In Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII makes the following observation about work:
As regards bodily labor, even had man never fallen from the state of innocence, he would not have remained wholly idle; but that which would then have been his free choice and his delight became afterwards compulsory, and the painful expiation for his disobedience.
Leo’s theology of capital and labor is rooted the dignity and necessity of labor and the obligations of both labor and capital. A rousing defense of private property rights, it also addresses the problems that arise when private property is concentrated in the hands of either capital or state. Rerum Novarum thus becomes the rallying cry for a middle way between socialism and capitalism that calls for the rights of the individual to both the means and produce of their own labor. From this simple premise we get Distributism, in which the person–not the corporation or the government–is at the center of an understanding of work.
The mechanism for this subtle and lofty understanding of work is not economic theory, which places the monetary cart before the human horse, but theology. Economic systems do not reason from the individual but from the mass. The mass–be it state or corporation or the vox pop–is not created in the image and likeness of God. Man is. The individual is. And so we must reason with God in understanding all things, including work.
Leo reasons to human things from divine, finding in Genesis the key to understanding the place of labor in human life:
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you,‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Labor is not the punishment of the fall: the toil of unwanted and difficult labor is the curse. It is the difficulty of labor that is our punishment: the conversion of labor from choice to necessity. The labor which, in paradise, was chosen freely to uplift idle man, is now required to scratch bare survival from the cursed ground by the sweat of our face.
Adam was not idle before the fall. He named the animals and, we must assume, tended the garden, as gardeners do today: with love and praise for the opportunity to care for the Father’s creation.
The ground is cursed by being less fruitful than that of the garden, in order that man shall spend his time in labor in order to survive. This is a medicinal punishment, for idle man is easily tempted, and good work uplifts.
If we can understand this original order of labor, perhaps we may recapture some of what was lost. In whichever “garden” our choices and our situation finds us–factory, office, or beyond–we have to seek the joy in it. Frequently, that seems almost impossible.
I’ve been a carpet cleaner (it’s much harder than you think), janitor, lawn boy, TV/film production manager, and technical editor. Finding joy in cleaning someone else’s filth is a hard thing to do, but you know what? We did it. There was almost a grim humor in the face of grinding, ugly work. Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs discovered the same thing: people doing nasty work often are happy, well-adjusted people. Rowe suggests this is because they find a sense of accomplishment from their work:
…it has to do with the sense of completing a task. So many “good” jobs these days don’t give you a sense of closure. For a lot of people in office work, the desk looks the same at 6 p.m. as it did at 6 a.m. How do you know when you are done? People I work with — hey, they got a dead deer in the road. They do their work and it’s gone. You got a ditch to put in. In the morning, it’s not there. In the evening, it is. People with dirty jobs live in a world of constant feedback. For better or worse, they always know how they’re doing. That matters.
Individual joy is a state of mind, but it’s certainly dependent upon the state of the body and its situation. Sometimes joy isn’t an option in the world as it is, which is why as people get further from contentment and satisfaction, they find themselves closer to God. God is very near to those who struggle, and those who sweat for their daily bread. He knows they fight with this cursed land. Lacking plenty, God does not leave them hungry, but fills them with His love. By keeping God at the center of both life and work, we not only honor God, but we help repair the sin that separates us from Him.
We may be able to find our solution to the problem of joy in labor in the correlating punishment of the fall: the curse related to sex. The twin punishments for Adam and Eve are that labor, once intended for uplifting man, is now needed merely to sustain him; and that sex, once the re-unification in pleasure and delight of physically divided husband and wife, is now subjected to disorder and lust.
Good things retain their goodness, but man in his fallen state loses sight of that goodness. We struggle against lust, and we struggle in labor. Our current economic systems aggravate the issue, because the individual child of God too easily is pulled between twin forces of exploitation: government and capital. All three–labor, state, and capital–have obligations to each other, yet we see the two strong (state and capital) exploiting the weak (the individual) for their own purposes of power and greed. How can one find dignity in this situation, when the very means of our survival on earth are left up to the whims of foolish and sinful men?
I wish I had a good answer for that. It’s hard to find the light of joy while grinding out 12 hour shifts for a bad boss, but I do know the person who keeps his or her eyes on God even in the worst situations will never go wrong.
We bring God with us everywhere we go. We are the imago dei, and no individual is better than another, whether he’s flying in the Walmart corporate jet, or stocking the Walmart shelves. Our dignity is God-given, and the love of the Father is with us always. If we can let some of that love come through into the workplace, we may not make the evil boss or the low-wage job any better, but we can find joy in the only real source of authentic joy. And maybe a bit of that grace will come through and make the workplace a little better for everyone.
Man labored in the garden, and it was good. It was good because man is not made to be idle, but to create and produce. In this way, he emulates God, Whose labor sanctified the six days as much as His rest sanctified the seventh.