Working for God
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Date: 18 March, 2010

'This book has a political as well as a personal dimension.'


Photo: Exeter University

Andy Jackson talks to Esther Reed, author of the new book Work! For God's Sake - Christian Ethics in the Workplace. Dr Reed is Associate Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Exeter

What is the objective of the book?

a) To help pastors do that little bit more than ask members of their congregations: 'So how's it going at work?'

b) To encourage Christian people to think about their work in light of their faith.

Its press release mentioned work possibly being irksome and a means to an end. If someone feels this way about work, wouldn't they feel the same about their faith?

Perhaps but not necessarily. One man’s drudgery is sometimes another’s amusement. One woman’s pleasure is sometimes another’s pain. So, yes, sometimes work satisfaction is highly subjective.

But personal work satisfaction is often linked to whether a workplace has decent labour standards and good working conditions.

This book has a political as well as personal dimension. Recent Roman Catholic teaching urges strong (albeit critical) engagement with the trades union movement, and the recognition by Christian people of social and economic rights in the workplace. I agree!

Surely being motivated at work is a Christian ethic? Doesn't it seem wrong to be unmotivated for wages and the better standard of living they bring?

Work has an instrumental value: it allows us to pay the bills and keep a roof over our heads. Yet the scriptures are full of warnings:

‘Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land,… buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat. The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who lives in it ….’ thunders the prophet Amos down the ages (Amos 8:4-6).

‘The land will vomit you out for defiling it’ (Lev. 18:28) cries the Lord our God in a passage that might be read afresh today in light of the environmental crisis.

Believers are urged to look for the spiritual as well as material meaning of work in our lives.

Have you heard about the Freegans, I wonder. They are a New York-based movement dedicated to revealing human over-consumption and waste – not least by dropping out of the paid employment economy.

After years of trying to boycott products from household-name corporations and finding that no matter what they bought they ended up supporting something deplorable, many Freegans came to realise that the problem is not just a few bad corporations but the entire system itself.

Sweatshop labour, rainforest destruction, global warming, displacement of indigenous communities, air and water pollution, eradication of wildlife on farmland, open-pit strip-mining, oil drilling in environmentally sensitive areas, union busting, child slavery, and payoffs to repressive regimes are just some of the many impacts of the seemingly innocuous consumer products we buy every day.

This book does not urge readers to drop out of every part of the paid-employment economy. The Freegan choice is isolation from the world of work and all its corruption versus collusion with its evils.

I'm not convinced that the gospel requires us always to opt out. At the least, however, the Old Testament prophets and the Freegans make us uncomfortable with putting the motivation of high wages before questions of social justice.

How can people make changes at their workplace to achieve a better work ethic?

Great question. There are times and places for overt evangelism. But there are more means available to Christian people to live the gospel than merely emailing colleagues with evangelistic messages or leaving adverts for the Alpha Course by the vending machine.

The 'how to make changes at work' question has to be thought about very carefully in specific situations. The 'why' question can be addressed more generally. Why does it matter that Christian people try to achieve a better ethos at work?

Darrell Cosden wrote a good book called The Heavenly Good of Earthly Work in which he argued that earthly work has heavenly significance. It matters unto eternity whether we teach as well as we possible can, or make honest business deals, or treat our clients with respect, etc.

The huge claim is that even the daily grind at the office has significance beyond this life because of its inclusion in God’s future. Nothing included in Christ’s resurrection will be lost. In other words, it matter's for Christ's sake that we try to achieve a better work ethic wherever we find ourselves.

Many industries employ practices that are against Christian ethics - children being used as workers, animal testing and so on. How can Christians justify working for these firms, especially if they are the biggest employer in the area? Do you suggest that unemployment is a preferable option, or do you argue that making change from inside the company is better?

This is a tough one. Does our work honour God? Perhaps we don't ask the question often enough. But it's not a question to be asked in isolation.

If we start taking it seriously, we also need to ask whether we are ready as communities to support members of the Body of Christ to decide that they cannot continue in their current employment. It's a question not only for individuals but for the church corporate.

The book's press release mentions the challenge of winning £1m in a game show. If you did would you carry on in your job?

I'm lucky enough to feel a strong sense of vocation in the work that I do. Not everyone feels that.

Too often, a sense of vocation is tied up very closely with the kind of middle class privilege that is associated with a university education, good job prospects, pension plan, etc. One reason for writing this book is to jolt us out from an overly individualised account of vocation.

St Paul wrote in the New Testament of his own intense sense of call (kletos) vocation (Rom. 1:1). He never did so, however, apart from the calling of the whole people of God to proclaim the gospel. His job was tent making. His vocation was that of the people of God.

My job is great. But it's not identical to my vocation as a member of the people of God. Anyhow, I've never yet bought a lottery ticket and don't intend to. So the problem will probably not arise!

What do you hope people who read the book will take away with them?

A strong sense of the interrelation between theological realism and political realism. Theological realism – because the heart of the gospel is that if Christ has not been raised then the curse of sin is not broken.

Political realism because the curse of sin that fell upon Adam and Eve, every aspect of their labour still extends to all their descendants. This includes many workplaces in Great Britain and around the globe today.

Also, a sense that, before we do anything else, the disciplines of Christ are invited to appreciate afresh the gift of sabbath-resurrection rest.

Click on the title of the book to buy a copy from and part of the sale will go to Christian Aid