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an overhead view of orange tiled roofs

Why We Work

Peter Mommsen

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  • Lyn

    This is the best article I have found on this topic- encapsulating my beliefs on this complex issue beautifully! How refreshing to find a magazine dealing so truthfully and thoughtfully with deeper issues of life. Thanks!

As a newcomer to Germany, I wasn’t prepared for the roofers’ guild uniform. Several of the men in my work crew were wearing it despite the scorching August sun: white shirt, eight-button vest, black corduroy bell-bottoms with carpenter’s-rule pockets and conspicuous double zippers. “Normal guys wear this?” I asked myself as I carried stacks of ceramic tiles up to where a gable was being restored. Even in my T-shirt and jeans, it was hot work, done at a brisk pace, without much banter.

It was 2004, and my wife and I, newly married, had arrived in Dresden from New York a few days before. We were living with a friend who was renovating his century-old villa, and I offered to help the roofing contractors over the summer. From what I’d seen of roofing firms at home, I expected a corner-cutting outfit staffed with poorly trained employees laboring for low pay. Instead, I found myself working with a family firm – masters, journeymen, and apprentices – who clearly pitied anyone who wasn’t a roofer. Even for a non-roofer, it was convincing.

It’s not that the crew’s working relationships were all cheerful camaraderie, or that the pay was particularly good. Journeymen in the area, I’d learn, typically earned only seven to eight euros an hour (nine to ten US dollars), even before taxes. But the roofers had pride: in hard work, in a job done to demanding standards, in a trade with its own dignity and traditions. To these men, honor belonged to those sweating up on the scaffolding, not to the white-collar professionals whose homes they built or repaired. On the construction site, the hierarchy of capitalism temporarily flipped: the craftsman, not the customer, was king. It takes a VIP, after all, to have the nerve to wear double-zipper bell-bottoms.

two men putting tiles on a roof

The black guild uniform for German woodworkers, including roofers, goes back to the nineteenth century.
Photograph from mewa.cz

These roofers came to mind as I was reading Bullshit Jobs, a recent book by David Graeber, professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics. According to Graeber, a large portion of today’s jobs involve tasks that the employees themselves consider pointless. He reports that in a 2015 YouGov poll, 37 percent of Britons said that their job does not make a meaningful contribution to the world; in another survey, 40 percent of Dutch workers similarly believed that their jobs had no good reason to exist. What are these socially useless jobs? Most of them, Graeber says, involve administrative, managerial, clerical, service, and sales functions such as telemarketing: sectors of the job market that, combined, ballooned from a quarter of total employment in 1910 to three-quarters in 2000. Using dozens of in-depth interviews, Graeber argues that workers who believe their jobs are worthless are probably correct.

Whether or not Graeber’s overall thesis holds up, his interviewees give powerful expression to a hunger that seems to be growing around the developed world: a desire for work that has meaning and purpose. According to a 2018 study of US workers by the Harvard Business Review, nine out of ten respondents said they would be willing to sacrifice income in order for their work to be more meaningful; just one out of twenty considered their jobs to be as meaningful as they could be. The study’s authors cast this finding as a management opportunity: if you can make employees feel as if their work has meaning – bring on those socially conscious projects and sustainability competitions! – they’ll be willing to work more for less.

Marx described the alienation of the industrial proletariat from their work; this new alienation afflicts white-collar workers as well. Claudio Oliver, a farmer in Curitiba, Brazil, told me how dozens of professionals, most in their twenties, come each month to visit the urban garden and bakery he helped start. What is the profile of the people who come to him? “It’s typically a young man or woman who goes to that office-cubicle job one day and looks out the window to where the landscaping crew is working and realizes, ‘Wow, I wish I were the guy down there driving the lawnmower instead of doing this.’” Many of the visitors end up taking a sabbatical of a few weeks or months to learn to grow vegetables, raise goats, and bake sourdough; several have become permanent members of the community that runs the farm.

Vocation, “calling,” is the answer that Protestant Christianity gives when asked what gives our work meaning. Vocation sums up one of the Reformation’s signature ideas: that each person is called by God to serve the common good in a particular line of work. Today it’s a staple theme of Christian authors, youth pastors, life coaches, and conferences: “Everyone has a God-given calling. What’s yours?” Your vocation, evidently, might be almost anything: as a nurse, a wilderness guide, a calligrapher, a missionary, an activist, a venture capitalist, a politician …

How are you to know your own individual vocation? “A calling is simply a tug on our hearts by God toward a particular thing,” advises Relevant magazine. “Follow your passion,” recommends the online publication Theology of Work, adopting a secular motto. A more poetic way of saying the same thing comes from the Presbyterian theologian Frederick Buechner: vocation, he writes in his 1973 book Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, is “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

It sounds as good as falling in love. Vocation: the jolt you feel as you walk past that special stand at the college career fair – all to the greater glory of God!

But such high-flown notions leave out the bulk of humanity. Deep gladness isn’t what leads people to work as motel maids, supermarket cashiers, or call-center employees, much less sweatshop workers or migrant farm laborers. Yet each day, millions go to jobs like these. Nor is following one’s passion an option for those hindered from working by disability, mental illness, or trauma. Is vocation, then, just for the able, well-educated, and well-heeled?

Workers who believe their jobs are worthless are probably correct.

Not according to the Reformation’s original understanding, which was both deeper and more realistic than much contemporary vocation talk. In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther began to interpret a line by the apostle Paul in a novel way: “Let every man abide in the calling wherein he was called” (1 Cor. 7:20). Luther seized on the word calling, and gave it a broader meaning than the medieval church, with its emphasis on the special callings of priests and monastics, had ever done. A person’s calling, he argued, is simply to whatever station in life she finds herself in; it is her vocation because it is the place in which God, through his providence, calls her to love her neighbor. Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor – all God-ordained vocations, and therefore of equal value. No matter how menial one’s work may be, it is a sacred calling through which God works in the world. In Luther’s words, “God milks the cows through the vocation of the milkmaids.”

Luther’s vision of vocation would prove a liberating power, giving new dignity to the labors of ordinary peasants and craftsmen. Refined by Calvin, it would reshape much of Europe; in fact, as Max Weber famously argued, the Protestant ideal of vocation, with its emphasis on a strong work ethic and ascetic dedication to the discipline of one’s trade, can be credited for the flowering of capitalism.

This is the background for why today, “vocational” schools exist to teach plumbing or welding, not spiritual practices. It’s the reason why several nations’ constitutions guarantee freedom of vocation as an essential aspect of human dignity. And it likely explains, through the windings of history, the pride of the corduroy-clad German roofers I worked with in Dresden. As Luther – who long made that region of Germany his home – might have put it, God builds roofs through the vocation of the roofers.

Whatever the virtues of the Protestant ideal of vocation, however, it has a serious flaw: as an account of New Testament teaching, it is wrong. Luther illustrates this defect most clearly by taking it to an extreme. For him, all work, not just farming or the trades, expresses God’s will; there are many possible vocations. For example: “If you see there is a lack of hangmen … and you find that you are qualified, you should offer your services.” He adds, “For the hand that wields this sword and kills with it is not man’s hand, but God’s; and it is not man, but God, who hangs, tortures, beheads, kills, and fights. All these are God’s works and judgments.”

No executioner, then, is left behind in this theology of vocation. Yet it’s hard to imagine anything more contrary to the spirit of the Jesus of the four Gospels or, for that matter, the rest of the New Testament.

When the New Testament writers use the words translated in English as vocation or calling, they are never referring to work, much less to a particular trade or profession. As Will Willimon explains, the New Testament knows only one form of vocation: discipleship. And discipleship is far more likely to mean leaving father and mother, houses and land, than it is to mean embracing one’s identity as a fisherman or tax collector. It demands the sacrifice of what we naturally desire. “When Christ calls a man,” said Bonhoeffer, “he bids him come and die.”

Most of us would prefer to follow Luther in simply baptizing the status quo.

This is not a popular way to talk about vocation. Most of us would prefer to follow Luther in simply baptizing the status quo, despite any contradictions that might result. When others feel the ache of a real lack in their lives – when they sense the alienation that arises from working and living in an unjust social order – we’d rather apply the soothing salve of Christianity-lite, assuring them that all is as it should be.

But the status quo is what Christ came to abolish: “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev. 21:5). In its place he brought the only true calling, to the renewed common life shaped wholly by love that he describes in the Sermon on the Mount. As David Bentley Hart put it in our summer 2019 issue titled Beyond Capitalism: “Christians are those … who are no longer at liberty to imagine or desire any social or political or economic order other than the koinonia of the early church, no other communal morality than the anarchy of Christian love.”

This issue of Plough aims to build on our Beyond Capitalism issue by focusing on people who lived their lives with that sense of vocation. Such a life demands self-sacrifice and a willingness to recognize one’s own supposed strengths as weaknesses, as it did for the Canadian moral philosopher Jean Vanier. It involves a lifelong commitment to a flesh-and-blood church, as Coptic Archbishop Angaelos describes. It may even require a readiness to give up one’s life, as it did for Annalena Tonelli, an Italian humanitarian who pioneered the treatment of tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa.

But as these stories also testify, it’s a vocation that brings a gladness deeper than any self-chosen path. The many in our society who protest that their work is useless are on to something: they, and we, are created for a higher meaning and purpose – for what T. S. Eliot memorably called “a condition of complete simplicity” that “cost[s] not less than everything.” It’s not too high a price to pay.

Contributed By Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough Quarterly magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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