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Good Work: Christian Ethics in the Workplace by Esther D. Reed (review)
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Work has become a political football. There are laws defining who can work and who cannot. And there are laws that stipulate who can receive and who is eliminated from what were formerly standard benefits. There are even laws, as in the state of Alabama, that define what work ministers can do for the poor, the needy, and those who are ill. Given the many issues affecting what occurs in workplaces—where most working people spend most of their time—there is a need for an integrated perspective on work. Esther Reed’s Good Work provides just that: a broader context for understanding the significance of our work.

Many people understand “work” to be the energy they expend in order to receive something they can then spend. Such an understanding of work, Reed observes, reflects the assumptions of a capitalist society in which people are valued in terms of what they do and how much money they make. From this standpoint, cardiac surgeons are valued much more highly than garbage collectors, even though societies could not function without garbage removal but did, in fact, survive for centuries before cardiac surgeons. In a similar vein, in the supposedly egalitarian halls of academe, the grossly underpaid adjunct professor is dismissed and discounted even though she spends much more time with students than does her tenured counterpart.

Yet there are other ways of defining work. Reed reminds us that the same Hebrew word translated as “hard work” (‘abad) can also mean priestly service in the Tabernacle (12). The work (or liturgy) of tabernacle worship was understood to be service to God. Likewise, Jesus described his ministry as work and even spoke of the Father as still working: “My Father is still working, and I also am working (Greek ergazetai/ergazomai; John 5:17)” (13). The work of Jesus and his Father had to do with salvation and blessing for human beings. From this standpoint, work clearly has a spiritual dimension.

The framework Reed develops for establishing a Christian ethic of work is rooted in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. What we say about work, she contends, will depend on what we say about the resurrection. Indeed, she argues, reflection on the resurrection can orient (or reorient) the working lives of Christian in important ways (2). An understanding of work rooted in the resurrection, Reed argues, is cultivated by participating in the liturgy of a worshipping community. Many Christian liturgies begin with praise to God for the salvation that comes through Jesus Christ. By beginning worship in this way, the community is able to concentrate on a kind of work that enables them to go beyond their individual lives and become part of something larger—a community in praise of God. In turn, the bread and wine that is blessed during the Eucharistic celebration contains not only the fruits of creation but also the fruits of human labor. As the Spirit of God infuses the bread and wine with the presence of Jesus Christ, crucified and raised from the dead, it also sanctifies our labor. And as we receive the bread and wine, and as we meditate on Christ’s passion and resurrection, we become hungry for enacting justice and mercy in all realms of our lives—including the realm of work. Indeed, through this encounter with the Triune God and with one another in worship, we gain a renewed appreciation of who we are as human beings. More profoundly, we become those who can, in fact, not only work and love but also—through the Spirit’s power—renew everything we do and encounter, including the curse of work.

Central to Reed’s argument is the claim that work entails a dimension of justice. Persons have rights to work and to rest because they are created in the image of God, which means they have intrinsic worth. Such rights, she argues, must be closely linked with liberties that are understood not merely negatively, as the freedom from constraint, but also positively, as the freedom to be able to do something—in this case, the freedom to be able to work and to rest because a society has created the conditions...



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