Does Manual Labor Have a Place in the Faith and Work Discussion?
Acton Institute Powerblog

Does Manual Labor Have a Place in the Faith and Work Discussion?

20111108diggingaditchOver the past two decades there has been an increased interest and promotion of the Biblical meaning of work and the Christian view of vocation. Many groups have contributed to this revival, including the Acton Institute (last year we launched Oikonomia, a blog at Patheos’ Faith and Work Channel, dedicated to providing resources specific to the intersection of faith, work, and economics).

While the faith and work conversation has been exceedingly fruitful, it has also been rather limited to what can be described as “knowledge workers.” As Comment’s Brian Dijkema says,

[W]e 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.

Several years ago, philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff made a similar point:

I spent thirty years of my life teaching philosophy at Calvin College and fifteen teaching philosophy at Yale University. At both institutions there was a pecking order (these institutions are typical in this regard, not unique), more evident to those at the bottom of the order than to those at the top. If you use your hands or teach those who use their hands—”hands” being used both literally and metaphorically here—you are inferior to those who use only their heads: practicing musicians are inferior to musicologists, painters are inferior to art historians, teachers of business are inferior to economists, teachers of preaching are inferior to theologians. The basic attitude was stated crisply by Aristotle at the opening of his Metaphysics: “We think the master-workers in each craft are more honourable and know in a truer sense and are wiser than the manual workers.”

It’s a strange attitude for Christians to hold, since Jesus was the son of a carpenter and since God is presented in the opening pages of Scripture as a maker, not a thinker.

For far too long, we’ve downplayed or dismissed manual labor because it is toilsome. Toilsome labor—work that is often associated with the hands rather than the head—is work that is incessant, extremely hard, and exhausting. Yet as Scripture says, we can find satisfaction in toilsome labor (Ecclesiastes 5:18).

We must ensure there’s a place for manual work and toilsome labor in the faith and work conversation. We’re failing in our efforts if we aren’t showing people how through such labor they are participating in God’s own work.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).