“What is my work?

Messenger,  Mary Oliver

“The error of economism [is] that of considering human labor solely 
according to its economic purpose.”

Laborem ExercensPope St. John Paul II
                                                                                                             

In a basic course on Buddhism, my students and I spend some time reflecting on “right livelihood,” one of the steps on the Noble Eight-Fold Path. They’re intrigued that a religious tradition would set parameters on what counts as legitimate work for human beings to do. I note in our conversation that there might also be such a thing as a Christian theology of work but in their eyes Buddhism is exotic (and thus de facto profound) and Christianity familiar (so they think) and, besides, Christianity is for many of them a dubious proposition altogether so they’ll just go with the Buddhist view, thank you. It’s a course on Buddhism after all so we go with it.

Our conversation is a reminder to me and an eye-opener to the students that for all the talk of “jobs” in our culture we almost never talk about work in the sense of work as elemental to our humanness. Work as the capacity to make something from something else (a kitchen table from a pile of lumber; a a book about modern art from a lifetime of study) for a good greater than oneself while sometimes, but not always, not necessarily, being remunerated for one’s efforts. Work in this sense is not equivalent to “gainful employment.”

Work is a part of our dignity as human beings. According to the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions it is an outflow of our participation in the creative work of an ever-creating God.

Even in regard to work-for-pay, most religious traditions (and humanist ones, too) recognize the intrinsic worth of the worker—her right to fair treatment and to a just, living wage. Most economists, by contrast, don’t hold these assumptions as central; rather, the value of a worker is in his productivity, his usefulness in helping to ensure profit in a competitive market.

Within such a view, work is only about jobs, and to be concerned that everyone has a job is less about promoting “right livelihood” and more about increasing consumer spending. If people have jobs, they’ll buy more things, the economy will grow, all will be well.

Likewise, when politicians talk about jobs they’re not talking about work. They’re speaking, we know, to our collective anxiety about things we’ve been told to worry about: “lackluster employment numbers,” “stagnant wages,” “the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs.”

I don’t mean to diminish the real, material difficulties of those struggling to find work-for-pay—the chronically unemployed, especially. But it seems worth asking what our jobs have to do with human flourishing, with the well-being of all creation, with our own creatureliness. Buddhism, Christianity, and other wisdom traditions invite us—urge us—to wrestle with such questions.

Donald Trump’s recent empty and irresponsible promise to West Virginians that he’ll “bring back coal jobs” highlights the complexity and urgency of these matters. He (like all politicians, liberal or conservative, left or right) assumes as a matter of course “economism”—the belief that factors and indicators like supply and demand, profit margins, gross domestic product, and access to markets—provide the overarching framework, the foundational paradigm for evaluating societal health and well-being. In such a system, as Pope St. John Paul II observed, human labor is considered solely for its economic value.

Moreover, in such a system, coal miners and other workers in similar relationships with corporations and outside interests, collude with their own oppression. This is exacerbated in Appalachia by an enculturated self-effacement: no group is more ridiculed and pitied than we are so we might as well ridicule and pity ourselves. This self-effacement (which may also be a twisted form of self-loathing) morphs into a kind of stoic pride. This pride may seem admirable, but in reality it undermines the interests and long-term well-being of people who do things like mine coal for a living.

I’m mindful of how offensive this can sound so let me be clear: I don’t wish to denigrate the risky work that coal miners historically have done and continue to do, nor the sense of accomplishment they feel in their vocation, and the benefits all of us receive from their labor.

But here’s the thing: I worry, at least a little, when generations of West Virginians—whether they are connected to coal mining or not—absorb this narrative that they are beleaguered and put-upon, the most-derided regional group in America, and then turn that woundedness into a kind of guarded bravado that refuses to reckon with hard, uncomfortable truths. And then cheers wildly as Donald Trump raises false hopes and exploits worst fears and resentments.

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What is our work?

It sounds a little hackneyed to suggest that, at least in part, work, including remunerative work, is less about making a living and more about making a life.

But isn’t it?

And the work one does that contributes to the making of a life can include bread-baking and neurosurgery, building a fence and mapping the human genome. We have wrongly internalized a kind of hierarchy of work that ascribes the most worth to those prestigious occupations assumed to be at the top. (There was a not-so-subtle paternalism in Trump’s speech in southern West Virginia last week). We drill into our children, for example, from an early age, that they need to go to college so they don’t end up “flipping burgers.” But what about the people who make our food or clean our offices when we go home at night? Are their lives worth less? Does our work matter more than theirs?

In his book, Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, Matthew Crawford tracks the educational apartheid that has given rise to these divisions, this hierarchy, and argues for the cognitive richness and moral significance of manual work. He also insists that “if thinking is bound up with action, then the task of getting an adequate grasp on the world, intellectually, depends on our doing stuff in it.”

No matter one’s vocation (a word that deserves its own post), a rich theology of work assumes that, along with the dignity of the worker, there are goods intrinsic to work worth doing well. Economism instrumentalizes work—treats it as a means to some other end. It may be this in part, but the work we do in the world—for pay, for the sheer pleasure of it, because we must—is, when it and we are at our best, its own deep joy and satisfaction.

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(Part of this post is taken from some reflections I wrote in 2010 after the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in WV in which twenty-nine miners were killed).

 

It’s my turn to write the lectionary reflection on bLOGOS, the blog of The Ekklesia Project:

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

Acts 16:9-15 (RCL); Acts 15:1-2, 22-29 (LM)
Psalm 67 (RCL); Psalm 67:2-8 (LM)
Revelation 21:10- 22:5 (RCL); Revelation 21:1014, 22-23 (LM)
John 14:23-29

“When love has entirely cast out fear, and fear has been transformed into love, then the unity brought us by our savior will be fully realized, for all [people] will be united with one another through their union with the one supreme Good.”Easter Lily 4666

St. Gregory of Nyssa,
from a homily on The Song of Songs

In a wide-ranging conversation with Bill Moyers early last year, writer Marilynne Robinson spoke about fear in American life. With eloquence and insight (and no little exasperation), she noted how we have managed to convince ourselves—or, rather, how we have been persuaded by powerful interest groups—that fear is really courage.

We fashion, she said, “little narratives” that make each of us the hero of an imagined drama and anyone else a potential threat. And all the ways in which we prepare (expect? secretly hope?) for our fear-driven stories to unfold constitute something of an addiction, a cultural obsession, a collective pathology.

Robinson’s insights are as timely as ever these many months later. Why is America’s culture of fear taken as a matter of course?

To read the rest click here.

 

A Holy Week post I wrote for public radio’s On Being with Krista Tippett:

As Lent moves toward its end–both in the sense of its conclusion and its purpose–I think of this powerful poem by Ariel Dorfman. Its subject matter is the execution by firing squad of a political prisoner, inspired by events during the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s in Dorfman’s native Chile.

They put the prisonerOn Being Holy Week photo
against the wall.

A soldier ties his hands.
His fingers touch him—strong,

gentle, saying goodbye.
—Forgive me, compañero—
says the voice in a whisper.
The echo of his voice
and of
    those fingers on his arm
fills his body with light
   I tell you his body fills with light
and he almost does not hear
the sound of the shots.

Scottish composer James MacMillan set the poem, entitled “Sun Stone,” for choir and organ as the final movement of his work, Cantos SagradosMusically, the text is framed by–or rather infused throughout with–this phrase from the Credo of the Mass, sung in ethereal tones mostly by the sopranos:

Et incarnatus est de spiritu sancto.                           And by the Holy Spirit was incarnate
Ex Maria Virgine, et homo factus est.                       of the Virgin Mary, and became man.
Crucifixus etiam pro nobis.                                          For our sake he was crucified.

It is a work of excruciating beauty (cruciāre to torment, cruc-em cross) and the jarring juxtaposition of texts lays bare, obliquely not directly, the drama of Holy Week with its stark contrasts of power and weakness, cruelty and tenderness, unspeakable suffering and astonishing forgiveness. The passio of Jesus in the gospel narratives is the culmination of an obscure life lived in complete embodiment of the shalom of God–in the midst of political tyranny and dehumanizing violence, in suffering and death and seeming sure defeat.

During Holy Week Christians enact this painful drama that we might know more fully the Easter story that counters, subsumes, and transforms it. It is theatrical, disturbing, cathartic, and deeply necessary, for the torture of crucifixion and of firing squads (and of waterboarding, for the record) is, as William Cavanaugh has written “a kind of perverse liturgy [in which] the body of the victim is the ritual site where the state’s power is manifested in its most awesome form.” This anti-liturgy is met in the true liturgy of the Eucharist, where the body of the victim makes possible the creation of a new body which lives by resurrection hope and loves by a power not of its own making.

To read the rest click here.

 

In a few weeks I’ll begin a sabbatical year of travel, research, and writing. (Not that I’m counting the days or anything).

Sabbatical: from sabbath (shabbat), meaning to cease or stop or rest.

Academic sabbatical: a period in which one is to be demonstrably productive.

In my application for sabbatical leave, I noted this contradiction by citing an observation by Max Page, a professor of architecture and history at the University of Massachusetts:

What “sabbatical” meant was that the land—your productive capacity, your brain, your heart—should not be used or exercised in exactly the same way it had been for the previous six years. It needs to be refertilized. It will be more productive and life giving (and refereed journal article producing) if it is allowed a rest from its usual activities. I found it particularly remarkable, and disturbing, that in the sabbatical seminar I attended no one spoke about improving the quality of the work of their sabbatical, only that they produce more, and faster.

I hope to take the “rest” part of sabbatical to heart but will also work, reasonably productively, I hope, on a project that is situated at the intersection of religion, science, and art; one that begins with an uncontested truth—our planet is in crisis—and proceeds with an unconventional claim: we have neglected the aesthetic response to this crisis. I want to show that at the intersection of theology and poetry lay fertile ground for confronting the problems of ecological degradation and matters of culpability, accountability, and the flourishing of all of creation.

I will not argue that poetry helps us to better appreciate the natural world (though poems can do that). Nor will I champion the polemical—poetry as argument for political change. I’m with Robert Lowell, the American poet who once confronted a Soviet bureaucrat who was urging more frequent exchanges between poets and superpowers for the purpose of promoting peace. “Art,” Lowell snapped, “does not make peace. That is not its business. Art is peace.”

I am most interested in the intrinsic connection between the loss of linguistic capacity (our ability to speak truthfully, to wield language responsibly) and the loss of the world (its destruction by forces driven by ignorance and self-interest and our culture’s willing and often unwitting collusion with them). Poetry, I will suggest, is one way to recover from this loss—not because it is “useful” but because, as Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney has said, it “offers a clarification, a fleeting glimpse of a potential order of things ‘beyond confusion.’”

There’s much more to say and I’m grateful that I have a couple of summers and a couple of semesters to try and say it. But lately I’ve been thinking about the connections between poetry and politics. Not so much in the sense of how nice it would be if politicians spoke in more poetic terms but wouldn’t it, though? The linguistic gutter that Trump and Rubio have dragged us through is foul territory indeed.

But much more than that, what would it mean to attend to the aesthetic dimension of our political plight in this particular historical moment? To take account of the diminishment of language broadly (not just vulgar political speech) that keeps us from desiring, seeking, and living into the beauty we were made from and for? To even ask such questions in our current political culture sounds naive, a little ridiculous, even.

We would have to get our heads around the idea that language is creative of meaning, not descriptive of something we call “reality.” (An idea whose explication requires more than a blog post, I realize). We would have to agree that, on one level, at least, theology is the work of giving an account of the world that makes possible certain kinds of communities, produces certain kinds of people. The theo-poetic speech of Martin Luther King, Jr. was about this kind of work: “the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community.” As is that of  Pope Francis: ““Give us a holy courage to seek new paths, that the gift of unfading beauty may reach every man and woman.”

Where we have been paralyzed by information overload–almost all of it maddeningly contradictory–or polarized by soundbite one-upmanship, how might we recover the language, the speech-acts of shared responsibility and care, of mutual joy and delight, such that we might desire, seek, and work for the well-being of our neighbor above our own?

And how does poetry help with this?

Poetry, I suggest, is a kind of witness, a form of protest (things can be otherwise), a vision of wholeness out of disorder, for it is the art of making a new thing with the material—human language, a nearby dictionary—at hand. (No creation ex nihilo here. As Wendell Berry says, “poetry can be written only because it has been written.”)

But we don’t mine poems for meaning or to see what truths they might express for application to this or that situation. Good poems are “beautiful and pointless.” That is, they don’t mean; they—not unlike the liturgy—do. “Authentic poetry,” says theologian Rowan Williams, “is labour, it’s work: the doing of something which has its own integrity.”

So I vote for poetry.

I vote for exposing ourselves and our children especially to the contagion that good poetry is–poetry of all kinds. For, as Mary Oliver has said, “poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.” And like a contagion, good poems, says Pulitzer prize-winning poet Jorie Graham, “want to go from body to body. Built in is the belief that such community—one could even say ceremony—might ‘save’ the world.”

Well, if not the world, then maybe our dismal politics.

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From Blossoms

From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.

From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.

O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

Li-Young Lee, “From Blossoms” from Rose. Copyright © 1986 by Li-Young Lee

Recently, a theologian friend penned a Facebook post that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. The crux of it was this:

“It would be good for all people of faith to remember that any politician who invokes the name of God in order to bolster his or her poll numbers, or court an interest group, has taken God’s name in vain. It uses God for empty things, one of the gravest evils possible . . . Only the politician who dares to be silent about God could possibly be a person of genuine faith.”

This long-time friend had me at “it would be good.” But I suspect that for many Christians on both
the right and the left (and likely for some Jews and Muslims) this is exasperating if not infuriating
speech. Most Americans, it seems, take it as a given—as a good—that, in one way or another,
presidential candidates have to say something about God. Generally, Republicans embrace this expectation enthusiastically; Democrats variously so. The image of America as a “city on a hill” was conjured by the Puritan John Winthrop and invoked by John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, enshrining the myth of American exceptionalism and the belief in God’s special favor on America as hallmarks of presidential politics.

When Jesus says the phrase “city on a hill” in St. Matthew’s gospel, he seems to be enjoining among his followers a witness  against the Pax Romana, not endorsing its strength or greatness. He was not a patriot or a champion of Empire or a would-be reformer of it but its willing victim. Arrested, tortured, tried, and executed on a charge of sedition, his aim was not to be the commander-in-chief but to embody a radically alternative politics—of non-violence and revolutionary love—to the sham political system and its death-dealing ways.

In 2016, a number of presidential candidates want us to know that their Christian faith will be central to their governance should they be elected, especially, it seems, as they plot violence against our enemies. They give no hint that there might be conflict between being a president and being a Christian. They routinely, as my friend put it, “use God for their political aspirations.” And they rouse people of faith from across a range of traditions, treating them as just another interest group—the evangelical vote or the Catholic vote (neither of which is a monolith)—and thus take God’s name in vain.

Much of the candidates’ Christian rhetoric either rings hollow (Donald Trump) or is unrecognizable as Christian speech (Ted Cruz). (Trump is also admired by many Christians for being blunt, unfiltered, and combative in saying what he thinks. Drunk people and three-year-olds also often speak this way. We don’t usually salute them for it).

Hillary Clinton has spoken of the importance of her Methodist faith, though one might wonder how her lucrative alliances with Wall Street investment firms, many of whose practices are unconscionable from the perspective of almost every religious tradition, would square with, say, John Wesley’s concern for the working poor. Or how her “boastful embrace of the mass incarceration machine” is consistent with Wesley’s and Methodism’s call for judicial and prison reforms.

And then there’s Bernie Sanders. I have no idea if he would be a good president. That he has so expertly diagnosed many of our social and political ills does not necessarily mean he can apply the cure. Probably no president can. For all his (welcome) silence on the campaign trail about his religious heritage, there’s something appealing about a passionate Jew who angrily condemns corrupt bankers—echoes of rabbi Jesus and the money changers.

But Sanders, like Clinton, like President Obama, talks in tired tropes when it comes to abortion. The shallow slogans on both sides of this issue are evidence that 40-plus years of a poorly-conducted public debate has only entrenched the divisions and the false notion that this is and only can be a two-sided “battle,” and that to identify with one side is to feel no affinity for the other.

Fredericka Mathewes-Green’s recent essay on abortion unsettles all the tired tropes, even as the current presidential candidates routinely, if sometimes subtly, claim God for their side. And the fact that Mathewes-Green’s article appears in National Review means that left-leaning Christians will write it off before reading it, or likely won’t read it at all; that sacrosanct binary, that entrenched divide again.

But I think it’s possible to be a Christian who doesn’t lobby for the overturning of Roe v. Wade but who has deep, deep concerns about abortion and its practice in the United States. It’s hardly ever acknowledged, for example, that abortion and capitalism are intimately linked but, as Mathewes-Green notes, “we’ve agreed to surgically alter women so that they can get along in a man’s world. And then expect them to be grateful for it.”

Would-be American presidents may always feel this pressure—either from within or without—to cloak themselves in religious garb, sometimes heavily, sometimes lightly; to see themselves as saviors of a sort, as those called to run “the greatest country in the world” and thus have a powerful hand in running the world. This seems laughable when it comes to the kind of servant leadership, the kind of counter politics that a crucified messiah asks of his followers. But it’s not funny. Especially when the religious rhetoric we’re hearing is so charged with murderous hate.

But, then again, there’s Bernie Sanders. I don’t think he has aspirations to run the world. He is—unlike almost every other contender in the race, Democrat or Republican—without affect or grandiosity. I don’t know that I’ll vote for him. I don’t know that I’ll vote. It’s not a settled question that Christians have an obligation to or even ought to. (Another idea that may seem exasperating if not infuriating to many.)

But I like Sanders’ rumpled, scruffy, scrappy ways. I like how he is both erudite and populist. I like that he doesn’t talk in soundbites and that he refuses to simplify hard, complex problems. I like his passion and compassion. I don’t know that he has ever adequately described the democratic socialism he espouses to the satisfaction of his critics. And maybe he can’t, given most Americans’ knee-jerk alarmism when the phrase is uttered.

But I think he articulates a vision of political community and human flourishing that is compelling and worthy of consideration in an era of astonishing injustices toward those on the edges. And yet it is one of the deep ironies of this political season that among many Christians, for whom Sanders’ vision of the good ought to have at least some resonance, he is at best dismissed and at worst reviled.

But he carries on, a flawed human being for sure, a predictable politician in many ways. But also, consistently, rightly, leaving religious pandering out of all of it.

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 14,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 5 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Took a turn on the bLOGOS rotation at the Ekklesia Project website:

Widow's Mite - Ancient Roman Bronze Coins

Widow’s Mite – Ancient Roman Bronze Coins

Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17 (RCL); I Kings 17:10-16 (LM)
Psalm 127 or 42 (RCL); Psalm 146:7-10 (LM)
Hebrews 9:24-38Mark 12:38-44

For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood. 

Mark 12:44

By the time we get to the familiar text in this week’s Gospel reading—sometimes referred to as the story of the widow’s mite—Jesus has made his so-called triumphal entry into Jerusalem. More street theatre and political satire than victory parade, the festivities end with Jesus casing the temple late of an evening. He returns the next day and turns over a few tables, infuriating the religious authorities and confounding everyone else. He enters the temple a third time on the third day (a detail not extraneous to Mark’s purposes, we might suppose), and offers an accusatory parable. Pharisees and Herodians are dispatched to trap him; they find themselves amazed instead. He bluntly tells some Sadducees: “you are wrong . . . you are quite wrong.” Third up are the scribes, for whom Jesus reserves his most caustic criticism:

Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes
and accept greetings in the marketplaces,
seats of honor in synagogues,
and places of honor at banquets.
They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext
recite lengthy prayers.
They will receive a very severe condemnation.
(38-40)

Jesus then takes a seat “facing” (kateanti) the treasury. This detail, too, seems deliberate on Mark’s part: a short while and a few verses later Jesus will “face”—the same word in Greek—the temple mount as he foretells its imminent destruction (13:3).

 From his choice seat, Jesus carefully “scrutinizes” (etheōrei) the scene, observing “how the crowd put money in the treasury,” and noting that “many rich people put in large sums” (41).

Just the day before he had directly attacked the temple establishment so we might assume he’s still seething a bit. Not because a sacred place had been profaned by commerce—the temple was an economic institution as well as a religious one. Rather, Jesus is scandalized by the exploitation of the poor in their attempts to participate in Israel’s cultic life.

But his anger at what he sees in the temple treasury has a sharper focus. He has just depicted the scribes—the temple lawyers—as not only religious hypocrites but also as abusers of their fiduciary power: “they devour the houses of widows.” (40)

To read the rest click here.