A theology of labor involves Genesis 2:15 – “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.”
Labor is fundamentally a good thing and a theology of labor includes responsible stewardship of the earth’s resources. The first chapter of Genesis is obsessed with telling us that the world is good. As such, God calls us to labor for it, to responsibly keep and care for it. Of course, labor often involves hard, back breaking work that doesn’t always feel good. Genesis 3 puts forth an explanation that God cursed the earth because of human sin, making labor much more difficult. Whatever we think about that explanation, the Bible is much more interested in a different curse when it comes to labor – how we humans curse one another.
Like everything in this good world, the goodness of labor can be exploited. The prime biblical example of this comes from Exodus, which describes how the Hebrews were exploited as slaves in Egypt.
They were forced to labor.
As slaves, the Hebrews were forced to make bricks to support the Egyptian economic, religious, and political institutions. The life of a Hebrew was valued solely by how much their labor could produce. They were scapegoats of an Egyptian culture of death. The Egyptian theology of labor was based on the gods of power and exploitation. The gods of Egypt were seen primarily in Pharaoh, who was the very image of the powerful Egyptian god Horus. Of course, Pharaoh’s power to enslave the Hebrews was a sign of his divinity and his continued dominance over and against the Hebrew slaves reinforced that sign.
According to Exodus, God heard the cry of the Hebrews. Exodus makes the astonishing claim that the true God takes the side of the victims of the world, not the powerful Pharaohs of the world.
Why? Because a theology of labor actually begins with Genesis 1:27 – “So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
A biblical theology of labor knows that our value doesn’t depend upon how much we can produce. Our capitalist culture needs to hear this message just as much as the ancient Egyptian culture needed to hear it. A biblical theology of labor claims that our value is solely dependent upon being created in the image of God.
Labor Day celebrates the achievement of workers, and also the celebration of worker’s rights. During the Industrial Revolution, workers had very few rights. In fact, they were treated much like the Hebrew slaves. On average, an American worked 12 hour days, seven days a week, to earn barely enough to survive. By age 5, many children were forced to work in mines, factories, and mills. Children and adults labored in dangerous conditions with poor access to fresh air, water, and very few breaks.
In the tradition of the Hebrew slaves crying out to God and protesting their enslavement to an Egyptian culture of production and death, American workers cried out and protested an economic culture of death that placed their ultimate value on their ability to produce.
Of course, today people are still being forced into labor. We have a long way to go to recognize the image of God in our fellow human beings. A recent article from the University of Denver describes how forced labor isn’t just a problem that exists in South America or Africa or Asia. Rather, forced labor exists right here in the United States. The article claims,
Victims of forced labor are trafficked into the United States from a variety of foreign countries, although the majority originate from India, China, Mexico and Vietnam. U.S. citizens have also been targeted for forced labor operations…The sectors in which forced labor is most prevalent are sex services, domestic servitude, agriculture, sweatshops, and factory work. Forced labor in these industries is perpetuated by the large potential for profit, and by the small risk of being prosecuted for the crime.
The answer to cultures of death and exploitative labor is found in the Bible. The answer is that all people, not just the powerful, are to be revered as the very image of God. When a culture doesn’t revere our fellow human beings as such, when it exploit people as something less than God’s very image, God stands with the victims of human exploitation. If Exodus is right, no culture that exploits people by forcing them into labor will stand because those cultures run contrary to the way God created the world.
Instead of justifying forced labor like the exploitative gods of Egypt and the United States, the God of the Bible pushes us all to labor for justice as we take responsibility to care for the world and our fellow human beings.