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'Christian Economics' and a New Definition of Work

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Why Christians (and the rest of us) need to develop a better philosophy of what work should be, and why being a landlord or investor doesn't really count, despite what the right-wing Church says.

'The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.' A verse that has been much on my mind lately, partly because of its perennial misuse by anti-socialist, anti-charity Christians, and partly because of its potential relevance to last week's obsessive political discussion of jobs and how to get people into them.

Certainly the advice given to the Thessalonians (in context) is good: disruptive people who selfishly assume others will work hard to feed them while they cause trouble should know that this is not the Christian way. But if we are to apply this teaching it needs to be done fairly and in keeping with Christian principles, yes?

So, in terms of fairness, let's talk about rent, land-ownership and capitalism. If I own a building and rent it out, what work, exactly, am I doing to earn my food? Certainly, what I do is legal, but that is hardly a moral argument. If I occasionally pay someone to unclog drains, paint and clear gutters, that is work, but hardly worth what we pay in rent. Landlords may have worked to buy their properties, but they are not working for their rent money. Will the 'no work, no food' crowd please clamour a bit about those who might even have inherited property and are living off the rent? Or are they too conformed to the thinking of this Mammon-loving world?

Similarly, the system of capitalism encourages those with money to invest it in businesses and let their money 'work' for them. A factory owner could never visit his factory, never do a day's labour but, by virtue of having money, 'earn' a very nice living. Will we be encouraging these to 'get a job'? I do hope so. And will we ourselves, with our money 'earning' interest in banks and businesses, with capital that makes our need for benefits less likely - will we speak out about a system that allows us to accumulate wealth through no sweat or labour? No? What a surprise.

'They should be grateful for any work,' is another classic, if non-Biblical, line one hears from those with plenty in the bank. But if the best I could look forward to was a minimum wage position that involved repetitive, uncreative work in less than comfortable conditions, I'm not sure I would be grateful. Tell me you're not the same. And that's where Christian principle comes in. If we would not be happy to accept work we found dehumanising, demeaning or just unfulfilling, why would we wish that on others?

The economist, EF Schumacher, in an essay called Buddhist Economics, identified the Buddhist view of the purpose of work thus: 'to give man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence.'

That may not be exactly how Christians would define it, but we would certainly share Schumacher's uneasiness at the view that work is 'a necessary evil', something one endures for the sake of treasured periods of selfishness and laziness or a means for us to amass ever-growing stocks of material possessions.

But it is those sentiments that define how our society views work. It is that mindset that brings in labour-saving devices not to make workers' lives easier but to make them redundant. It is that unGodly view of work that means mundane or unpleasant jobs are not shared by all but are foisted on the weakest, the poorest, those who ultimately and naturally grow to hate work.

Issues of labour justice are often reduced purely to questions of money and payment. This simply perpetuates a system that is fundamentally sick. Yes, it is wonderful that the Methodist Church last week became the first major denomination in Britain to start paying the Living Wage (£7.60 an hour, enough to allow one to 'participate in society').

And while other denominations and indeed all employers calling themselves Christian should follow suit, we should not lose sight of the greater goal: a Christian economics that aims to make every job a good one and every worker fulfilled. If we will not work towards that, we should stop misusing Scripture and stop pontificating about work at all.

This piece first appeared in The Baptist Times.