‘good work’: working on a theology of…

By Michael N. Jagessar

I was delighted to represent the URC at the Ecumenical World Development Conference (EWDC) on “Good Work” which was held from February 7-9 at High Leigh Conference Centre. The conference was organised by a coalition of 20130922_115908agencies and churches with both Linda Mead and Susan Durber actively involved. The coalition includes Christian Aid, Christian Concern for One World (CCOW), the Church of England, Commitment for Life (URC), Methodist Relief and Development Fund (MRDF), Progressio, Smile, Tearfund, Traidcraft and World Development Movement (WDM). There were about eighty five participants in attendance drawn from across three groups: those with responsibility for development and economic justice issues within a denominational area; lay and ordained people who are interested in and active within their churches around development and justice issues, some of whom may also work on these issues professionally; and staff from the organising agencies and denominations.


The questions before participants throughout the weekend were: what is good work? How do we understand it theologically and recognise it in practice? What role can it play in helping to create more just societies and a fairer world? And how can we work with others here and elsewhere to enable more people to have access to it? With two other colleagues (Elaine Storkey [Anglican] and David McLoughlin [Roman Catholic]) I was invited to participate in a panel presentation and conversation on a “theology of good work” drawing on my ecclesial tradition (reformed and united) and from my own theological journey.


While our presentations were complimentary, each of us took a different “way” in both our approach to and focus on the “good work”. I was struck, though not surprised, by how easier it was for our RC presenter (David) to locate the teachings of his ecclesial tradition on work, while both Elaine and I drew only on some aspects of our ecclesial traditions and largely from our experience.


Underscoring the timely significance of revisiting our theologies of work, I queried: what have we really done to work or what has work done to us? Given our dependence on a free market ideology that thrives and spreads on heartless competition and unequal distribution of goods and profit at all cost, what hope there is for “good work”? What could possibly be good about work when the poor get poorer and the rich richer – and when the gap between those who have and those who do not have has become so wide that bodies/victims are starting to fill up the chasm? And do our theological/biblical motivations and ecclesial self-understanding collude with such sacrifice?


Drawing on the Reformed understanding of work as vocation which underscores that all human work, as long as it serves a person’s neighbours, is pleasing to God, I also sounded a caveat.  I noted that a working premise of the Reformers is that human work is an antidote to idleness which is considered the breeding ground of sin. Hence, the view that work “helps people resist temptations and worldly pleasures” and is thus “essential for salvation.” [Soelle 1984: 65] I suggested that some of the theological and biblical motivations behind such a view need interrogating because of how they may have contributed to a skewed understanding of work, led to forced labour, and the continuing negative perceptions of unemployed people, not to mention the restrictive theologies that spun off from it.


The main thrust of my presentation explored: a)“good work in the image of God” making a case for a theology of work that holds in balance and in fresh/helpful ways our understanding of creation, incarnation, resurrection and eschatology; b)“good work as rediscovering rest”, challenging the theology of God as actus purus (pure activity) with little or no emphasis in our theology or liturgy on God as “rester”; c)“good work as re-engaging playfulness”, rediscovering that God is a God of play and that we need to cultivate a spirit of playfulness as both our gift and our responsibility in an often-too serious world; c)“good work as purposeful, perfecting and valuable”, noting that work is not done for its own sake but develops the worker and is essential both to the development and well-being of community and justice.


I did enjoy preparing this presentation and discovered a deep gladness in and through the depth of engagement and discussions that followed. I must confess, however, the irony of the amount of “work” and negotiating with my over-crowded diary it took in order to ensure I had something substantive to say. I hardly had time to rest! What has work done to me? And what I have I done to/with work? What has our Church done to work? It is time to practice my/our theology of “good work”!


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