The Dignity of Work

A young couple that occasionally visits our church told me that one of them works at a fast food chain and the other works at a major retail store. Even though they work here in the DC area, they live 20 miles away in an apartment they can afford to rent. They’d like to come to church more often but they need to work on weekends and can only come if they take a day off.

Work is one of the most central parts of our lives yet little is written about it in standard theological resources. It is addressed in Introduction to Catholic Social Thought by Milburn Thompson and The Way of the Cross in Human Relations by Guy Hershberger, a Mennonite writing in the 1950s. Both link work with creation and the Genesis story of God creating the earth and then resting from all that labor. This story grounds the dignity of our labor. We share in the creative activity of God and realize our human potential through work. The creative process of work is hardwired into us. Children do it with abandon with no thought of status or being paid. Playing is children’s work.

Work is good for us. It provides the necessary resources for our lives. Much of our waking hours are given to our work; through it we contribute to the community, participate in society, and help establish the common good. Milburn Thompson says that “work is essential for a meaningful life; it is a human obligation and a human right” (84). Guy Hershberger makes a similar claim and ties meaningful work with the ability to own property and draw our living from the earth. “There can be no liberty without property. Slavery and the absence of property go together. Property and the human welfare which it represents are thus not merely the concern of the individual, but of the entire community” (214).

Let’s hold this vision of dignified, meaningful work because work as we know it is often oppressive and unjust. Workers should never be reduced to cogs in a machine because the whole purpose of an organized economy is the flourishing of all workers and their families. Milburn Thompson writes, “The dignity of human work and the priority of the personhood of the worker challenge the morality of the modern economy” (84).

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