Monday, October 01, 2007

On Human Work: A Book Review (by Gaius Berg)

Allow me to introduce to you one of the most influential persons in the collapse of communism in the 20th century. Surprisingly, he may turn out to be one of the most influential persons in the collapse of capitalism in the 21st century. He is a person with keen insight into larger questions of economic systems, but also with keen insight into the practical issues of everyday work--into the spirituality of work. He is a person deeply in love with Jesus Christ and the foundation of his faith, in his own words, is above all the revealed word of God (p. 9). His name is Karol Wojtyla, and he is the author of a 60-page book (he called it a letter) on the subject of human work. Though short, many consider On Human Work to be one of the best things written on the subject of work and the theology of work.

It is not easy reading, especially for those who are accustomed to the anecdotal writing of Christians who have written the stories of their successful business careers. Wojtyla's writing is heavily theological and philosophical, but even more, it is heavily biblical. Though the footnotes are extensive, roughly 80% of them are simply biblical texts. For a concise, thoughtful, and biblical critique of human work at the end of the 20th century, there is nothing better.

Karol Wojtyla is better known today as Pope John Paul II, the current leader of the majority of the world’s Christians. His encyclical, On Human Work (Laborem Exercens), was written in 1981. John Paul was bishop in Cracow, Poland during the 1960’s and 1970’s, when that country was under a repressive, atheistic government. As bishop his preaching was fearless, and according to George Weigel, biographer of John Paul II, a revolution of conscience, launched by John Paul II in June 1979, gave birth in Gdansk to the Solidarity movement, and ten years of nonviolent struggle later, communism was finished. (“John Paul II and the Crisis of Humanism” in First Things: December, 1999, p. 33.)

But John Paul's writing is by no means simply anti-Communist rhetoric. His biblical foundation, augmented by keen sociological, historical, and psychological insight, make him a critic of capitalism as well. Both capitalism and communism, he says, are based on error--the error of materialism. While communism may be founded on theoretical materialism, capitalism is based on practical materialism. Both systems have led to subordinating people to things, and thus are opposed to biblical teaching. The bible, says John Paul, clearly teaches the priority of the personal—that persons created in God’s image are to have dominion over the material world. A biblical understanding will always keep in mind that things in the material world are tools to be used to benefit people, people are never to be viewed as tools for the benefit of the material world.

John Paul addresses not only macroeconomic issues, but the day-to-day issues of ordinary working people as well. Many ordinary Christians feel that their religious leaders are generally unaware, and often not that interested, in the realities of their lives in the work place. Though we spend the majority of our waking hours working, we seldom hear sermons that address the importance of our work, or that understand the difficulties we face at work. It is refreshing to hear the Pope recognize both the dignity and the suffering we experience in our work: Man's life is built up every day from work, from work it derives its specific dignity, but at the same time work contains the unceasing measure of human toil and suffering and also of the harm and injustice which penetrate deeply into social life . . . (p. 3).

The command given to the human race in Genesis to subdue the earth is the bedrock doctrine that undergirds all of the Pope’s teaching on work. He is constantly pointing us back to the subjective nature of work--that the really important question in any work is not so much what is accomplished, but who is doing the accomplishing. Work done by any person has value and dignity, regardless of how much status that job has in society, because it is work done by a being created in the image of God. The purpose of work is not simply to produce goods, but to serve human beings. Work serves people in three ways: 1) it provides income so a person can care for themselves and their family; 2) it contributes to the development and fulfillment of the worker; 3) it produces goods or services for the benefit of society at large.

Even work that is menial, monotonous, or alienating, he says, has dignity because it is a human being doing the work. Thus none of us need belittle our work, or think of ourselves as just a worker, but rather, we can think of ourselves as part-owners of the world. We are part owners because all work in the world is intended by God to be for our benefit as human beings.

God is portrayed in the early chapters of Genesis as a worker, and a key aspect of our being God’s image bearers, is that we too work. This, John Paul says, is the heart of Christian teaching on work. Added to this lofty conception that human work copies the creator’s work, is a further divine stamp of approval in that when God chose to enter the world as a human being, he spent the majority of his life doing ordinary physical labor. The fact that Christ spent most of his life doing ordinary work is the most eloquent gospel of work (p. 14).

As we said earlier, John Paul II criticizes communism and capitalism because both are materialistic (making the personal subservient to the material). He also says that both communism and capitalism are mistaken on their views of private property. Communism is mistaken in its outright rejection of private property, whereas capitalism is mistaken because it fails to recognize that the only legitimate title to private property is when it is used to serve people. Though the bible endorses private ownership, it does so only with the understanding that ownership is never to be for purely selfish use but always for the benefit of others. The material order is not something any of us built or earned—it came to us as a gift. It came as a gift from previous generations who worked hard, and it came as a gift from God. The instructions that God gave with the gift were, use this for the benefit of everyone. John Paul uses the expression the common destination of the world's goods, to express this idea. (We are reminded, though John Paul does not make this connection, that Abraham was blessed to be a blessing.)

John Paul's critique of capitalism is especially needful for those Christians tempted to believe that communism's collapse in 1989 was God's endorsement of capitalism. It is common for visitors to Hong Kong to be asked on their return home, save things changed much since the communist takeover in 1997? Most visitors reply, no, the change of government has not had significant impact. While it is understandable that this reply would bring a sigh of relief to those who have a nearly religious commitment to capitalism, it is strange that Christians (whose commitment to any economic system is always qualified) should not be troubled by this reply. Is it not strange that Hong Kong, the world icon of capitalism, should operate so smoothly under a communist government? Is it possible that the reason is that capitalism and communism are not so different after all? Is it possible that both systems see the material world as the first order of being, with human beings as tools to be used in the development of the material world? Rather than gloating over the victory of capitalism in 1989, should we not be evaluating capitalism, the world's dominant economic system, in light of the bible? For those Christians who do want to seriously consider this question, Pope John Paul II's encyclical, On Human Work, is an excellent place to begin.

Though he generally avoids getting too specific in suggestions for how an economy should be run, John Paul's belief that children have a right to care, love and affection, lead him to the conviction that a just wage is one that enables a worker to support a family without both parents needing to work. He also believes that a just economic system will honor the rights of women (they should not be excluded from any work they are capable of doing), will make health care available to all, and will see that disabled workers are given work commensurate with their ability.

The final section in this work is titled elements for a Spirituality of Work and is particularly refreshing. Many religious teachers today seem to carry on the monastic bias that says drawing near to God requires leaving ordinary work. Protestant preachers often make their parishioners feel that if they would only spend less time at work and more time serving on church committees, they would be closer to God. John Paul does not see things this way. Rather, he calls on the church to form a spirituality of work which will help all people to come closer, through work, to God, (p.53). While some preachers call on us to abandon the world to its downward spiral, John Paul calls on workers to see their ordinary jobs as opportunities to participate in the unfolding of the creator's work (p.55). In giving us dominion over the created order, God has invited us to improve the circumstances of the world, and when we do our jobs to improve the world, we are doing what we were created to do as image bearers of God.

The basic view of work in this document is highly positive and optimistic, but not in a way that ignores the harsher realities of work. All work, John Paul says, is inevitably linked with toil, (p.58). Though the earth is a gift given by God to humanity, it is a gift that has been cursed because of human sin and thus all work involves some suffering. What is the Christian response to this ugly reality about work? Questions about suffering are always difficult, but we must seek answers to these questions, John Paul tells us, in the mystery of the suffering and death of Christ.

Though most Christians recognize that their jobs involve suffering, few have learned to associate this kind of suffering with Christ's command to carry our cross. We have been taught to think of cross-bearing as done in a religious context, unrelated to the realities of everyday work life. Yet, says John Paul, it is in the daily toil and suffering of our work that we can show ourselves true disciples of Christ and carry our cross. The cross, he says, is indispensable in the spirituality of human work.

For all Christians who desire to be led by Christ in every area of life, including their life at work, John Paul's encyclical On Human Work is well worth the effort. It is a solid foundation, not only for a theology of work, but also for a spirituality of work.

{Quotations are taken from the March 1995 edition of the encyclical, published by the United States Catholic Conference, Washington, D.C. This encyclical can be downloaded from the web:}


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