By Dr. Vincent Bacote
Ferguson, MO has become an emblem, mirror and prism of some of the great challenges that remain in our society. While the debates and punditry will likely continue, and while there are multiple points of discussion, the events there give a significant opportunity for Christians to contribute to the common good and the flourishing of public life. “Common good” and “public life” often lead us to consider the very important work of politics; unquestionably political concerns are a vital dimension of this opportunity, but there is a less immediately obvious domain that I would like to bring to our attention.
The wide-ranging discussion of the problems highlighted by Ferguson are linked to the question of faith and work, though this may not be the first thing that comes to mind. But consider this: the problems of race in the United States are tied to legacies of slavery and Jim Crow laws, both of which involved distortions of a fundamental dimension of human life, which is the relationship of human dignity to the opportunity to do work that contributes to one’s flourishing.
One aspect of proper humanness is related to the creation mandate in Genesis 1:26 and 1:28, a blessing from God where human responsibility (“dominion”) for the created order assumes that our response to this mandate involves work. We can even say that work is one of the ways that we express being created in God’s image. But part of the legacy of our country (despite much good in our legacy) has included resisting the opportunity for all persons to properly express themselves as image bearers in the world of work.
The problems magnified by Ferguson show we have not escaped the reverberations of a society where racial discrimination was part of the structure of society, including ways that such discrimination impeded the path to full flourishing in the world of work for African-Americans. We are not in the same situation as the era of Jim Crow, but the effects still haunt us, especially those African-Americans who are in contexts of poverty. There are many causes for poverty, but discrimination has been one of them.
While we are approximately 50 years beyond the Civil Rights acts that made great changes in our society, it would be naïve to confuse an improved society with many more proper work opportunities with a society that has “arrived” in some kind of eschatological sense. Legislation alone cannot undo the momentum of over 200 years of problems with race in the same way that a few years of psychological peace does not eliminate the impact of decades of abuse. We are getting better but our healing is a slow process.
What is the opportunity for Christians? In the broadest sense, there is the opportunity to make greater efforts to emphasize the relationship between our faith and work. As much as I would like to believe that the recent increase in attention to matters of faith, work and vocation means that most churches have made this emphasis part of Christian formation, such a belief is more aspirational than actual. Whether we are talking about executive-level or entry-level work, teaching Christians that work is a vital expression of our lives as persons created in the divine image remains elusive.
More specifically, Christians have the opportunity to think about how the relationship of faith and work catalyzes expressions of Christian commitment to human flourishing. First, it is important to begin asking how the problems we see in minority communities are at least in part linked to the dehumanization that people can feel when they find themselves marginalized because of either minimal opportunities for dignifying work (what constitutes such dignifying work is a conversation all its own) or because their circumstances, which include but are not limited to the reverberations of our history with race, leave them unprepared or unable to recognize and/or participate in dignifying work.
Second, we can begin asking how Christians can show a commitment to the common good expressed as a commitment to pursuing human dignity–explicitly connected to the flourishing that comes by participating in the world of work. This orients us to very difficult questions about how to help enable economic flourishing, which involves both an emphasis on personal responsibility as well as the structural aspects of society. A large challenge is to avoid making this a matter of simple slogans about larger or smaller government; our energy is better invested asking how Christians can have a greater realization that faithfulness to God includes giving attention to these concerns of “life beyond Sunday.”
For example, we can ask how being a disciple of Jesus means love of neighbor, and how we can thus catalyze opportunities for people to live in a manner proper to divine image bearers. What does this look like on the ground? It at least means this: those of us who talk about faith and work need to begin considering how this conversation translates into action that counters the lingering effects of the sad legacy of race connected to the world of work.
More than calling people to responsibility, we have to ask how to empower those who feel powerless and left out, putting the slogans of pundits aside and asking how to love our neighbors by helping them (to use language of Pope Paul VI) become artisans of their own destiny. If we lead the way, it will be a Christian witness that will be truly amazing.
Dr. Vincent Bacote is Associate Professor of Theology and Director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College.