Covid, the Unemployed, and the Meaning of Labor

Covid, the Unemployed, and the Meaning of Labor September 23, 2021


Genesis 2 offers a vivid picture of humanity as viceroys, called upon to work alongside God in naming and ordering creation. That role, of course, presupposes that the viceroy will be guided by the character of the king himself.  Viceroys (as the name itself suggests) are not left in charge to do what they please. They mirror the behavior of the king himself.

The events in Genesis 3 offer an equally vivid picture of what human existence is like when we seek to be our own kings. The work that Adam and Eve are given remains, but their relationship with that work is disrupted and struggle ensues.

Neither story is historical in the sense that these truths rely upon the existence of a “real, live” Adam and Eve. The stories are meant to tell us deeper truths about ourselves. So, as we read both stories, we should hear the narrator say, “Let me tell you a bit about what we human beings are like.”

Those truths go a long way toward explaining why our efforts to care for the poor so often fail to change their lives in any lasting fashion.  When we simply dispense money to people without attention to the deep and primeval relationship we have with work, we ignore and erode the connection that people have with labor and the rewards that it offers.  As the stories in Genesis suggest, those losses include the sense of agency and participation in the gifts that God has given us as co-creators.  Governments, churches, and parents all fail to see this when they substitute money for the loss of meaning that accompanies the opportunity to work.  This fact also goes a long way toward explaining why our efforts to combat poverty have failed so miserably.

This does not mean that caring for the poor is unimportant, that we should spend less on our efforts, or that people should simply be told to “work harder” or “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.”  To talk in those terms misses the point of the Genesis stories as well.

But it does mean that when we seek to help others our goals must be more nuanced and should be focused on more than getting money into the hands of people in need.  It also means that our central goal should be to restore those who live on the fringes of our society  to a relationship with our communities where people rediscover their own role as viceroys in God’s creation.

It is time to ask ourselves new questions.  Decades of intergenerational poverty and now the vagaries of Covid-19 make that clear.  What will be more difficult to do is to break with the logic of the past.

Given our society’s materialist orientation, it is difficult to know what might lead to a new initiative.  Our leaders are deeply invested in scoring electoral advantages as quickly and as publicly as possible.  The slow, arduous work to recreate a sense of connection with personal agency and effort is far harder to achieve and much harder to measure.

Faith communities, on the other hand,  have good theological reasons for abandoning the approaches that have failed so miserably and good theological warrants for thinking in new and life-giving categories.

When that time comes, it will be worth consulting the ancient wisdom of Genesis.


Photo by Clark Young on Unsplash

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