Work All Day

When we meet someone new for the first time, what’s the first question we ask after learning his/her name? Some people will inquire about family, others will ask about a possession or distinguishing feature, but the overwhelming majority of us simply say, “And what do you do?” We seem to default to asking about work, particularly in Western cultures. It’s not something a lot of us even think about; it’s something we just do. And we’re used to answering it immediately, too: “Oh, I’m a(n) _____” (with your blank being “engineer,” or “graphic design artist,” or “plumber,” or “missionary to penguins”). It doesn’t even give us pause to ask or answer the “what do you do” question.

But it’s based upon a fundamental assumption: the person asked works. He or she has a job, a career, a place of employment, and a set of duties and responsibilities designed to earned income. Work is so important to our senses of identity that persons undergoing sustained periods of unemployment (and those who lose a position they’ve held for a significant period of time) frequently have full-blown existential/identity crises. “Who am I now that I’m not an accountant?” “Do I really have a purpose now that I’m not at the factory anymore?” “It seems like everyone runs a shop around here; why couldn’t I do it?” Work and vocation are hardwired into our very sense of self, no matter how much someone might complain about the toil and labor of, well, labor.

Every Christian knows our true identity and sense of self rests in our relationship with the Triune God. We’re first and foremost children of God, and then we’re children of God gifted and graced in various ways: musical talent, passions for building and tinkering, loves for words and numbers and people. Our vocations seem to focus those identities into something more tangible, and work is a way to showcase those passions and giftings to both ourselves and to the larger world around us. For this reason, if no other, a large portion of someone’s self-conception resides in the world of work (for better or for worse).

[Sidebar: Churches and pastors should therefore have resources for the unemployed, whether it’s counseling specifically geared toward the grieving process accompanying unemployment or career resource/readiness centers to train people or otherwise help them find work.]

Is our attitude toward work healthy? Compared to the rest of the world, Americans work longer hours with fewer fringe benefits. Parts of Europe probably consider us barbaric for not having government-mandated paid sick days, vacation time, maternity leave, and other such compensation for the amount of time we devote to our jobs. I myself am horribly prone to workaholism; I’ve been known to simply forget to eat (and/or miss a date or other appointment) just because I was so focused on the task at hand. My case is by no means far from average; Americans are heavily invested in their work, and it occasionally gets in the way of other areas of life. It’s an unhealthy attitude, and, frankly, unbiblical.

But before we get that far, let’s start with developing a basic theology of work. Popular belief maintains work is a result of the Fall in Genesis 3 and arises from God’s curses upon Adam — but that’s not so. If we begin at the very beginning (which is a very good place to start), we come to what’s known as the creation mandate in Genesis 1:28: “And God blessed [the man and woman]. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.'” Humanity was tasked with overseeing the rest of creation as stewards, exercising authority to help it thrive and prosper. This is expanded a few verses later in Genesis 2:15: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” Here we can clearly see that work was assigned to Adam (standing in, in this instance, for all of humanity) long before any curse or sin marred the perfection of our world. Work is God’s plan for each of us to enjoy life and use the gracious gifts with which He has so richly blessed us. Adam is then tasked with the naming of the animals (Gen. 2:19-20). If that’s not a long-term project, I don’t know what is.

The point is this: God established work and assigned it to our first parents to be done in perpetuity. Work is not inherently evil or onerous, but a beautiful gift of God. But it didn’t stay that way. Those same first parents rebelled against their Creator, and then the curse hits hard: “Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground” (Gen. 3:17b-19a). Because of Adam’s sin, his work would become forevermore a burden, a labor. The ground itself would fight him every step of the way, and only through the drudgery and toil of hard work would he be able to survive. The curse still lingers, unfortunately. Brilliant minds work tedious, mindless jobs. Gifted builders and artists are forced to use skilled hands in backbreaking hard labor. 

So it seems natural that most people hate their jobs — no matter what their job may be. Even those who love their work, when asked at precisely the right (or wrong) instant, will be quick to say they would give it up in a heartbeat if a better offer came along. God’s gift to us in work has become a heavy burden to so very many, all because of the effects of sin. But what sin cannot do is totally erase the inherent value of work. It can’t destroy the sense of purpose and fulfillment a career brings to us; it can’t wipe out the feeling that we were designed and gifted to do something, to be something. And that longing, that desire is what draws us to seek the plan of our Creator in our lives and vocations.

We’re all called to a vocation. Even the word “vocation” comes from the Latin verb vocare, meaning “to call,” and the noun vocatio, “call.” Sometimes we try to limit vocations to a strictly religious sense: nuns, monks, priests, evangelists, pastor, missionaries, etc. We say “we’re called” to the ministry. Rarely do we say “we’re called” to be electricians and drivers and dentists and teachers. But we are. Everyone is called of God to work, and everyone is called into a vocation, a calling which uses the very best of the gifts and loves which make us who we are. This is why we find such fulfillment in our work: we are called to it. When we make it an idol (workaholism), we again stray into the area marked by the curse and sin. While work gives us happiness and fulfillment, it can never replace the inexpressible joy granted by a right relationship with God in Jesus Christ.

This week, as you go about your job (whether that’s selling cars or studying Greek), remember God has blessed you with a calling and the opportunity to work. The thought might even make you whistle at your desk.

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(Non)Violence

Yesterday was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day here in the United States. Americans of all ethnic backgrounds, ages, genders, and faiths came together to celebrate the life of a man who served as a crucial voice in the civil rights movement, urging his fellow citizens to recognize all races as truly equal in the eyes of the law (and in the eyes of the beholder). He may not have been a popular figure in his own time, but without Rev. Dr. King’s work, I daresay we wouldn’t be nearly as far along our struggle to end racism as we are. But what truly made MLK stand out was his chosen mode of operation: nonviolent resistance.

King detested violence in any form for any purpose, even the purpose of gaining equal protection under the law. He believed violence would never be an appropriate response to anything: “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”

Christians like Dr. King have long debated the uneasy relationship between Christianity and violence. (Already you’re saying, “What? Violence and Christianity have a relationship? Well, yeah.) Most people are quick to denounce overt violence carried out in the name of God; the Salem Witch Trials, the Crusades, and the Inquisition stand out as dark spots in a faith claiming to be founded by the one who said “I am the Light of the World” (John 8:12). I know of a few people who will attempt to defend the Crusades, stating they halted the ingress of Islam into Europe (which, according to some scholars, is true) — but no one will condone the murder of other human beings on ideological grounds.

Or will they? There are three approaches to violence, two of which describe the majority of Christians: pacifism/nonviolence, just war theory, and the “no holds barred” ideology of stalwart jingoists and others. The first two, pacifism and just war, are adhered to by a majority of Christians. Certain strains of evangelicalism may stray towards a “violence can be necessary even if it doesn’t fit your criteria” mentality, but I find this view completely indefensible from a proper biblical ethic; as such, I’ll spend most of my time on pacifism and just war theory.

Christian pacifism has a long, storied history beginning within the pages of the New Testament itself. The adage “those who live by the sword, die by the sword” is a paraphrase of the words of Christ to Peter in Matthew 26:52: “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Those who practice nonviolence in all things also point to scriptures such as Matthew 5:39 (“Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also”), Matthew 18:21-22 (“Then Peter came up and said to him, ‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times'”), and the examples of Stephen, Peter, Paul, and the other apostles in the book of Acts (being arrested and suffering torture and martyrdom instead of defending themselves using violence). The Bible makes it clear believers will suffer due to their faith (see especially 1 Peter), but not a single verse ever exhorts Christians to use violence to defend themselves or others. With this in mind, Christian pacifism was the only real view of violence from the time of Christ until the legalization of the faith by the emperor Constantine in 313.

With Constantine, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and theologians began their work anew in the area of violence. Now that they wouldn’t be defending a pagan government, for example, Christians reconsidered their previous refusal of military service. The Empire promised the ability to spread the religion by force if necessary; should Christians participate in a sort of “swordpoint evangelism”? Should a person of faith be ready to cast down pagan governments and enforce the true religion by any means necessary? And what about matters of human suffering? Are Christians to simply stand idly by while the forces of evil oppress and destroy that which is good?

Perhaps the greatest voice writing on this topic was St. Augustine. Inspired by Paul’s epistle to the Romans, Augustine saw governments as chosen by God to rule, and thus they were defensible by force where necessary. A Christian could thus serve in the military and defend his country as long as the campaign met several very specific criteria. Over time, these criteria were refined and nuanced, and today they constitute what is called just war theory. For violence to be acceptable, a war/act must satisfy the following:

  1. Just Cause/Right Intention — The war must begin only to bring about social justice and protect life; retribution, material gain, or conquest is excluded by default.
  2. Competent Authority — The party declaring war must be a legitimate political power (e.g., a oppressive dictator has no authority to order people to fight and die).
  3. Proportionality — The good to be gained through violence must outweigh or at least be proportional to the destruction it will cause. Collateral damage is to be minimized at all costs.
  4. Probability of Success — If the war is unwinnable, it has no reason to be fought.
  5. Last Resort — War is only an option when diplomacy in all its forms has completely failed. Violence is not a “shoot first, ask questions later” sort of enterprise.

To give an example, World War II would certainly be considered a just war: it was waged to stop a genocidal regime (just cause/right intention), declared by democratic powers (competent authority), ended as soon as the objective had been achieved and followed by a rebuilding of private properties (proportionality), won by those who had sufficient military strength to accomplish the objectives (probability of success), and entered only after diplomacy, including a bit of appeasement, had been completely exhausted (last resort). Deciding to “liberate” an unoppressed people to gain crude oil or combat an ideological opposite would fail to meet at least the first (and probably the last) criterion. In strict interpretations of just war theory, WWII was in fact the last so-called “just war” ever waged.

On the personal level, just war prevents us from shooting our neighbor when his music blares into the wee hours of the morning, and it precludes fighting someone who has impugned our honor or even committed a violent act against a family member (both of which would be retribution). Ethicists still debate the exact parameters around violence for the purpose of self-defense or defending a neighbor; the just war framework can be either flexible enough to allow it or unyielding enough to totally forbid it depending on one’s interpretation.

Most Christians rally around one of these two positions, and there many historical, biblical, and theological reasons for doing so. Ardent patriots and other jingoists who too often confuse Jesus for George Washington, however, will loudly assert we should fight any takers with an assault rifle in one hand and the Bible in the other. While liberating the legitimately oppressed may satisfy the just war criteria, it will only do so under very specific circumstances — and obviously a battle for any reason at all fails the nonviolence test altogether. The neoconservative agenda (think “Team America, World Police) has yet, to my way of thinking, to satisfy just war criteria.

And our commands to love our enemies as ourselves, to bless them and wish them well (Matthew 5:44, Mark 11:25, Luke 6:27, Ephesians 4:32, etc.) forbid us from any acts of vengeance, theft, or military action designed specifically to spread an ideology or claim resources by force. For that reason, I’m always incredibly uncomfortable when my brothers and sisters in Christ get too cozy with the weapons of war or stray down the path of xenophobia — or who advocate abortion or the death penalty, both of which seem to be more accepted forms of violence. (But those are topics for discussion in their own right.)

Ultimately, God will put an end to all violence, and I know it must break His heart as much as it does ours to see people needlessly destroying other people. I long for the day when God “shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4). Even so, come, Lord Jesus, come.

Thanatopsis

Now that the holidays are over, the blog returns!

On 29 December, my grandfather (my father’s father) passed away after a lengthy hospital stay following surgery. I officiated at his graveside service (he refused to have a full funeral), and it was undoubtedly one of the harder things I’ve done in my life. The family has many long days ahead as we continue to mourn and deal with the process of sorting my grandfather’s belongings.

All of this has me thinking a bit about death. It seems to be the one universal constant: things are born, then they die. Our possessions slowly decay or are used up until they are no more. The cycle of seasons devotes a quarter of the year to the slow, inexorable decline and slumber of the environment itself, which will then lie dormant for another quarter year before returning fully to life once more. As I write this, I can look out my window to see bare trees standing upon dead grass — the savage beauty of winter.

But is death really all there is? Is our immutable fate truly the end? Can death really have the last say?

Well, no. I don’t think so. I believe in an afterlife (which, in my opinion, is a bit of a misnomer; we’re still alive, after all, and our bodies will be again as well). With the historic confessions of the Church, I, too, believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. For me, and for all Christians, death is more of a parting of ways, a segue into something different and better. One of my favorite authors is the grandfather of science fiction, Isaac Asimov, who once said, “Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It’s the transition that’s troublesome.” Asimov was an avowed atheist, but he’s still right in this case. We love the living, we often forget about the dead, and we seem to worry about the transition a great deal.

The transition should be the least worrisome part to a Christian. As Paul writes in Philippians 1:21, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” And again elsewhere: “we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8), something often paraphrased as “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” So if we live in this life, we serve Christ. If we die, we worship God “in-person,” if you will. There is nothing “on the other side” that should scare us, worry us, or give us pause. The abundant life we enjoy now comes to full fruition after our death.

Eventually, at the end of the age, the Bible tells us two things. The first is that we will inhabit a new creation, a place free from sorrows and pains and trials and heartaches. The new heaven and new earth (and new Jerusalem) is a land where God shall wipe away the tears from our eyes (Revelation 21). We’re also told repeatedly in Scripture that death will be defeated (Isaiah 28:14; 1 Corinthians 15:26; Revelation 20:14). Death is a defeated foe, and one day, the reaper will be reaped. The victory won on the cross will come to completion at the end of this age, and death and the grave will lose all power.

This should give us hope and remove from us the fear of death. God has already beaten it, and He passes on the victory to those who bear the name Christian.