Friday, November 4, 2011

Good Work: Christian Ethics in the Workplace

By Esther D. Reed, 129 pages,

While certain strains of Christianity, within both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, have inspired many of the worst aspects of modern capitalism, Christianity holds the answers to the problems caused by the modern economy. Reed's well-balanced discussion displays none of the anti-Christian rhetoric common to many such works, as she is herself a theologian and writes from within the religion.

She finds hope in Orthodox icons, the writings of John Paul II, Protestant writers, and the Bible. Getting back to the heart of the tradition will reorient Christians so that their economic activity will serve Christ. She does not argue for an immature escapist position whereby Christians should somehow head into the woods and avoid gainful employment.

First, from Orthodox icons she reminds readers of the transformative, transfigurative aspect of Christianity. Through Christ we mysteriously participate in the life of God. This practice can make us less predisposed to participate in today's mindless, ever-growing consumerism. Icons, by giving us a glimpse of heaven, remind us that our work, rather than being about money, worldly success, and acquisitiveness, carries eternal meaning. What we do has a spiritual dimension.

Reed highlights the thoughts of John Paul II that are more critical of capitalism. The late pontiff emphasized the dignity of the human being, and showed how work was a reflection of this dignity. He obliged business owners to respect that dignity by ensuring, for instance, that working conditions were not abusive. Yet he reminded his readers that the Church's task was not to outline a specific economic model. Christians were called to live their lives in the marketplace, and this would transform the economy.

From the Bible, St. Paul's tent-making ministry can inspire Christians. He did not see his trade as a vocation in itself, importantly, but as a way to live his higher vocation. Working Monday to Saturday enabled him to preach Christ on Sunday: "the normality of daily life is taken for granted by Paul and is not elevated by him to the level of a vocation or particular call."

Reed repeats a major theme of her book, which is that many Christians have gotten carried away with equating their work with their vocation. She warns that this can put a spiritual gloss on demeaning or mindless work. While all Christians can have a vocation, and "Vocations are not reserved only for the clergy," not all work is vocation.

Corporations, Reed warns, are turning the work-as-vocation into an excuse to turn us all into workaholics. They promise that through a spiritualized work we can actualize ourselves. Companies spiritualize what is in reality a "fiercely competitive workplace ethic." Importantly, she concludes, "Christian discipleship does not necessarily place a theological or spiritual obligation on believers to seek their vocation in the workplace." Christians can relax, and stop forcing themselves to be super achievers.

Though Christianity got us into this workaholic mess by claiming that work was vocation, by challenging many assumptions and reading the biblical and patristic sources closely, and listening to the wisdom of John Paul II's encyclicals Laboren Exercens and Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, we can begin to define better our real Christian vocations and put our paid work into perspective.

A timely book for our workaholic society.

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