The Problem With Trying to Redeem Work: Some Jobs Aren’t ‘Good’ and Some Work Isn’t ‘Noble’

by John Ellis

In a recent article published by RNS, journalist Kathryn Post warns about finding our meaning in our work. She doesn’t argue that work can’t be meaningful but makes the case that the recent push to find meaning in work is swiftly becoming a replacement for the institutions of family, religion, and the communities we live in. Citing the work of sociologist Dr. Carolyn Chen, the article exposes the idolatrous heart of the growing cottage industry that traffics in elevating work into the upper echelons of our expressive individualism. Speaking to Kathryn Post, Dr. Chen bluntly states, “We’re seeing that high-skilled professionals are turning to work for belonging, identity, meaning, purpose and fulfillment. And these are the very things that Americans once turned to religion for.”

Late capitalism can be seen at the core of this. Post explains, “Breaking down barriers between work and spirituality benefits not just employees, but the bosses’ bottom line.” Barreling towards greater stock climbs and deeper bottom lines, the market has commoditized humans’ longing for purpose, meaning, and self-worth. Finding meaning in work isn’t devoid of all truth, and I’ll turn to that in a bit because it speaks to a specific concern I have with some of the ways in which work has been glorified of late in my reformed evangelical circles. Touching on that concern, though, I found it instructive that Dr. Chen recognizes that this push to find deep meaning in work has a negative trickle-down effect. “Work is becoming more rewarding and fulfilling for a certain sector of high-skilled workers, and less meaningful and less dignified for everyone else,” she argues, adding, “People have experienced this wholeness in the workplace which we would think is a really good thing. What’s wrong with that? But then there are these social consequences you don’t see when you’re in the middle of it.”

Kathryn Post points out that, “Chen’s point is backed up by data. McKinsey’s survey found that while more than two-thirds of all workers found purpose in their work, executives were almost eight times more likely than other employees to say so.”

I haven’t read Dr. Chen’s book Work, Pray, Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley, much less looked at the data she used, but anecdotally I see crossover with my concern: The well-meaning desire to “redeem” work among reformed evangelicals unwittingly papers over the growing inequities and injustices of late capitalism as well as revealing the unstated belief that Western culture is the pinnacle of humanity.

This is an article that I’ve been trying to write for a while now. Over the last couple of years, every time a new article is published extolling the nobility and goodness of work, I’ve recoiled yet struggled to put my finger on it. It wasn’t until I watched the Netflix series Maid based off Stephanie Land’s memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive (which I’ve also read) about a year ago that my concerns and how to state them began to crystalize. Even then, though, even as I became more articulate with my concerns, a problem remained. How to say what I believe needs to be said without unwittingly demeaning and discouraging those suffering under what I see is the problem? How to communicate that some work isn’t noble without adding to the dehumanization?

I’m not sure I’ve found the adequate answers to those questions. However, Cathryn Post’s article struck a chord with me; this is a pressing problem, and the pitfalls shouldn’t keep us from talking about it. Also, to be blunt, my audience consists almost entirely of college educated white people. And they’re the ones who need to hear this.

That being said, sensitivity is required. Speaking truth to some shouldn’t mean failing to also speak with love to all. To that end, let me begin the rest of this article by declaring that all humans are made in the image of God and our dignity and value is not determined by what we do – by our job. The unemployed deserve to be treated with the same dignity and honor as the most overemployed person making seven-plus figures. It also needs to be stated that as an abstract, work is good. God designed His children to work. To work for His glory and for our flourishment. Work existed before sin, and work will exist after the eschaton. Living in the New Jerusalem will come with glorious, redeemed work. Praise God!

However, between the beginning and the end, the middle is stained with sin. Work has not escaped that stain. Unfortunately, I find that those who desire to “redeem” work in the here and now fail to adequately account for the reality of the Fall and sin’s curse. Not all work is noble and good. Some work is reflective of outright exploitation and oppression. Some work is evidence of unwitting participation in exploitation and oppression. Within that last category, some work is evidence of how sin undermines human flourishing. Frankly, the answer isn’t in “redeeming” work in the here and now. Doing so steers us into Dr. Chen’s concerns expressed above. It creates a temple of Western privilege and ease within which we get to ward off any tinges of guilt about the oppressive effects sin bears down on the work of others. What’s needed – the answer – is an eschatological perspective – while acknowledging that sin will not be completely overthrown until the return of King Jesus – that moves through this fallen world with Kingdom ethics that do not allow us to steer into the Fall’s effects. With our Western privilege, we should be seeking to elevate others’ ability to flourish in the here and now and not feed them platitudes about how what they do is just as good and noble as what we do, because that may very well not be true.

At the onset, when talking about work, a hard truth needs to be grasped: Some work is outside the scope of goodness and value, and there is no way to “redeem” that work.[1] For example, sex workers are engaged in work that is, well, sinful. Saying that, I do want to point out that many who are engaged in sex work do so because of systemic issues that have brought them to the point where they have concluded that they have no other choice. Poverty is a cancerous sin of our society, and we need to be careful about pointing fingers at individuals who are facing obstacles we don’t (and haven’t) and have had their choices limited in ways we that we don’t (and struggle to) comprehend. But we still can’t avoid that those who work as strippers, prostitutes, and in other sex work are engaging in work that is sinful.

I understand that my core audience agrees with this. I know that those who have written articles about the goodness of work/redeeming work desire to see those laboring under obvious sinful oppression freed from the need to work in the sex industry, for an obvious example. My point is that we need to be careful with universal statements. Making blanket statements about the goodness of work controls the entry point into the discussion in a way that severely limits our ability to have an honest conversation. Instead, starting with the presupposition that not all work is good allows us to navigate the nuances of living (and working) in a fallen world groaning under sin’s curse in ways that better allow us to discover and live/work out Kingdom ethics.  

Kingdom ethics – how and what our actions communicate about and bear witness to God – tell us that image bearers living under the stress and oppression of poverty is not okay. There’s nothing noble or good about a society – a very rich society, to be clear – that asks a certain segment of its population to do the work that we don’t want to do and for wages that make it impossible to flourish. Again, that’s something that I realize those I’m writing in response to agree with. But it’s a truth that we all need to confront ourselves with as I ask us to consider the next step: Asking a portion of the population to engage in work that we find distasteful can be dehumanizing. It’s neither noble nor good to ask people to clean up our shit. I mean that both literally and metaphorically.

Certain jobs – a lot of jobs – are evidence of the Fall. Doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals, for example. But in that instance, especially in the case of doctors, we openly applaud (as we should) how they reflect who God is through their labors, even if they don’t personally bow before Him. Saving lives is noble and good work even though the necessity of the work is owing to sin’s curse. Two things can be true at once, though, and while it’s true that some jobs that are a direct result of the Fall are noble and good, that doesn’t mean that all jobs are. Don’t believe me? Go work in certain areas of the service industry.

More Christians need to read the heart wrenching yet informative work of Barbara Ehrenreich, specifically her best known book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, the recounting of her living solely on the paychecks produced by menial jobs. In chapter one, she confesses, “It’s not easy to go from being a consumer, thoughtlessly throwing money around in exchange for groceries and movies and gas, to being a worker in the very same place.”[2] By “not easy,” she doesn’t just mean giving up luxuries she was accustomed to; she also means, and largely means, existentially. There is an existential price to pay for working in the service industry in this country.

Again, to be clear, I recognize that those extolling the nobility and goodness of work have the applaudable goal of removing that price. However, telling the person scrubbing your toilet that their work is noble and good rings one way when you’re the one standing over the one on his or her knees. For the one on his or her knees, it sounds patronizing because it is. It’s not good and it’s not noble; if it was, we’d do it. Capitalist theories about limited resources and how to most effectively spend/use those resources don’t undermine my point. Those theories speak to my point. Those who are farther up the hierarchy of Western privilege relegate the jobs/work they find undesirable to those beneath us while assigning it a lesser value – literally and metaphorically so. This reality is acutely felt by those under us on the hierarchy of privilege. We’ve deemed *this* resource as more valuable than *that* resource. It would be a waste of our time, talents, and gifts to engage in *that* when we could be engaging in *this*. Never mind that *this* is likely closed off to those who do *that*. If you don’t think that individuals in those jobs don’t feel that, please listen to the stories of those who are in those jobs.

Stephanie Land’s story that she related in Maid is instructive for those who’ve escaped the life of those in the service industry (and your time working as a pizza delivery driver, etc. in college doesn’t count).[3] From the back cover of the book, it’s heartbreaking to read, “Maid is an emotionally raw, masterful account of Stephanie’s years spent in service to the upper middle class America as a ‘nameless ghost’ … she wrote about pursuing the myth of the American Dream from the poverty line, all the while slashing through deep-rooted stigmas of the working poor.”

Dehumanization is par for the course for those living and working in poverty. Sometimes it’s in the job itself. It’s often in the treatment from others. The shame that comes with using a WIC card. The desperate humiliation at having to beg off cleaning *your* house or delivering *your* food or stocking *your* shelves because my child is sick and I cannot afford childcare. The looks given you as you unintentionally flub the order and must start over while the line of impatient, grumbling customers grows at your cash register. Worse, the statements in that moment that, “Come on! I don’t have all day. A trained monkey could do this job.” Again, though, at times the work itself is dehumanizing. And that’s something that you have to experience to fully comprehend, I think.

Unfortunately, those who are best able to communicate this dehumanization are often then set up as examples of how it’s possible, “through the goodness of hard work,” to elevate themselves into the higher levels of the socio-economic hierarchy. The successes of those like Stephanie Land often obscure the dehumanizing she experienced for those who have never tasted her humiliation. Reading and/or watching cultural artifacts like Maid is often done by socio-economic tourists. Ehrenreich does an admirable job of pointing this out throughout her works. After reading articles about how work is noble and good, I’m often left with the impression that the author is missing the perspective necessary to interact with work in a holistic way.

I’m not asking that we deny that work is part of God’s design for our flourishing. I’m asking that as we do so we be aware of what we’re communicating to those who suffer under sin’s curse in their job in ways that we don’t. I’m asking that we realize that much of what we say is a product of a story of flourishing that has arisen from within our own socio-economic place of privilege.

The desire to instill a rightful sense of dignity, honor, and worth in people is a right desire. Pointing out the ignobility of some jobs can seem like shaming and adding to the dishonor of those who are in those jobs. But in our desire to not shame people, let’s not ignore the systemic problems that create inequities. While the ultimate cause is sin, it’s possible to pushback in the here and now on work that is dehumanizing. Instead of giving the working poor self-serving platitudes about the goodness of all work, let’s begin acknowledging that our privilege and ease comes with a cost, because that’s how our system is set up, and they are bearing much of that cost in ways that we don’t know about much less understand. We may owe them an apology before we can give them a pep talk (and they don’t need our pep talks, to begin with). Begin to recognize how certain policies and man-made economic theories steer us into the Fall’s effects on work. Push back on how our society, including government and politicians, do the bidding of sin’s curse by creating societal hierarchies that trap many in poverty.

On a personal level, instead of attempting to redeem the work of everyone we meet, let’s do the Spirit-filled work of interacting with those in the service industry with the dignity and honor owed them because they are made in the image of God. The Fall and sin’s curse has affected more than work; it’s broken human to human relationships. While engaging the harder work of doing what we can to tackle systemic problems, we need to make sure that we prioritize the image bearer serving us over the consumer/luxury product we are receiving from them. For example, and these are very simple suggestions and should be common sense, don’t order your server to fill your glass. Ask politely. Don’t withhold any of the tip because your consumer experience was less than you were expecting. Honor the one serving you by your generosity; don’t view your tip as honoring their labors. Don’t pat the maid on the back while saying, “Scrubbing toilets is good and noble work. You should be proud of what you do.” Instead, ask her about her experiences and listen. Really listen, because if you’ve never been where she is, you’ll likely be shocked at what you learn. She’ll likely tell you about outright instances of dehumanization as well as the compounding interest of feeling less-than that comes with the patronizing comments from well-meaning individuals.

Be honest about your motives in your desire to redeem work. Does it owe more to guilt over your place of privilege than it does to a desire to work out Kingdom ethics? Are you seeking to convince yourself that your consumerist activity is good and healthy? Is your allegiance to specific man-made economic theories causing you to ignore how the Fall and sin’s curse affects the world around us, including the job market and our economic divisions?

Our place of privilege affords us the luxury of ironing out something as complex as work/jobs into a self-serving perspective. We need to recognize that we can afford to paper over dehumanization with platitudes because those platitudes cost us nothing. In doing so, we need to be willing to humble ourselves by attempting to see our society through the eyes and experience of those who don’t share our hierarchical perch. In short, we need to allow a healthy dose of the Fall and sin’s curse a place to live in the story we tell ourselves and others about work in the here and now. In doing so, we may even recognize how the market in late capitalism has commoditized our being and our desires. Sin is insidious.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] For my more conservative readers, I’m not using “redeem” in its systematic theology definition. I’m using it more colloquially. To be clear, I’m not comfortable with the colloquial use of “redeem” to refer to applying Kingdom ethics to broken things in the here and now. I’d much prefer to restrict the term/concept to God’s salvation of His people. But I don’t pick the terms used and I no longer have much interest in engaging in linguistic wars when I can communicate what I want via flawed uses of terms and concepts. I mean, all terms are flawed – finite and under sin’s curse – so there’s a level of hypocrisy in demanding that others use words the exact ways I prefer.

[2] Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001), 11.

[3] I’ve resisted the urge to make this personal because I’m not sure if it will undermine my point or not. The more I write and think, the more I’m beginning to believe that a personal companion piece may be a helpful addition to the conversation. How to write it without sounding like I’m whining will be one of the harder tricks, though, I think. Needless to say, until (if) I write that companion piece, it may be helpful if you know that I write this article from experience and not just abstract theories/perspectives.

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