Friday, January 28, 2011

Good Work?

President Obama’s recent State of the Union address was a relentlessly upbeat hymn to American ingenuity and creativity. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he produced cheerleaders shaking pompoms and shouting “We’re number one!” Evidently this kind of thing goes down well with the American populace. According to a poll right after the speech 65% of us loved it. This giddy celebration of American ingenuity was, of course, in service of “getting the economy moving again” and enabling American workers to compete in the “global marketplace.” While the economy does seem to be growing again, job creation is lagging and many of the long term unemployed are growing understandably desperate. A job—any job that pays reasonably well and has at least minimal benefits—must look good to them. And Obama, like President Clinton before him, knows that, in the latter’s immortal words: “It’s the economy stupid.” Of course, this is perfectly clear to Republican politicians as well—perhaps even more so. For most of our political leaders, nothing should be permitted to restrict the growth of the economy. The next election depends on it!

Good work is a gift from God. To be without work that sustains one’s imagination as well as one’s family and community is a great sorrow. Georgetown College’s Norman Wirzba argues in his recent book Living the Sabbath that “human work finds its inspiration and fulfillment in God’s own work of healing, restoring, strengthening, and maintaining the life of creation.” From the beginning human beings were created to work alongside God, to continue God’s work of creation. When there was “no one to till the ground” (Gen. 2:5), God created human beings. Adam was given the task of naming the animals God had created (Gen. 2:19, 20). From the beginning human beings were stewards of God’s creation. Work itself was not the result of the first couple’s disobedience, but fruitless and painful work (Gen. 3:16-19). Even good and necessary work would be at times frustrating and difficult. All around us, to this day, we see and experience degrading, destructive, and even useless work. Wendell Berry calls such work “blasphemy”, making “shoddy work of the work of God.”

I have profound sympathy with the jobless and underemployed. I grieve with those who have worked diligently all their lives only to see their life savings evaporate and their homes suffer foreclosure. We certainly do need good work, good jobs. We need jobs that produce delight as well as useful products and services. We need work that, with Wirzba, “finds its inspiration and fulfillment in God’s own work.” One of the great tragedies of this recent near economic collapse is that as a people and a culture we did not step back and ask what a better, healthier, more sustainable economy would look like. We have assumed along with our leaders that  only more of the same will sustain us. I fear that approach is not simply foolish but suicidal. I am not sure what an economy that joined our work to God’s would look like. But I am quite certain we need to ask our leaders and ourselves more probing questions about our current set of assumptions and practices. I fear we are only rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

John E. Phelan, Jr.

1 comment:

  1. Maybe we have to call ourselves on our materialistic consumption and fascination with the latest and greatest. iPads and iPhones are not necessities.

    In trying to get rid of our stuff and live more simply, I read "Clutter's Last Stand"--inspiring.

    When I retired from public school teaching, I didn't realize my husband was getting Alzheimer's and would soon need to stop working and would need more of my time. Realizing our retirement shortfall I started praying about it. Now, thank God, each month we have about $900 more income from various sources including my part-time work.

    We need to stand with those who have economic needs and teach them to budget and that God has promised to supply their needs--and not necessarily with a handout.