The Dignity of Work
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the most recent data puts the unemployment rate for our country at 9.7%. One in ten Americans does not have a job, a truly startling figure, and obvious reason for concern. But our concern should go beyond the self-preservation instinct to worry that we may become one of the unfortunate citizens without work. As a matter of fact, with unemployment that high, many of us already are without a job. As Christians, our unease should touch multiple levels. First of all, and perhaps most obvious, is the reality that poverty and unemployment go hand in hand. The plethora of Scripture verses that call the Believer to care for the poor implies that we must worry about the unemployment rate. Additionally, our Christian duty of compassion should lead us to sympathize with the unemployed, and negative effects unemployment has on family life is certainly a cause for concern.
At a deeper level, however, I want to focus on the spiritual implications of the unemployment rate, specifically with regards to how this issue ties into the robust doctrine of the image of God. The Imago Dei, as theologians refer to it, is perhaps the most central piece of theology for guiding the Believer in his or her interactions with society. The Imago Dei is what tells us we must fight for the unborn, it leads us to battle HIV/AIDS in Africa, prompts us to advocate for human rights, and tells us that unemployment is as destructive to the soul as a myriad of other societal ills. If we don’t fully understand this doctrine it may seem strange that unemployment would make such a list, but the biblical narrative indicates that work, and by inference employment, are central to what it means to be created in the image of God.
In Genesis 2:2-3 we are told three times that God worked, this just a few paragraphs after we read that God had created mankind in His image. The fact that the book of Genesis states that God worked during the six days of creation shows that it is a part of His nature. Additionally, when we are told that mankind is created in the image of God, and then told to work the Garden, we see that work is an extension of the Imago Dei. In its most basic form, the Imago Dei means that we are a further representation of God here on earth, that He created us to be ambassadors. Part of our ambassadorship is participating in the act of creating, which is at its very core work. By working we are engaging in one of the central tenets of what it means to be human.
Before we continue a caveat is in order. Work is an extension of the Imago Dei, but that doesn’t necessarily require it to be work in the employment sense. A stay at home mother or father is certainly working, and that act of work also reflects the image of God. In the same way, a volunteer for a charity is working without being employed. By discussing the unemployment rate, let us not fall into the common trap of believing that “bringing home the bacon” is any more valuable in God’s sight than work that doesn’t receive a paycheck.
So, we have seen that work is important in God’s eyes, and that our Christian duty leads us to be engaged on this issue, but what do we do about it? The most obvious answer when dealing with unemployment is government intervention. There is certainly a place for government jobs—especially public work projects—in lowering the unemployment rate. But an economy cannot be sustained on government jobs. A government employee is a net drain on the tax system, so in order for a stable economy to exist there needs to be multiple private sector workers to support every public sector employee. This implies that the best thing the government can do to lower unemployment is let the private sector create jobs, prompted by government incentives. Many today treat the phrase “tax-cuts” as a curse word, but what better way to incentivize companies to higher more employees? Most of the angst over cutting taxes for corporations comes from the misguided notion that corporations can pay taxes, when the reality is they can’t. Sure, there is a tax levied on corporations, but in order for a company to survive they simply pass that tax on to their consumers. Ironically, when taxes on corporations are raised it is the unemployed who get hit the hardest by the escalating cost of goods. By cutting tax rates and incentivizing companies to higher more employees the government can make huge strides in lowering the unemployment rate.
Secondly, each of us can do our part to lower the unemployment rate by helping those without work find a job. We all have a network that includes contacts with employers, and we all know people without work. By connecting these two groups through mutual friends and acquaintances we can help employers find good employees, and the unemployed find work. Finally, we all have an obligation to vote with our wallet. We should support businesses that have good hiring practices and treat their employees fairly.
The unemployment rate is a huge problem, and some of the brightest minds in the country are working to make things better. As followers of Jesus, though, we have a responsibility to help those who are need, many of whom would be counted among the ranks of the unemployed. As the Church our prayers and generosity should touch the unemployed in a special way in this time of economic hardship.