Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of January 25, 1999
Is physical labour inherently unjust?
By SR. LOUISE ZDUNICH, NDC
After working in construction for 25 years, I know that construction of churches as of other buildings is the same: monotonous, hard and often painful work. Although the workers fulfill the dreams of others, they do it with little love, mostly simply to get paid.
By forcing some to take more than their fair share of the physical burdens, our system has relieved some people from the "curse of Adam."
These people are beneficiaries of an iniquitous system that works contrary to God's plan for his people as Isaiah 65:21-22 describes "They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat."
Your letter, which I have abbreviated considerably, calls for some further reflection on the whole area of work for Christians. You have expressed very clearly how many people feel about the work they do to earn a living. This applies to all types of work, not just manual labour.
Today, none of us can be self-sufficient. No matter who we are or what work we do, we all rely upon the work of others for our needs: food, clothing, shelter, heat, education, health care, etc. And our work helps give others what they need.
To encourage a suffering people, Isaiah described a perfect situation, basically one which we attribute to the coming of the Messiah, to a world redeemed.
Much of our adult lives are spent in work and the way we feel about our experience of work influences the way we relate to ourselves, to God and to others, as well as how we approach everything we do.
All of us get fed up with our work at times, but that even a few people spend 25 or more years working in a job they intensely dislike is sad indeed.
Work is meant to be a communal experience which expresses our relatedness as humans. It is one of the main ways we are connected to others. Many in our society today who cannot work: the unemployed, the retired, the ill or those who are handicapped feel like outsiders, cut off from this basic human activity of giving and receiving.
We long for a combination of personal integrity and communal service in our lives.
Too often, the experience of work becomes one of alienation with little connection between persons: those who produce and those who possess the product. Workers don't get to see or enjoy the end product they have helped create.
Work can become meaningless and diminish one's feelings of self-worth and increase the sense of powerlessness. This creates a disconnectedness that further separates workers from their own humanity.
Often, work is valued for its financial rewards and the material goods it allows one to acquire not for its intrinsic worth. Many are poorly paid for the work they do, feeling devalued and unappreciated while others are paid horrendous sums. For more than 100 years, every pope has spoken of the necessity of providing a decent wage, allowing workers to support their families and live in dignity.
We tend to blame it all on the "curse." We forget that God gave humanity the work of caring for the garden before the Fall. Therefore, work was a blessing along with the life that God had given our first parents. It was an expression of human dignity and of participation in God's work of creation. We have been entrusted by God with the responsibility for the ongoing creation of the world, to be co-creators with God.
Therefore, our role is not to see work as "cursed" but to bring Christ's redemptive power to our work and to bring about the reign of God through our work. Then we will have the world described in Isaiah.
Jesus' message in Luke 7:22 tells us that we bring about the reign of God when we undo evil, alleviate human suffering and work for justice in the world. The challenge for us is to find ways of translating Jesus' words into our everyday work lives.
This means removing circumstances that dehumanize people's lives, giving people back control of their lives, restoring dignity and hope to those who have little or none.
This may be accomplished by altering the work environment or simply by a smile, a word of encouragement or a recognition of another's work.
Our apostolate as Christians is cut out for us; we must love our neighbour. We can do this by treating others in such a way that they don't feel like faceless non-entities or less persons, that their human dignity and self-worth are enhanced.
Although work can deaden or destroy, it can improve our lives and give rise to the creative use of our human potential. Our attitude is the determining factor. All of us have the power to change our experience of work, even when we cannot change its circumstances.
God is before us in the people with whom we work and in the work itself. We can stop an instant to connect with God. We can pray for those who will be the recipients of the end product of our work or remind ourselves of the importance of our work, no matter how insignificant it may seem.
Remembering that our work is a service to the rest of humanity who could not live without it, we must do it well and lovingly. That is the way God intended it to be.
The result will be redemption: a fullness of peace, a right ordering of all things according to God, a harmony which reaches to relations between peoples, nations and all of creation. This peace begins and ends in the heart of God but it encompasses all of life and is the goal for all human activity.