Revelations in Interesting Times: Work and Worth

#1
Most of us, I expect, are used to Going to Work. For me, as a university chaplain my work involves spending time with people. Quite a lot of those encounters, those ‘spending times’ are not planned. They just happen. They can be facilitated, by offering free drinks, by sitting in the same visible place on a regular basis, but they are still ephemeral and in part unpredictable. They just happen. How, then do I work from home? After all, we have this wonderful technology: I can speak with people on the telephone; I can text them, email them. I can see them face-to-face over my webcam (once I crack the technology). But it isn’t quite the same as sitting in my favourite place, hot, fresh coffee to hand, with my little sign on the desk saying that a Chaplain is available for chat. Now, I’m being forced to re-evaluate this.

What does Christian Faith have to say about work? (And before I go any further I don’t claim to be a very good theologian. I thoroughly enjoyed writing theologically many years ago as part of my ministry training, and I rather miss it. I don’t get much practice now. Instead, when ideas and theological thoughts develop, I find myself asking, “is this something new? Is this something I have derived and synthesised from insight, experience and knowledge? Or is it something I’ve read before and forgotten where it’s come from?”)

In the Old Testament, in the Book of Genesis, the book of beginnings, we are told that Adam and Eve did not need to work. Instead they were put in a garden to tend it, to care for it, and to enjoy it. Only after the Fall, after the loss of innocence, do we get mention of work. and it’s quite telling. It can’t quite be described as punishment, but labour is a consequence of misbehaviour. It is a necessity, perhaps something we might think of as a “necessary evil” – not wrong or wicked, but sub-optimal. It is something that we must do, but if we’re honest we wouldn’t choose to do. It strikes me though that Christian faith and the church has an interesting and difficult relationship with work, take for example to phrase “Protestant work ethic” and all that lies behind it. (Although that needs to be distinguished from works, plural, which is more than language of how faith is lived out). Jesus, from memory, seems to have little to say positive or negative about work. He concentrates more on integrity and ethics. Within the New Testament letters people are reminded of the need to work. And yes, it’s the right thing to do to enable society to flourish, but such instructions as “if a man shall not work he shall not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3) isn’t only about laziness, but as much as the circumstances of the time. It requires contextual interpretation: those to whom Paul and the other NT authors were writing were waiting for the Last Days, waiting for the end of time. They were waiting for the glorious return of Christ in judgement upon the Earth and for the arrival of the New Heaven and New Earth.

How are we to think of work, or more correctly how are we to think about our work this week? I’m sure there are many people trying to think, trying to process, what it means to work from home. I know I am. Do you define yourself by what you do? After all, one of the basic introductory conversation starters we use when we meet new people is to ask “what do you do?” Of course, the primary question might be “How are you?” (or in more old-fashioned manner, “how do you do?) but in reality our identity is so often rooted in our doing. You are what you do.

The problem for some who work from home habitually, or for clergy friends and myself at times, is that as a society I suspect we are used to identifying people by what they produce, by what they are seen to do. If we don’t see them doing something useful, are they actually doing anything at all? My friends who are in the Creative Industries, particularly artists and designers, often have people who wish them to do work, but fail to value that work as product. The explanation instead is that “it will give you exposure. It will show what you can do.”

Now, lots of us have been told to work from home. How does that make you feel? I know for myself it’s really quite disturbing. It’s disturbing because I worry, maybe unconsciously most of the time, but more now, about my value. The government in these Interesting Times have included“religious staff” on the list of key workers. I can’t work out whether this is because of our value to the wider community for cohesion and stability, or whether it’s actually more to do with us doing funerals. As a culture, as a society, I’d argue that we’ve largely forgotten about God. We certainly aren’t sure what we believe, and we certainly don’t like being told what to do. Societally we are faced with uncertainty in all directions, not just about our value as workers, but also about our mortality as we await the rising tide of Coronavirus. (If there is one area which we don’t talk about it’s death, but I digress.. ).

Are we perhaps in some way going through a different sort of bereavement? Dare I ask, are we going through not so much the death of employment, as at least the death of employment in the way we are used to seeing it? One phenomenon I hear about quite often is that of “presenteeism”: that inability for workers, management in particular, to stay away from the workplace; to need to be seen working (or at least, busy…). I’m led to believe that there are plenty of studies that indicate an optimum number of hours of work, after which productivity falls off. As (a former) member of the EU (and that’s another kettle of fish entirely) the UK government managed to avoid signing up to the working time directive that directive that limited employed to 48 hours per working week. For me that’s a worrying sign. Maybe the intention was economic but it certainly doesn’t protect our humanity.

We need time off, for rest, for play, for learning. (In the Apocrypha, in the book of Ecclesiasticus, sometimes also known of the Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach, or Sirach for short, there’s a thought-provoking and beautiful passage, from 38:24, that begins, “A scholar’s wisdom comes of ample leisure; to be wise he must be relieved of other tasks” which explores wisdom, work and worship. It’s well worth a read: I particularly like the way the Revised English Bible renders it).

Are you, am I, mourning the loss of visible work? If so, and if we are honest enough to admit it, what does that say about ourselves? At it’s most stark, if our work is where we place our value, where we find our identity, where we place our worth, (and hence the word worship) then in the Christian understanding are we not actually engaging in idolatry, worshipping something other than God? And even if you’re not a believer, I hope you agree that it might not be such a good idea…

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#3
The less said about capitalism, the better! Maybe if we ignore it it'll go away.

I love working from home. I generally dislike being in close proximity to people not of my choosing, and I long ago stopped thinking of myself in terms of my job (or even my hobbies). I can create value through my work - I have inflicted thousands of trees on the countryside, and got hundreds of youngsters into a worthwhile profession. But I don't equate that with my worth.
 
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