Part Two - Summoned and Equipped by God: Chapter 5 - Doing the Lord's Work
Work in Historical Perspective
For the purposes of this book Stevens defines work as “…purposeful activity involving mental, emotional or physical energy, or all three, whether remunerated or not.” Stevens reminds us that the nature of work has changed in recent years. With the progression from agricultural to industrial to information based economies, the role work plays in our lives and in our identities has changed. While work was something we once did in community with neighbors and families, it has now largely become disassociated from those connections. With communication technologies and other technological innovations, work has become evermore intrusive and all-encompassing. Our work environment is where most of us directly wrestle with the “principalities and powers” of our age. Our new work configurations present a host of issues that would be foreign to people of the biblical era.
In addition to changes in the nature of work, Stevens observes that the Church has particular problems when it comes to thinking about work. Concerning Christians he writes:
Their commitment to serve and love their neighbor leads church people to exalt those professions that have an obvious direct impact for the kingdom of God. As we have seen, missionary is at the top of the list. In most circles, the missionary is roughly equivalent to the martyr in the second century. Next to the missionary is the pastor. Then down it goes in descending order of ‘Christian’ value: people-helping work, intellectual work, creative work, physical work, political work. The trades are not highly esteemed but they offer ‘clean’ work. Then comes business, which involves getting one’s hand ‘dirty’ even though business is probably the best hope of the poor of the world. This is followed by the questionable occupations: law, stockbrokering, sales, advertising, the military. (109)
While the order in which occupations might be listed may change over time, the ranking of work has a long history.
Manual labor was despised by Greek citizens as something befitting only slaves. Aristotle considered slaves as instruments endowed with life. Stevens does not address the Roman context but the situation was similar. Roman citizens merited prestige by their extensive agricultural land holdings and the number of people working for them. Trade and commerce were seen as vulgar and disreputable ways to amass wealth. This Greco-Roman perspective worked it is way into the church during the early centuries. It was supplemented with the sacred/secular divide where only the contemplative life and spiritual matters were of ultimate consequence, and “…productive work that meets the need of the body had no lasting significance.” (111) At the Italian Renaissance, with the revival of Greek philosophy, the new contemplatives became the artists and the intellectuals who did not trouble themselves with manual labor. The Reformation was partially a rebellion against this devaluation of everyday labor.
With the Industrial Revolution came the specialization of labor and relocation of labor outside the family/community context, creating a greater distance between the labor of the individual worker and the final product produced. The idea of work as a holistic expression of life in community done in service to God gave way to other ideologies. Karl Marx suggested that we would find personal fulfillment by contemplating ourselves as we engaged in productive labor. Sigmund Freud saw work as a “tragic necessity” because it interferes with our innate pleasure-seeking disposition.
Stevens summarizes the first half of this chapter with this paragraph:
It is not hard to see the connection between these historical trends. Work in society, so it is thought, has no intrinsic value; the work of ministry lasts forever (Greek dualism). Full-time pastoral or missionary service is the vocation of vocations (medieval monasticism). Physical and manual labor is less worthy than ‘creative’ and religious work (Renaissance). One ought to be able to find personal fulfillment in one’s daily work (Marx, the Renaissance autonomy of the person, the individualism and privatism of postmodern man). So this is the world of work. But, to obtain a theology of work we must also listen to the timeless Word of God. (112)
I think Stevens presents a very good brief analysis. Everything I have read of economic history seems to agree with his assessment. Does this very cursory description ring true for you?