Dr. Elizabeth Windsor
September 1, 2019
The Sanctity of Work and Worker: A Responsive Reflection
I worked in a factory for two summers when I was in college. It was a brutal experience.
I was the summer substitute who relieved men or women on the assembly line of a John Deere plant in the Quad Cities, Illinois, which made tractors, harvesters, etc.
There I met the Beast that Charlie Chaplin parodied in his movie, Modern Times—the Beast being the modern factory and the assembly line.
The assembly line moves gradually along as you keep pace doing your part quickly enough to finish before you bump into the next station.
If you have trouble and can’t be finished in time, you hit the HOLD bell, and everybody up and down the line looks around to see who is holding up the works—just like in the movie.
I hardly had the most difficult assignment in that huge factory (I watched with trepidation when I walked by the forge or the paint detail), but it was all I could do to bear up under the pace, the heat, the noise (which was constant), the glaring lights, the concrete, the hard edges and surfaces everywhere…the Beast commanded my whole body and mind.
I worked the second shift, from 3 to 11 p.m., and even after the pleasant 20 minute drive home in the cool of the night, it still took me an hour to settle down enough to go to sleep.
But sleep I did, very deeply, and I dreamed wildly it seems, because sometimes my parents would have to awaken me from sleep-walking, sweating through my pajamas.
The best part was the paycheck—my whole satisfaction was seeing those numbers grow through the summer: rate of pay times hours worked, minus withholding and Social Security — which I could spend on food and distractions.
I punched in, did my job responsibly, punched out—like everyone else who trudged along with me to the parking lot, leaving behind nothing that had my name on it and taking with me nothing I wanted to remember.
I had survived another shift uninjured, feeling lucky to have the work and accepting I was just as much a commodity as the tractors I was building—but what choice did I or anybody have?
But it took Karl Marx to teach me that I and so many, many others had relinquished our God-given creative capacities in exchange for crumbs under the table of Life.
With his humor, Charlie Chaplin made the same point.
Writing 300 years or so before Karl Marx, the great protestant reformer, Martin Luther, argued that the Christian Church had misunderstood the nature and value of work. He would have agreed with Marx that human beings were alienated from their work and from one another, but not for the same reason. As Christianity became the Church of Empire, the Church itself drew a distinction between the work of lay people in the world and the work of priests, bishops, monks and nuns. “Divine service” in the Church– an authority of Empire itself – was the premier vocation of the Christian. Those who labored outside the Church walls were not as worthy-or as holy- as those who prayed, taught and led worship within its walls. Working in the world was not sacred, life within the Church was.
Luther challenged this underlying assumption in his 1520 Treatise on Work. All Christians are people of vocation – Luther calls this ‘the priesthood of all believers” – and the work of the ditch digger, the farmer, the blacksmith and the weaver is a witness to God’s creative presence in the world. Luther insists that the labor of honest work for the nourishment of self and others builds up Christian community. All human work is therefore holy work. The life of the laborer is just as sacred at the life of the priest or Pope.
The Lord God of Genesis may have kicked Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, consigning future women to painful childbirth and future men to labor by the sweat of our brows, but that didn’t mean people’s bodies were meant by God to be beaten to pulp by the work they did for somebody else.
On the contrary, Jesus proclaimed the dignity of work and worker in today’s parable about a landowner who was so generous he confounded the men he had hired.
Jesus’ was assuring his listeners that God accepted even late-comers to the kingdom; and, created in the image of God, shouldn’t we also disregard technicalities and honor the person in front of us?
See here, to put bread on our tables is the first, second and last requirement of life.
To feed ourselves, to nourish our progeny, to make sure tummies are full when families go to sleep at night—everybody is subject to meet this non-negotiable demand.
If you do everything else in life right, but not this, you die.
The body call us, and with our bodies we must produce bread, by hook or by crook, through a battle with the earth, or a battle with steel, or a battle with our brains--bread must reach our tables.
There are only three petitions in the Lord’s Prayer, and the first and most humble one is, “Give us this day our daily bread,” as if that was all that could be expected in this world, to count on food only one day at a time.
For much of the world through history and still today, people live one paycheck to the next, and one day at a time.
Every woman and every man is vulnerable—we need that bread, we need that work, and we will do almost anything for it.
To give ourselves over to the uses of the landowner, the mine supervisor, the factory manager, the municipal sanitation department, the corporation executive, the school superintendent, the Dean of the Faculty, is to give over our precious time and the sanctity of our bodily selves.
Yes, we must eat, and we will work for it; but the employer also knows that and historically has been known to abuse this advantage in large and small ways based on the knowledge that the worker can be replaced.
In the era in which we live today, post Industrial Revolution, that advantage commonly, routinely, has resulted in the degradation and endangerment of women and men and children.
Even today, with the benefit of unions (thank you Mother Jones, thank you Eugene V. Debs, thank you President Franklin Delano Roosevelt), even today with the benefit of workspace safety regulations (thank you Ralph Nader for OSHA), even today with the benefit of the minimum wage (thank you women of the Lawrence textile strike and Florence Kelley of the Women’s Trade Union League who in 1912 led Massachusetts to be the first in the country to establish a minimum wage), even today 100 years after Rev. Walter Rauschenbush preached that “it is un-Christian to regard human life as a mere instrument for the production of wealth,” even today it is still very possible, even likely, to have the soul wrung out of your beaten bodies, to be turned into a thing, and have your individuality destroyed, anywhere across the employment spectrum.
That’s why they call work “work,” I guess, so even under benign circumstances, it so taxes our souls that we need much strengthening and inspiration lest we expire.
Whence cometh our help, if we lift our eyes toward the hills?
Luther echoes the message we hear in the Gospel this morning. While the workers who arrived early in the morning found it to be unfair that those who came at the end of the day received the same amount of pay, the landowner is not concerned with the number of hours worked. Rather, the landowner has a different understanding of work’s purpose than those he hired. The landowner honors the laborer and his contributions to the work of the community by valuing the work of those who come towards the end of the day as much as those who came earlier.
The implication we take from this parable is that somehow those who came later were lazy. But we do not know that. Perhaps those who came later in the day had completed their labor at another vineyard or some other kind of work. Perhaps some of them were ill and only felt better as the day went on. Perhaps some of them were caring for a sick family member or neighbor. In paying the same amount to each worker, the landowner honors the human dignity of the laborer. Or as Marx would put it: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”
When I go to work, can I take my soul? How do I bring my whole self to work?
It will be trouble if we don’t, because eventually we will become more alienated from ourselves than we already are performing the mind-numbing repetition (whether it’s factory piece work or writing mortgages), more alienated from our work mates and neighbors, more alienated from nature itself when we join the walking dead. T.S. Eliot wrote upon seeing the crowds of London professionals, “each one fixing his eyes before his feet” while crossing London Bridge, “I had not thought death had undone so many.”
It will be trouble if you do bring your whole self to work, because you won’t be able to remain silent in the face of any company abuse, malfeasance, corruption, or injustice that you might be a witness or a party to—the Lord will trouble your still waters.
Thanks must go to the moviemakers who memorialized the struggles of workers in movies about women
fighters like Norma Rae. Erin Brockovich. Karen Silkwood. 9 - 5.
Thanks, too, for the portrayal of men enduring workplace brutality in such movies as On the Waterfront (longshoremen); Matewan (about coal miners in West Virginia).
Then, thanks to Michael Moore who tries to buttonhole Roger Smith, the President of General Motors, when the company plans to close down the Detroit plant in a movie called Roger and Me.
We’ve been through this before with Nestle (milk formula in Africa), tobacco, and now opioids.
To be sure, many companies and corporations do honor their employees, and many are responsible to the wider constituencies beyond the stockholders, of community and environment.
But Marx preached that managers and executives who are responsible for the endangerment of their workers and for the alienated state of those workers are themselves alienated beings, and we need to be just as concerned about them.
Not that we are without sin, either—aren’t we ourselves complicit sometimes in corporate culture with its conformism, go along to get along, competitiveness?
As I look to the hills, I ask, from when cometh our help?
What does this mean for us? Most of us do not do manual labor to earn the bread that sustains our own life, the lives of our families and the community around us. For many of us, work is a means to an end. But what would change if we saw our own work the way the Vineyard owner, Luther and Marx understand it?
Perhaps the first change would be that we no longer separate Sunday from Monday – Friday. Understanding our work as a gift to our community, we might begin to link the forgiveness and gratitude of Sunday worship to the praise of God in our workplaces. I am not suggesting that you stand on your desk and preach to those around you, although you certainly could give it a try if you are so moved! Rather I invite you to see your co-workers as part of God’s holiness. Like us, each human is person is “wonderfully made” in the image of God, no matter if they are persons of faith or persons of no faith. How might our behavior change toward them if even the most annoying of co-workers is seen as holy?
And if we understand our work community to be holy, would we begin to see the work we do as holy too? In addition to putting bread on our tables, can we shift our focus so that doing our work well in community with others is an act of co-creation with the Creator of all? It can be challenging to do so. Understanding our work as holy requires us to ask uncomfortable questions: “Does this work help others?” “Is this program oriented toward justice?” “Are our work materials caring for the natural world or adding to its destruction?” It also re-orients our relationships with those whose work we supervise: “Are our requests of our subordinates reasonable?” “How do we support working parents?” “Is the wage we pay livable?” And it re-orients our relationships with those in upper management: “How do we support managements’ goals?” “Where can our own gifts be most helpful?” “Are we brave enough to challenge something which we know to be wrong?”
For generations, the Church has equated the toil of work with punishment for the sin committed by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Perhaps it is more helpful to think of work as something God intended for humans right from the beginning of Creation. Genesis 1 tells us that God creates Adam and Eve – and us in turn – to be laborers with God in completing the Creation. Instead of having “dominion over” the Creation as the King James Bible translation describes it, God’s charge is an invitation to see our work as part of the larger work of on-going creation. Rather than a curse, our labor is the sacred act of participating with God in the work of creation.
Human work is not intended to be the means of alienating ourselves from our labor and from the community. It is a sacred form of praise – the means by which we bless the world. As Sabbath ends today and work begins again tomorrow, carry with you the gift of your Creator and offer it to the world with joy. Amen.