Recently, I was invited to engage in a conversation regarding the role Christians should play in shaping out a theology of work. The people in the room were all highly committed Christians who were also very successful in their careers (CEOs of major businesses, grocery stores, and restaurants; directors of non-profits; public strategists and politicians; and faith-based community activists) who were all wrestling with what should be the Christian response to job creation and the elimination of poverty in our city. I was invited to speak to the ways in which education should engage these topics.
The problem is, both as a theologian and a philosopher, my response has very little to do with “job creation” as such. Indeed, I’m not sure that creating more jobs would do much to solve the deep needs facing our culture today, especially regarding poverty.
Let me explain by way of a thought experiment:
Let’s say that we woke up tomorrow and every single person from every gender, ethnicity, socio-economic background and neighborhood had a job that paid at least $75,000 a year. That would seem to be an end to our problems, yes? Jobs creation would no longer be necessary and the evils of poverty would be abolished.
Well, not so fast. I’m not sure that waving that magic wand does much to eliminate the deeper problems facing our culture, namely the relational poverty and “cult of Mammon” that drives and motivates everything we do both in our private lives and in the public square.
My concern is in addressing the overarching narratives that give shape, direction and “destiny” to our lives. Therefore, if we woke up tomorrow to find the “jobs” question resolved, we have yet to answer the narrative question; indeed, we may have only exacerbated it.
In his fascinating and brilliant book, Desiring the Kingdom, scholar James K.A. Smith outlines what he calls the “liturgy of the mall” where such formative worship practices as confession, offerings, contemplation and sacrifice (all surrounded by religious iconography) promise transcendence, redemption and eternal happiness. It is a liturgy (with just as many hymns, rituals, preaching and responses as any we see in religion) that is deceptive, seductive, dark and damning. It offers the myth of happiness through consumption couched in sexy, glittering, alluring commercials, magazine ads, tv spots, movies, etc. The problem, of course, is that these are hollow doxologies–the more we consume them, the more they consume us.
As I see things, the overarching narrative that governs everything in our culture is that of Mammon (the “erotic” worship of money): from education to politics to business to even the church. Mammon has a dark, enticing, ultimately damning sway over the larger narratives of our culture. Indeed, the narrative of Mammon plays in ten-thousand places. Therefore, if the Christian response is merely on getting good, solid “believers” in the marketplace, that, to me, is a good downstream response to a problem that is needed in the short run, but it does not go far enough upstream to de-contaminate the water.
Here is what I mean: if the focus is on getting more Christians into jobs of any kind, the narrative of those jobs is still, ultimately, about making money, bottom lines, cost-benefit analysis, P/E ratios, and a corporate ethos governed, in the end, by the larger narrative of the marketplace (i.e. Mammon). In other words, if we were to solve the “jobs” problem tomorrow and not wrestle out the deeper narrative of Mammon, in my opinion all that we would have accomplished is the unleashing of hundreds of thousands of additional worshippers of the mall. That is why my work in education is not about “skill acquisition” but is a narrative work concerned with shaping persons of wisdom and virtue, capable of being architects of repair in the world.
So what to do? My thought is not to set up “jobs” as our focus, but relationships. You see, I don’t believe that poverty is a financial problem (we could, if we wanted to, redistribute the wealth in a way that was equitable for all–a Marxist solution); I believe poverty is a relational problem. That’s why both education and jobs creation are, to me, about fostering covenantal relationships. People in relationship to each other know the other’s needs, work to share the burden, give sacrificially, refuse to let those close to them go hungry, etc. I don’t think the answer is in resume workshops or Christians being more influential in their workspace (though there is nothing wrong with either); I think the long-term solution is ushering in a Kingdom built on Isaiah 53 and 61 and Revelation 21 and 22.
So what would a redeemed sense of vocation look like? What if it were centered around living out an ethic of sacrificial agape in the context of covenantal relationship, particularly among the least of these? What if our “work” was to “spend ourselves on behalf of the hungry and to satisfy the needs of the oppressed” (Isaiah 58). Here is a wild and crazy idea: what if those of us who are trying to see the Kingdom come in our cities were to work to close up any institution (work/schools/media/etc.) whose ultimate ends are part and parcel of the “liturgy of the mall” and give our time, talent, resources, networks, intellects, and expertise to partner with God to make all things new in redemptive and restorative ways (thinking through new ways of doing school, business, entertainment, etc.)?
What if the Kingdom conversation were not about placing Christians in jobs, but about Christians reforming the very nature of the work (the narrative) itself?
What if that were our theology of work?
**I’d love to hear your thoughts!! Feel free to leave them in the comment section below.