Sometimes, we can get awfully sanctimonious about work, especially when someone else is doing it. We are indeed fortunate if our daily work involves helping people, as a doctor or a nurse does, or if we find fulfilment in something like a craft by which we create something new with our skill and hands. In such conditions, we are motivated to take pride in doing a first rate job.
Not everyone is so fortunate – that is when they are able to find a job or set up a business. Work can be degrading. Certainly, one of the greatest satires on the condition of workers in the industrial age is Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. Here, he is seen as an assembly line worker.
This film was made in the 1930’s during the Depression. Economic life in those days was still based on manufacturing and production. If you were unemployed, whether it was your fault or not, there was no unemployment benefit or indeed any kind of welfare state. I won’t go into all these arguments for or against state-controlled or private health and welfare, because the issues in each country are complex and there are several legitimate points of view.
Christians often fall into divers political opinions about the means of production and the men and women who have to work. There has to be a balance between the just remuneration of the workers and the investments from the company’s turnover needed for maintaining and developing production tools and its progress in its particular market. Beyond this just balance, there are the excesses of capitalism and socialism. These were the things at stake during Mrs Thatcher’s administration as Prime Minister in England. For me the ideal is something like the Cooperative Movement or Distributism. The Arts & Crafts Movement was something wonderful in its ideas, but it is not economically viable in the society we live in.
Work for most people is a hard slog with very little reward other than the salary they earn to maintain their lives and consumption. The more we earn, the more we need more and have to work to earn it. These are problems we all face in keeping the wolf away from the door and providing for our families. There is nothing romantic about most people’s jobs or anything remotely resembling job satisfaction or indeed anything in common with a self-employed carpenter two thousand years ago.
We generally aspire to be just and honest people and put our bit in for society and our own needs. For some, it is very difficult to be totally honest in an exploitive system, and it is easy to understand the person who decides to live in such a way as to need as little money as possible. There is an idea from some of the anarchists as to a legal way of avoiding tax – earn too little money to be taxable. But, this means a way of life that is incompatible with owning a house, a car, electronic gadgets and the like. There are also “alternative economies” for those interested in that kind of thing.
Thus I see the value of work as relative. There are different kinds of work. Doing your own garden is work, but you don’t get paid for it. Same with a woman (or a man) doing housework or renovation work. With the latter, you are earning money by saving it and not having to pay someone else to do the job. Some people like to be as self-sufficient as possible, though complete self-sufficiency or “survivalism” is an illusion. The more fortunate people fulfil their lives through a vocation, that sometimes is their paid work – for example doctors and social workers. Increasingly, we priests are non-stipendiary and have to have a job to earn our living. I do technical translations and teach technical and business English. I don’t really see that as a vocation, but it is much nicer work than having to work as a civil servant (the job is as boring as watching paint dry, but you get job security, a decent salary and a good retirement pension). Most people just have to settle for what they can get according to their marketable skills.
So, talk of a “spirituality” of work is very relative. Some people have jobs that enable them to take pride in a good job well done, and others are so degraded and exploited that such sentiments become very difficult.
Knowing something of real life makes me gag at some of the sanctimonious cant about thrift and work. I admire Pope John XXIII, for when he was a young priest, he defended workers’ rights in a time when such sympathies would earn a priest the suspicion of being a Modernist! I can understand the sentiment and intention behind instituting a Christian feast of work to “baptise” the secular one set up by socialists, but it will mean too many different things to different people.
I am lucky in that my work is pleasant, though irregular and not extremely profitable. I have the freedom of working at home and having only deadlines and quantity imperatives to meet, so I can go sailing when there is a gap, but it can be difficult to make ends meet. We all do more or less well in the current conditions of scarcity of work and financial crisis.
On this Feast of Saints Philip and James, my heart goes out to those in difficult and dangerous work, the exploited, the unemployed and those who work hard but earn their living with great difficulty. We have a duty to respect people’s work and treat employees with kindness, empathy and justice.
Churches have always engaged in society through social teaching, which is more or less relevant or based on reality. I would certainly say to some priests that they wouldn’t last five minutes on the assembly line!