Work and Faith: The Prophetic Imperative

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PRESCRIPT: Recently I published an article in Engage.Mail, the online journal of the Ethos Centre for Christianity and Society. This article was a response to a previous article published in the same journal on the subject of work and faith, and which contained what I think of as a number of flaws characteristic of modern approaches to the issue of work and faith. I reproduce the article as published.

Graham Hooper’s article (Engage.Mail 1/3/19) is an informative contribution to the discussion about the theology of work. Hooper helpfully begins with an insistence that theologies of work must be inclusive and accessible to people from all backgrounds and walks of life. He also identifies one of the key questions which any theology of work must answer: what does the Gospel mean within any specific working context? Likewise, Hooper identifies the diversity of working contexts, and the fact that any theology of work must take account of this diversity. Finally, his analysis identifies the need for solidarity across working contexts – and, in this respect, quite rightly argues that this must emerge from the ‘grass roots’ level of local faith communities.

Nonetheless I suggest his article exemplifies many of the problems associated with those theologies of work that emerge from experience in executive, entrepreneurial and corporate management, and whose theology might be broadly described as ‘evangelical’ in nature.

In particular, Hooper’s analysis sidesteps Christianity’s prophetic tradition by avoiding reflection on the systemic justice issues with which any theology of work must necessarily engage. This is a critical omission for two reasons. Firstly, because Christian faith is more than a system of personal ethics; it is about the whole of creation, and whether or not our institutional and social relationships reflect and embody the covenantal relationship with God into which all human life is called. Secondly, because it pays insufficient attention to the voices of those marginalised by current economic and political hierarchies. In my prior experience within the union movement, I daily witnessed the harm done to workers and managers who were injured or bullied at work, or who were traumatised by a corporate culture that pressured them to disavow their personal ethical standards in the pursuit of ‘success’. This experience has led me to a position that is critical of many theologies of work, precisely because, like Hooper’s analysis, those theologies contain three key problems.

  • The notion (implicit or explicit) that a Christian theology of work must first accept the fundamental ‘rightness’ of free market capitalism.

Some theologies of work read as though the ethos of free market capitalism is identical to the ethos of Christianity. However, the task of Christian theology is not to accept the ‘rightness’ of any system of economic organisation, whether free market capitalism, state socialism or anything in between. Rather, it is to critique all human economic systems from the standpoint of the Kingdom of God, which declares the inalienable dignity of all people arising from their creation in the likeness and image of God.

Hooper asks: what is the Good News being offered to labourers working 12-hour shifts in 40-degree heat in the Arabian desert? What he does not ask is: what does the Gospel say about any system of economic organisation that requires people to work under such conditions? In Luke 13:11-21, Jesus both heals a woman crippled by a debilitating illness and berates the religious leaders who complain about him working a miracle on the Sabbath. Jesus’ act of healing was an act of restoration and release, one that returns the woman to community and relationship, freeing her from the alienation she suffered as a consequence of her condition. At the same time, his upbraiding of the religious leaders was a stinging rebuke of their willingness to uphold a system of ‘righteousness’ that crippled and deformed human life because it gave them power and privilege.

The point is that any Christian theology of work cannot merely be about consoling people for the situations in which they find themselves because it accepts the system which generates those situations to be fundamentally ‘right’. Rather, a theology of work must prioritise the human dignity of working people and activate them to transform unjust or oppressive conditions. This is precisely what the early Methodist missionaries did among the working poor in England, an activism that gave rise to movements such as Chartism and trade unionism; and regardless of the failures and shortcomings of both movements, they stand as examples of the dynamic potential of the Gospel.

  • The notion that, having accepted the ‘rightness’ of free market capitalism, the prophetic task of Christian theology becomes a matter of smoothing out the ‘rough edges’ of economics – of ‘humanising’ work

Hooper notes Paul’s capacity to meaningfully engage with diverse audiences, including slaves, and correctly identifies the demeaning nature of slavery. What he does not acknowledge, however, is that Paul himself accepted the institution of slavery, despite its demeaning and dehumanising characteristics. Indeed, as an educated Roman citizen, Paul probably understood that it was the slaves working on the large agricultural estates, in the mines and on board the trading galleys who kept the Empire’s economy going.

Which begs the question: how does one humanise a working context that is inherently dehumanising? Hooper suggests that Paul’s answer was to encourage people to make their working lives an ‘offering’ to God, so that they might be sanctified through that work and thereby be assured of their ‘reward’ through the inheritance of faith. But this suggestion completely misunderstands the Christian idea of work as offering. Work that is performed under duress, or in dehumanising conditions, cannot be turned into an offering to God – that is to attempt to sanctify the idolatry of economic ‘necessity’. Moreover, God has already rejected such offerings (Isaiah 6: 11-16; Hosea 6: 6-10; Amos 5: 21-24; Micah 6: 6-8) – offerings tainted with the guilt of injustice and covenant-breaking.

For all his understanding of the transformative nature of God’s intervention in human life through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, Paul failed to apply this understanding to economic systems he clearly accepted as normative. It was left to the likes of William Wilberforce and others to demonstrate that, from the Christian perspective, justice is not merely a matter of ‘doing good’: it is a matter of making effective, in the here and now, the transformative liberation of human life proclaimed by the Gospel. And if that involves the overturning of an economic ‘pillar’ which conventional wisdom argues is either essential or a ‘necessary evil’, then that is the prophetic task to which Christian theology must turn itself.

  • That, having both accepted the ‘rightness’ of prevailing economic systems and the notion that Christian theology should limit itself to ‘humanising’ work, Christian pastoral care then becomes a matter of enabling people to ‘succeed’ within the prevailing economic order.

This reality was driven home to me when I watched a webcast of the 2018 ‘Work as Worship’ conference. Aside from the total absence of ‘grass-roots’ Christian voices – all the speakers were either corporate CEOs or the senior pastors of large ‘megachurches’ – what I was most struck by was the implications for pastoral care arising from the absence of prophetic critique. In other words, not only were all the voices in this conference the voices of people occupying positions of power and influence, but also their ideas about pastoral care were shaped by that privileged position and reflected its priorities.

The standout example was the pastor of a church operating in one of the northern industrial cities in the US that had been devastated by the global financial crisis of 2008. This pastor spoke compellingly about a church program that, in addition to educating people in financial literacy and managing budgets, connected them to entrepreneurs and investors so that they could start small businesses and get back on their economic feet.

All of which was very impressive. Except for the fact that the absence of any prophetic critique of the systemic injustices that brought about the GFC also failed to acknowledge the resulting harm that had been done to individuals and communities. This kind of failure serves only to entrench existing structures of power and the ongoing vulnerability of communities and individuals to those structures. More disturbingly, it also equates Christian pastoral care with those forms of redress which the prevailing economic orthodoxy recognises as legitimate. Instead of re-arranging existing structures to address justice issues, pastoral care simply becomes a matter of re-plugging people back into the ‘system’, regardless of how they have been victimised by that system and may be re-victimised in future.

Hooper falls into the same trap with his discussion about faith-based prayer/discussion groups. While acknowledging their power to provide places for people from different backgrounds to share solidarity and engage in discussion about workplace issues, Hooper says nothing about the capacity of such groups to generate deeper reflection about the essential brokenness of human economic organisation and its impact on both individuals and communities. Indeed, the implicit suggestion of Hooper’s analysis is that the purpose of such groups is to reduce the whole question of work and faith to a matter of individual ethics, or to make it a mechanism for the development of ‘strategies’ that enable one to achieve one’s goals through work.

But this fails to recognise that the word ‘economy’ is actually a deeply theological term; one which demands that Christian pastoral care be about more than merely making people ‘viable’ components within an economic matrix. The parable of the vineyard owner and the labourers (Matthew 20: 1-16) is not a defence of the ‘right’ of the economically privileged to deal with the economically vulnerable on whatsoever terms they choose; rather, it is a declaration of the abundant hospitality of God, that defies the logic of economic theory and practice in order to bring all people into the orbit of grace. Christian pastoral care, informed by a Christian theology of work, should thus model itself on this pattern.

So what should a Christian theology of work be about? Space does not permit a detailed discussion, but here are some brief points to consider. A Christian theology of work should:

  • Acknowledge and lament the harm experienced by individuals and communities through modernity’s construction of work and economy;
  • Name and confront the sin of systemic injustice that lies at the heart of work-related harm;
  • Challenge business and church leaders to align their labour practices with the covenantal flourishing envisaged by the Gospel; and
  • Recover the theological meaning of economy and work in order to challenge the prevailing technocratic character of economic theory and practice

There is a critical need for a more inclusive conversation in the life of the church about the theology of work, one that not only listens to different theological traditions but that also includes the voices of those whose experience of work and economy differs from the privilege that informs many theologies of work. A Christian theology of work should reflect this diversity; and in so doing, it should necessarily stand over against any economic system that militates against the dignity implicit in our creation and in our shared, covenantal life together.

© Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2019. All rights reserved. Originally published in Engage.Mail as “Work and Faith: the prophetic imperative. A reply to Graham Hooper” 10 April 2019.