The Dignity of Work: A Christian Perspective
By Rev. Dr. Ken Brooker Langston
Director of Disciples Justice Action Network (DJAN)
IWJ Board of Directors Member
Like other faith traditions, Christianity strongly affirms the value of work and the dignity of the worker. This affirmation can be found in the Bible, in the social teachings of the churches, and in Christian liturgical praxis (the rituals by which a community of Christians come together to worship God). Let us first take a look at the Bible.
According to the Holy Scriptures shared by Jews and Christians, God is a worker. As explained in the Book of Genesis, creation is itself the result of work by God (Genesis 2:3), work that God considers “exceedingly good” (Genesis 1:31 ), and work from which God rests on the seventh day (Genesis 2:2). Part of that work was the creation of human beings; and because we are created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27) we, like God, are workers. This is also illustrated in the book of Genesis when God puts Adam in the Garden of Eden so that Adam can “work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15).
As the story in Genesis continues, we learn that humanity sinned by disobeying God and was therefore driven out of the garden (Genesis 3:1-24). We also learn that work was now going to be much harder than it had been in the garden (Genesis 3:17-19). For most Christians, this means that being out of accord with God’s will, and moving in directions that conflict with God’s work, lead to a situation in which both the image of God in us and, indeed, all of our work, is distorted by sin. But this is not to say that work itself is a punishment for sin; rather, its distortion is a result of sin. Although plagued by ambiguity as a result of sin, work, like the image of God in us, remains a central part of what it means to be a human being. Like the image of God in us, work maintains its essential dignity and worth.
Furthermore, most Christians believe the Scriptures specific to the Christian tradition (the writings of the “New Testament”) when they assert that Jesus Christ is the very "image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15) who continues to work as God continues to work (John 5:16), and whose very mission is to “accomplish God’s work” (John 4.34). For many of us, this means that Jesus makes possible the restoration of the image of God in us and therefore the restoration of human beings as co-workers with God. In fact, when we are a help and blessing to others, our work not only glorifies the God whose divine work made us in God’s image; it also helps us grow more and more into that image, and therefore more fully into the workers we were created to be.
And so the Bible strongly affirms the dignity of work. But in addition to the Bible, there are, in many Christian churches, social teachings and public policy positions that also strongly affirm the dignity of work. For example, the Social Teaching of Roman Catholic Christianity is very clear about this. According to a summary of this teaching: "Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation. If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected—the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to the organization and joining of unions, to private property, and to economic initiative.” Or, as Pope Francis recently said, "Work is fundamental to the dignity of the person. Work, to use an image, 'anoints' with dignity, fills us with dignity, makes us similar to God who has worked and still works, who always acts.” Therefore, governments and managers "are obliged to do all possible so that every man and woman can work and so carry their heads high and look others in the eye with dignity.”
The same affirmation of the dignity of work is also a central part of Protestant social teaching in the United States. Although there is not a central authority or a well-defined set of doctrines shared by all Protestants, there is a Social Creed that has been accepted as guidance for worker justice by many Protestant churches, both as individual denominations and through our active ecumenical participation in the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA. This Social Creed calls for, among other things, "the protection of the worker from dangerous machinery, occupational disease, injuries and mortality"; "suitable provision for the old age of the workers and for those incapacitated by injury"; "the right of workers to some protection against the hardships often resulting from the swift crisis of industrial change"; "a living wage as a minimum in every industry, and for the highest wage that each industry can afford"; and "the most equitable division of the products of industry that can ultimately be devised.”
And so both the Bible and Christian social teaching affirm the dignity of work. But so, too, does the liturgy of many Christian churches. Liturgy—which literally means “work of/for the people”—is a religious praxis in which Christians gather together for shared worship of God through rituals of proclamation, acclamation, education, edification, and transformation: songs, prayers, praise, the reading of Scripture, sermons, and, hopefully, the kind of personal change that leads to greater commitment to serving (working for) God and one another.
Often before eating meals, Christians say a special prayer for the workers who have produced and prepared the food about to be eaten. The same is true in the liturgy of many churches when Christians celebrate and share “The Lord’s Supper,” the “Eucharist,” or “Holy Communion.” Although I am a Protestant minister, I greatly admire the Roman Catholic approach to this. In the Roman Catholic liturgy of the Mass, when blessing the bread and wine, the priest says, "Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received this bread (wine) we offer you: fruit of the earth (vine) and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life (our spiritual drink)." In this very important part of the liturgy, it is not just the bread and wine that are blessed, but also the created order and the work of human beings. Thus, in this sacred meal, both the value of creation and the dignity of work are divinely affirmed.
Thus, for most Christians, the Bible, social teaching, and Christian liturgy affirm as central Christian values both the sacred worth of creation (the work of God) and the divine dignity of work (as well as the workers who do the work). Those of us who are among these Christians are therefore blessed to be able to join with other people of faith and conscience in protecting the work of God (creation), defending the dignity of work, and working in solidarity with God and other human beings to bring about greater justice for all workers everywhere.