

I didnt know the story of Adam Smith. And reading his words are actually kind of sad. Who really wants a world like that?