This should not surprise anyone who reads Judeo-Christian theology. Christian theologians traditionally emphasize God’s injunction in Genesis 3:19:
By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.
From this theologians derive that humans must work. Labor is not optional drudgery, or something we can escape. Work is a divinely ordained part of human existence. Observe people who lack meaningful work: they drift quickly into what psychologists call existential malaise, or what theologians call the Dark Night of the Soul.
But scripture is not absolute on this. Work—like religion, family, and other God-given blessings—can impede anybody’s true calling. When Moses came to Egypt and distracted the Jews by bearing Yahweh’s liberating word, Pharaoh ordered: “Make the work harder for the people so that they keep working and pay no attention to lies” (Exodus 5:9). Later, one of Moses’ commandments said:
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns (Exodus 20:8-10).
Poet and philosopher Wendell Berry, in The Unsettling of America, notes that few people anymore work where we live, or live where we work. Labor forms a separate part of our lives, something we go to and then leave. Not coincidentally, he notes that we no longer have personal access to life’s ingredients. We do not grow our own food or draw our own water, and thanks to industry, we have limited access to clean fresh air.
By abandoning agrarian culture, wherein people work the land they inhabit and own the product of their labor, we have grown indifferent to ourselves. America, Earth’s most industrialized nation, also has the highest rates of depression and other affective disorders. We work jobs that enrich others yet give us no meaning. This, Berry says, is no way of life. Abandoning God’s work makes us poorer, sadder, diminished people.
It goes further than Berry may realize. Joshua Holland, in The Fifteen Biggest Lies about the Economy, claims that less than eight percent of Americans in 2009 were unionized, though nearly two thirds say they would like to join unions. Where is our era’s Samuel Gompers? Like Pharaoh in Exodus, or the trusts in the Gilded Age, bosses today work employees beyond the point of exhaustion, and not surprisingly rule their empires with little dissent.
I was recently offered a job with a decent wage and benefits, contingent on a seven-day work week. This seemed so obviously absurd that, when I commented on Facebook, I was astounded by how many people said I should take it, because “you were offered a job.” As though the bosses were magnanimous philanthropists presenting a gift from their largess, rather than needing me to do something for them.
Even disregarding Scripture, the human body isn’t built to work that way. In the 1990s, the Tokyo Zoo experimented with running every single day, but discovered that, unless the animals had one day in seven to rest, they became sick, and even died. Workers who do not receive one rest day in seven—a number that applies across cultures—develop heart disease, musculoskeletal disorders, mental illnesses, and other crippling conditions.
Work is good. I accepted another position, with a six-day week, in the same company, and am much happier than when I was unemployed. But work is not good for its own sake. If it stops making meaning for workers, and becomes the nucleus of their lives, what lives do they have left? Humans are not machines to use and discard. We should not accept those who would treat us as such.