The Dignity of Work
Synopsis: An we commemorate Labor Day on this weekend, we will want to explore Paul’s understanding of the dignity of manual work. He tells us not to be conformed to self-serving and violent systems of exploitation but to be transformed by a mind oriented to our loving and self-giving God as seen in Jesus. For Paul, this meant working with his hands to support himself as a tentmaker. Our wealth does not consist in money and power but in relationships of “peace with justice, equity, working collaboratively and sharing power, respecting the individual while also keeping the needs of the community at the center, servant leadership, public engagement for the common good, and nurturing a culture of service.”
I serve on the board of the Jubilee Association Maryland that provides services for people with developmental disabilities like Downs Syndrome and autism. Our longtime CEO Tim Wiens recently announced that he will be retiring next summer, and we have now appointed a search committee and hired a search firm to help us find a new CEO. This will be a big transition because Tim worked with Jubilee since it started forty years ago.
We have a diverse board, including Mennonites, mostly from the Hyattsville Mennonite Church, and people from the local community, including relatives of people with disabilities, people with expertise in the field, business people, lawyers, accountants, and social workers. We work hard to make the board diverse, considering things like race, gender, age, and religion. We work well together with the common goal of giving innovative and caring services.
As we began the conversation about the kind of person we want to be our new CEO various board members said it should be someone with Mennonite values. Several who are not Mennonite were most vocal about this. One insisted that this is what makes us different and we don’t want to lose it. This gets nebulous. What are Mennonite values? It’s further complicated by the fact that we will most likely not be able to find a Mennonite with the necessary skill sets to be our next CEO.
As we discussed this, I said that these are very human values and that one doesn’t need to be a Mennonite to have them. Another board member took issue with calling them human values. To what extent are they human and to what extent are they spiritual gifts. One doesn’t exclude the other and they can be both. Then Tim asked me, as someone trained to theology, to give him a list of Mennonite values to help guide our search process.
We had an email exchange about this. For me, it begins with servant leadership in the way of Jesus. I listed various other values and Tim then put it together in the following statement, “Mennonite values include; peace with justice, equity, working collaboratively and sharing power, respecting the individual while also keeping the needs of the community at the center, servant leadership, public engagement for the common good, and nurturing a culture of service.”
I really like it. It’s so different from the power politics in our country and from the competitive and often violent relationships between nations in our world. For them, it’s about doing what’s necessary to serve one’s self-interest and that of one’s group. In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul calls this the wisdom of the world and he reminds us that this is not who we are (1 Cor. 1: 26-31). This drumbeat of the “wisdom of the world systems” in contrast to the “foolishness of God” continues through this opening section of the letter. He says that his message in not a one of such worldly wisdom. It’s rather the message of Jesus, the Messiah who was executed by Rome but vindicated by God through his resurrection. Biblical scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan write:
In Paul’s historical setting, that meant Rome, of course. But it meant more than Rome. The issue was not simply Roman imperial authority, as if Rome were worse than most empires, and that a Jewish or Christian empire would be better. Paul did not simply indict Rome, but what he saw in it: Rome embodied the wisdom of this world—the normalcy of this world, the way life most commonly is—the way things are.
Let’s bring this home. What’s the normal pattern of domination in our world today. How do elites in our social system shape things to further their self-interest? How do they use violence and the threat of violence for that purpose? What ideologies do they use to justify themselves and this social system? How do popular religious leaders help legitimate these systems of domination by supporting a particular politician or political party?
In his letter to the Romans, Paul pleads with us to not be conformed to such world structures but to be transformed by renewing our minds through what, in his letter to the Corinthians, he called the “foolishness of God” rather than the “wisdom of our world.” I like the way Eugene Peterson paraphrases this, “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out.”
Tomorrow is Labor Day, when we honor the dignity of work and advocate for justice for all workers. Last week we noticed how workers in Paul’s day were discriminated against, forcing many to migrate to cities like Corinth to eke out a living. In many ways our world today is not that different even though labor unions and labor laws in our country and many other countries have made a huge difference. There is still much more that needs to be done to repair our world of work.
For Paul, the path of personal transformation is linked to our new way of life in Christ. “In Christ,” we have died to our old self and “with Christ,” we have been raised into a new life that reflects the love and compassion of God. This is deeply personal but it’s also communal. Among other things, it transforms relationships in our families, in our churches, and in service organizations like Jubilee. Our lives and our churches can easily and unthinkingly become adjusted to the patterns of our society and our culture. However, when we don’t do that, we stand out and people notice.
That’s what was happening when board members at Jubilee noticed something different and associated it with our Mennonite values. Of course, Mennonites don’t have as exclusive niche on the values Tim Wiens listed. They belong to God and, therefore, can also be embodied by other churches, faith communities, and even secular organizations. Furthermore, it’s a work in progress and we never completely embody such values. For example, Jubilee struggles with the tension between what our CEO and top administrators earn compared with what the caregivers for our clients earn. An ongoing board discussion involves trying to increase the wages of primary caregivers.
We struggle to keep our lowest salaries above minimum wage because most of clients receive Medicaid and other public funding. The wages for caregivers are therefore tied to the billable hours that the state of Maryland will pay for those services. We’re tied to that system and Jubilee as an organization is always advocating with state legislators and others for increased developmental disability funding.
This, in turn raises the question of how much the CEO and other administrators at Jubilee should earn. One consideration is that we want to pay enough to attract and keep qualified administrators in a competitive job market. The other consideration is that of equity and justice. At what point does it become oppressive when the salaries of administrators are much higher than those of caregivers? What’s a fair balance?
What would Paul say about this? He refused to receive payment from the churches he served and instead earned his livelihood as a tentmaker. There were other things going on here including that he didn’t want to be beholden to wealthy patrons in the common Roman patronage system.
Paul was also exemplifying the dignity of manual work. In our country there’s a clear divide between blue-collar and white-collar work. There’s an even bigger divide between those who work for their living and those who own the means of production. A transformed mind sets this on its head. As in the words of our Labor Day reading, “Bless the hands that cook and feed, heal and nurture, hands that are always trying to be empty, Christ-like hands.”
Paul also had a sense of fairness as seen in his teaching about raising funds to help the poor in Jerusalem. He told the Corinthians that it was a matter of a fair balance between people (2 Cor. 8: 8-15). He cites the story of the Children of Israel gathering manna in the desert after they had fled from Egypt. Those who gathered more than they needed found that what was left over had rotted by the next morning. And those who were not able to gather much found out that they still had enough. It’s a startling claim that if we cling to more than we need it will not benefit us.
Even more startling, is Paul’s statement that Jesus emptied himself and became poor for our sakes so that we might become rich. Our wealth does not consist in money and power or living in a gilded penthouse but in relationships of “peace with justice, equity, working collaboratively and sharing power, respecting the individual while also keeping the needs of the community at the center, servant leadership, public engagement for the common good, and nurturing a culture of service.” It’s the way of Jesus that expresses the character of God.
 Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Paul, 134.