A culture of workaholics
My dad taught me to be a worker. One of the only ways that I could consistently receive his affirmation was by reporting to work. It’s no wonder one summer I prided myself on working twelve doubleshifts at Hersheypark. I know that was an accomplishment that I could have certainly used to please my father. I’m not sure it worked, but it did reveal to me that I was willing to work hard to get love.
I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that hard work is a way to receive love. My entire generation is full of workaholics who are prone to burnout. For us, from a very young age, hard work was pressed into us by our boomer parents that we never once questioned the economic system we were in. It was just a given. We were told we were getting educated for a job and to pursue a practical major in college for career opportunities. Our entire lives were focused on making sure we could function in this political economy.
The Protestant work ethic didn’t help anything because we tied our holiness to our labor. So not only was it a given for our economic life, it was a given for our spiritual life too. In every sector it seemed that labor was an essential part of our life. The pandemic has changed how we work, changed commutes, and even the idea of a “40-hour work week” (even though some of us brag about working more than that, as if that’s a good thing). It’s not a forgone conclusion that the American economic form is the best one, it’s just the one that won the ideological war. Another way is possible.
Are workers entitled to all they generate?
I grew up hearing this verse proof-texted to me regularly: ““The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”—2 Thessalonians 3:10.
Paul is saying he and his comrades worked and earned their keep so that they wouldn’t rely on the Thessalonian church for their generosity. And he is committing the community to the labor of love, the labor of mutuality, of building something in common. Our political economy’s lack of mutuality makes such a verse very hard to “place” in our context. We aren’t working for one another, or for a common cause. We seem to be selling our labor and finding that the “surplus value” ends up with their boss, and not them. In other words, workers today get paid a certain amount but they end up producing more wealth than that, but they don’t get it in return.
In an amusing example of this, an Ohio-based pizza restaurant owner gave all of the “surplus value” of the day’s work back to his laborers. In other words, he distributed the profit of the day as a way to showcase his appreciation. Each worker made $78/hour. The workers generate all the wealth and get none of it. To be sure, there would be no wealth, no profit without workers, and someone they’re at the bottom of the totem pole. What this shows us is that there is a clear problem with how we think about wealth, value, and money in the United States, but we are so hell bent on working our tails off, we never stop to think about it. Nevertheless, we see it time and again; billionaires thrived during the pandemic, and poor folks suffered.
Moreover, we work so hard, it’s hard to make space for any of life’s pleasures, including the peace we get from prayer, the joy we get from worship, and community we find in the church. The church is so anemic in its response to our overworked selves, that the idea of Christianity being an alternative to the way of the world seems implausible. And it doesn’t help that whenever Christians discuss an alternative, Cold War-era anxieties about “socialism” creep up. The church has been so instrumental to maintaining our economic status quo, it is hard to imagine it as a liberation for workers toiling under the sun.
The Bible writers have a much different idea about labor
But the qohelet, the writer of Ecclesiastes, had a much different idea. To them, working was pointless, a toiling in the sun:
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
at which they toil under the sun?
The compilation of all Hebrew wisdom reminds us that our work is futile and an “oppression under the sun.” To base our livelihoods on the pain of our work, selling our labor, hoping to get by. It seems to me like the laborers got the mud-end of the stick, the raw deal. And it seems to me like God has something much greater in mind for us.
Further, the Bible is very critical of rich oppressors exploiting the workers of laborers. From James:
Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.
James is promising judgment on the wealthy who lord their wealth over their workers. He is prophesying against the spirit of the age with worships mammon. Jesus said you can only have one master: god or money. The writer of 1 Timothy names money as the root of all (some translations as “all kinds” here, but there’s no grammatical reason to do that) evil. The early church demonstrated an alternative economy, where wealth was distributed to all who had need.
Jesus famously convicts a rich young ruler, who is trying to gain the whole world including eternal life, to sell all of his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor, but he leaves discourages, because truly, we can’t serve both God and money. The bosses and owners that hold take more than their fair share when it was the workers who made them that money are like that rich young ruler. It reminded me of Jeff Bezos’ thanking Amazon workers and employees for his extravagant trip to the moon, which he made on the back of those people.
Not to mention the hundreds of other references to caring for the poor and warning the rich. The Bible writers join a long tradition of God’s preferential option for the worker, for the poor one, for the one without rights. Even a cursory reading of the Bible requires a lot of creative work to remove the economic consequences of the Gospel.
God is showing us an alternative economy
God has a much different way of imagining how we labor, how we demonstrate mutual care and support, and an alternative economy to the one where we sell our labor. Our church and other churches are reimagining how we share and live in common with ideas like our Debt Annihilation Team, our Baby Goods Exchange, and our thrift stores.
But we also want to offer structural and political solutions to what ails our workers. So this means we can advocate for fair wages, time off, paid family leave, unemployment benefits and so on. We can support job protections and unionization that help workers have the power they need to confront their bosses. These ideas, especially in the American political economy, are often seen as negative for workers, too costly for tax payers, or incurring too much cost for the owners. But since we’ve had no wealth without workers, treating them with dignity and honor, giving them their fair shake, is not only biblical, it’s decent.
In the United States we have just one day to celebrate workers, Labor Day, which is what brought this to mind this week for me. We need more than just a day to honor the workers that make life possible for all of us. The church can be a place for their respite and honor, but we can be a group that advocates for their rights and dignities, while holding their oppressors accountable, as James does above. We can name the absurdity of the system that makes us workaholics, while pointing to another way, as we share all things in common. Too often the church co-signed the economic form in the United States, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We can join the resisters in the Bible and throughout history to say that there is another way of making ends meet and building an economy.