The Work of Our Hands

The faith and work conversation we're NOT having.
Appears in Spring 2015 Issue: The Work of Our Hands
March 1st, 2015

There is a swath of the evangelical community to whom the "faith and work" conversation is a revelation: "What?! You mean my work can be a calling just like my pastor's?" There is something wholesome about this excitement. It's great to see people discover that the work of their daily lives has meaning and significance in the eyes of God. This excitement has occasioned an explosion of books and centers and conferences that aim to get the word out: Your cultural labour matters to God.

But the zeal for connecting faith and work faces two temptations. On the one hand, our Genesis 1 focus on the goodness of work risks downplaying the Genesis 3 side of work: that work is experienced by many as a kind of toil. On the other hand, the current conversations tend to celebrate work that is du jour and "professional."

Work is about fulfilling your potential, but it's not just about that.

So we fall into the trap of taking Andy Crouch's Culture Making and equating it with a baptized version of Richard Florida's "creative class." We get excited about those who open local coffee shops or become journalists or start a non-profit or (fill in the blank). But what do our "faith and work" books have to say to people who work on the line at a Ford assembly plant, or to medical assistants who take care of the elderly? Will landscapers and receptionists see themselves in the "work" we're talking about? Would anyone who has to wear coveralls to work feel comfortable at our "faith and work" conferences?

And even when we bring skilled labour—or the completely different category of menial labour—into the faith and work conversation, we sometimes focus on the parts of those jobs that fit with creativity and fulfillment. It's nice to say "it's so good that you care for our elderly," but it's much harder to talk about having to change colostomy bags, or how you smell when you're done cleaning out a chicken barn. Yet this work takes the waking hours of many people—perhaps even the majority—in North America and certainly the world. Leaving this work out of the conversation not only leaves too many on the outside, but unwittingly communicates a certain hopelessness, as if joy and satisfaction—indeed the LORD's satisfaction—cannot be found in this type of work.

We all have times when our own work is tiresome, repetitive, or dehumanizing. Why don't we want to admit the problem is more common than we let on? Does the "faith and work" conversation have the resources to make sense of work that provides you with no space to exercise your judgment or that pays poorly? Why does my aunt who makes switchboards on an assembly line tune out when I tell her about culture making? What do we have to say to low level managers in huge bureaucracies?

Answering these questions requires that we open the door to the possibility that there are times when our institutions and cultural assumptions align to create work that is dehumanizing and exploitative on an individual level—our hands are filled with thorns. And there are times when this exists on a broader, structural level—the ground is full of thorns. For Christians this creates a burden of responsibility to speak against injustice and for just working relationships. This responsibility can sometimes be too much: "It's best just to ignore the thorns," we seem to tell ourselves.

This issue of Comment aims to explore this tension. We want to acknowledge the sorts of work we don't often talk about—like cleaning toilets and picking tomatoes—and articulate why such work is important. At the same time, we want to find a prophetic voice again, one that looks at some modes of toil and dares to call them inhumane.

What do our 'faith and work' books have to say to people who work on the line at a Ford assembly plant?

So this issue explores the positive side of manual labour that we don't spend enough time talking about. As writers like Matthew Crawford have noted, part of the reason manual work isn't part of the conversation is because it's often hard for good manual labourers to find the right words for what it is they do. Have you ever seen a hockey player, having just worked the most wonderful magic with his hands, try to explain it? Most times the player (and here you can add any craftsperson) can't talk about it because it's a knowledge of a different sort. Along these lines, the great Canadian writer Alistair MacLeod has a particularly poignant passage in his short story "Closing Down for Summer" where a miner reflects on his work:

I have always wished that my children might join me at work. That they might journey down with me in the dripping cage to the shaft's bottom or walk the eerie tunnels of the drifts that end in walls of staring stone. And that they might see how articulate we are in the accomplishment of what we do. That they might appreciate the perfection of our drilling and the calculations of our angles and the measuring of our powder, and that they might understand that what we know through eye and ear and touch is of a finer quality than any information garnered by the most sophisticated of mining engineers with all their elaborate equipment.

There is perhaps a certain eloquent beauty to be found in what we do. It is perhaps akin to the violent motion of the huge professional athletes on the given days or nights of their many games. Men as huge and physical as we are; polished and eloquent in the propelling of their bodies towards their desired goals and in their relationships and dependencies on one another but often numb and silent before the microphone of their sedentary interviewers.

In this issue we have made space for those who do work with their hands to try to articulate with words what they usually speak "manually"—that is with their hands. You will note a certain "eloquent beauty"—indeed a love—that is present in how they describe their work. But if you look closely you'll also get the sense that you're not really getting the picture of what they do. To do that you need to eat Katrina's bread, experience Helen's care, or spend some time shovelling with Phillip. Let this edition of Comment serve as an invitation to go, in the flesh, and witness "how articulate workers are in the accomplishment of what they do."

But let's not wax too eloquent. There are many who might not want to speak about their work, or who might not be as keen for their children to join them at work. There are many for whom their daily work is something about which they'd prefer to remain silent. How many kids have single moms who spend their life doing work that, honestly, they hope and dream their children will never have to do? How many people do real work—at home, in their church, in their neighbourhood—without being paid? Work is about fulfilling your potential, but it's not just about that. Is there room to be honest about drudgery and toil in the faith and work conversation? There should be. Again Alistair MacLeod gives voice to a child's late recognition and appreciation for the painful toil endured in sacrifice:

And then there came into my heart a very great love for my father and I thought it was very much braver to spend a life doing what you really do not want rather than selfishly following forever your own dreams and inclinations.

We need to be careful that our faithful valorization of work doesn't turn into a realized eschatology. When we forget that work is "toilsome" we presume to be able to achieve a vision that cannot be fulfilled until the Lord returns—as if we could root out the thorns of the curse by making our work "meaningful." But this is vanity, a chasing after the wind.

Instead we should try to work faithfully among the thorns. Sometimes that means taking delight in our creativity. Sometimes it means speaking loudly against injustice. Sometimes it means doing awful work for the sake of another. Then, in expectant hope of the time when the thorns will be burned in fire, we can find satisfaction in the work of our hands, for it is from the hand of God.


Brian Dijkema is Program Director, Work and Economics at Cardus and senior editor with Comment. Prior to joining Cardus, Brian worked for almost a decade in labour relations in Canada after completing his master's degree with Cardus Senior Fellow, Jonathan Chaplin. He has also done work on international human rights, with a focus on labour, economic, and social rights in Latin America and China.


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