Work & Community
This past Sunday’s Old Testament reading was Genesis 2:18-24. We do not need to take a literalist view of Scripture to glean important insights into what God desires for His children. I am not denying evolution as the means God chose to unfold His Creation and the point of the Creation stories is not the “what and the how” of creation but rather the “who and the why”. The who is God and the why of creation is that He loves us. That disclaimer now behind us, this passage is about the creation of woman as a partner and helper to man. It also discusses the work that was to be done in the Garden. Most who contemplate this passage choose to focus on the part of the text in which God creates woman as a partner to man, yet both themes deserve some attention.
First, the part that is often overlooked, work. Yes, there was work to do in Paradise. Man had a job in Eden, he gave names to the animals. Not only that, but he was also charged with the general care of the Garden. What this teaches us is that work and the effort it demands is not a result of the Fall. Work is good, as are all things to do with God. Work is dignified, and ennobling. In short, work is cool. Work allows us to provide for ourselves and our families. Work can allow us to help those who truly cannot provide for themselves.
What this should also teach us is that it is not Godly to denigrate work, any kind of nonviolent, honest work. While it’s true that work, like any other activity has a “disutility”. This means that at some point the benefits of work (income, satisfaction, etc.) are outweighed by the desire to do other things (leisure, family time, etc). Work like any other human activity must be balanced off against other human activities. As always with humans the issue is one of tradeoffs. It strikes me that God wants balance for us in our lives.
Let’s be clear though, we cannot not work. The socialists like to cry about the “harsh” philosophy of capitalists: “either work or starve”. The idea of “work or starve” is not a capitalist one, it is a human one. This is the stark, simple choice we have had since we swung down from the trees. If we do not produce, we do not eat. This too was true in the Garden; man was granted Eden if he worked and obeyed (which is where things went awry). While relative scarcity may be a result of the Fall, needing to either produce or perish itself is not. Therefore, to work is to live a fully human life and this has been the case form the very beginning of human existence, even in the world of Eden. Also, keep in mind, that those who cannot work can only be sustained by those who can. Human charity depends upon work.
Work also provides a community greater than oneself. This is the insight that joins the two strands of this passage together. God sees that it is not good that man is alone. That is, people need other people. We have always been destined for a social existence, a communal life. Simply put, life is better in community.
This includes work. Work is a subset of the greater human communities we find ourselves in. This also gets to the insight that we are more productive in a community, in a society. By cooperating with other humans, we are more productive. This is the practical reason human societies form in the first place. Work is more joyful and more interesting and more productive when done in partnership with others.
Of course, as always there is nothing in Scripture that steers us away from the call that Jesus makes on all of us to live a peaceful, nonviolent life. Real community is consensual, not coercive. Real partnership is cooperative not hegemonic. This is also what human logic and human history teach us is more successful, which is not a coincidence.
So, we should reject those of any ideological stripe who denigrate labor and work. No honest work is beneath any human being. To be productive and in community with other humans has been God’s intention from the very beginning. Now if we can just get a handle on that obedience to God thing…
Praise Be to God