This post is part of the series Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It).
For reference, here’s the version of the book I’m using.
The second vignette in this chapter is about the dignity that is given to us by “productive, meaningful employment” (p. 152). Here’s how Lupton starts off:
Little affirms human dignity more than honest work. One of the surest ways to destroy self-worth is subsidizing the idleness of able-bodied people. Work is a gift, a calling, a human responsibility. And the creation of productive, meaning employment fulfills one of the Creator’s highest designs. Because of that, it should be a central goal of our service. (p. 152)
And he continues at the end of the section:
Our earliest glimpse of the cosmos is a creative God at work. And the original design of paradise pictures humanity at work... Work, all work, is an invitation from God for us to take an active role as coparticipants in an ever-unfolding creation. (p. 154)
Lupton isn’t wrong here. But he isn’t exactly right.
It is true that the opening chapters of Genesis show us a God who is engaged in the creation of the cosmos, and it might even be true to call that work. It is also true that Adam is placed in the Garden of Eden “to till and keep it” (Genesis 2:14, NRSV), and it might even be true to call that work. If you are going to search for the dignity of work in scripture, you could do worse than this image of a creative God and a laboring Adam. Such work is a blessing.
But it is also true that not all work is a blessing and that there is more to the story than cosmogony and paradise. After the man and the woman eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, God curses them. For the man, the curse is work:
Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, “You shall not eat of it,” cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return. (Genesis 3:17-19 NRSV)
There is, perhaps, a lesson here. There is work that is good and fulfilling and life-giving. Like ordering the cosmos or tilling and keeping a paradise where there grows “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Genesis 2:9, NRSV). And there is work that us cursed and soul-crushing and life-taking. Like the toil one must do to break through thorns and thistles so that one can eat bread until returning to the ground.
And this takes me to the story Lupton is telling in this section.
A neighbor’s house had burned down and, while the rubble had been cleared, Lupton decided to take on the job of clearing our the smaller debris and cutting the tall grass and weeds that had taken over. It would be a full day of work, so he “blocked out Monday” (p. 152) in his schedule. On that Monday morning, he picked up some supplies and noticed a group of day-laborers looking for work for the day, “just what [he] needed.” (p. 152) He selected two of the workers and ‘negotiated’ a wage by asking how much their labor would cost: “‘Ten dollars,’ they responded. Agreed.” (p. 152)
Lupton continues, describing the people who remained in the crowd of day laborers:
Strong, able-bodied men, up early in the morning, eager to work, willing to do menial labor for minimal pay. What inner drive compelled them to endure such a contest? Overdue rent? Child support? Families back in Mexico? Alcohol? The responses would have varied greatly, I know. But none would have revealed the underlying motivation: meaning. Life offers no fulfillment without work. (pp. 152-153)
Lupton is right that there are many people who are willing to work at menial labor for illegal – and immoral – rates of pay. They are willing to do so because they have to do so. Rent, child support, families far away, families nearby, medical bills, car payments, grocery bills, children hoping for college, etc. are not abstractions but real lived experiences. So are lack of opportunities, lack of education, lack of documentation for legal work, employer discrimination and a thousand other social factors that will force people to take jobs they would otherwise avoid for wages that would otherwise be insulting.
There is, in short, a larger social context in which day labor – and all labor – exists. It is a larger social context in which some people (like Lupton and me) are able to find fulfillment and meaning in their work and in which other people (like many low-wage workers) are able to use work to gain some access to fulfillment and meaning outside of work. In other words, I might enjoy going to work and find great meaning there. For others, work is the means by which they make the meager living necessary to find meaning in their families or hobbies or friends or what have you.
Or, to put that another way, some of us till and keep in a life where grows every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food and where we need not worry about the necessities of life; others eat in toil all the days of their life, struggling against thorn and thistle, living by the sweat of their brow until they return to dust. Some of us are blessed and some of them are cursed.
But Lupton doesn’t pay any attention to that. Instead he pays $1.25 per hour and counts on the meaning of that toil to make up the rest.