Monday, August 22, 2011

Contrasting Jesus and St. Paul on the Work Ethic

The Protestant Work Ethic is not in the Bible.  Max Weber may have understood Calvinists of a certain era, who in their anxiety about being among the elect, led lives of drudgery like that apparent in the faces of the Puritans in Grant Wood's famous painting American Gothic. The self-denial and thrift evident in those faces did have the effect of increasing the worldly goods of many Calvinists.  At a certain stage, the wealth they didn't spend may have been capital for the industrial revolution, but technology and capitalism were well underway, long before there were Protestants, in Italian city states of the medieval period.  Wealth accumulated by deferred gratification may have given some Calvinists assurance of God's favor.  John D. Rockefeller comes to mind.

But assurance of God's favor is not necessarily God's favor.  It is interesting to contemplate the difference between the sayings and parables of Jesus and the work ethic of St. Paul.  Jesus is noted for a disturbing parable about workers, some of whom worked all day, only to find out at quitting time that guys who came online at four in the afternoon would get the same wages as early risers. So much for early to rise... .  Of course, most working people find out sooner or later that life isn't fair, but why did Jesus have to rub it in?  Perhaps it was in accord with his other hard sayings about "the ruler of this world."  Jesus seems to have had a different perspective on how power and authority are allocated in the world than did St. Paul who says all authority is given by God, and therefore by resisting authority one might be resisting the will of God. Now we're getting into matters of perspective that could account for St. Paul's relatively long life under Roman authority as contrasted with the horrific demise of Jesus.

In an era when slavery was common, St. Paul recommended serving wholeheartedly regardless weather one served a benevolent tyrant or an evil and oppressive one.  St. Paul's injunctions were historically invoked to justify the Divine Right of Kings.  Fortunately or unfortunately many Christians eventually reasoned that revolt against unjust oppression was justifiable, especially where oppression made it impossible for them to practice their faith as they understood it. In this, as in so many areas, the light that shines in the darkness can seem like sunrise in American or the twilight of the Gods.  Is Satan the ruler of this world who gives success to whomever he finds to collaborate in his nefarious business?  Or is all authority given by God? The choice of perspective between that of Jesus and St. Paul, on problems one encounters working for the man, seems to hinge on whether one prefers a swift, heroic martyrdom or a long conflicted career.  Either way it does help to maintain the perspective that Jesus recommended for troubled times. Be wise as serpents, harmless as doves.

Another way is grudge writing.  Turn the other cheek long enough and you'll have some excellent material with which to lampoon oppressive authority.  Jesus seems to have been pretty good at this too.  Another paraphrase is in order:

"As it was before Noah went into the ark, so it will be before the revelation of the Son of Man. In the days before the flood there were drunk drivers and sexy matinee idols as well as ambitious managers and preachers of the prosperty gospel. They were all swept away. So it will be with God's revolution. Two women will be vying for top positions in their professions. One will be saved, the other left to go on with the mindless competition. Two men will be grinding away at their desks, and one will be rescued, the other left.   Be vigilant. You don't know the day or the hour. If the homeowner had known what time of night the thief was coming, he wouldn't have allowed his place to be broken into. Be ready. The Son of Man will come at an hour you do not expect.

 "Who then is the manager who minds well his own business? The one God finds doing something that is worth doing, who feeds the soul as well as the body. I tell you, God will give him more to manage in a similarly responsible fashion. But the manager who spends his time in drunkenness and excess at the expense of others will be fired.  He will grind his teeth with transients and hookers out in the street."

Musing on how Jesus and Paul dealt with with authority, I searched the indexes of Gary North's commentaries. North is an economist and businessman who formerly worked as a research assistant for Ron Paul. By a little research I gained new perspective on attempts at risk-free living, which is in North's commentary on the stories of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness. Satan says, "Throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple" or "Turn stones into bread" in ploys that would make Jesus dependent on magical intervention beyond the limits he had accepted by emptying himself to live as a man in this world. Next, Satan says, "I can give you power greater than Caesar", and again Jesus refuses. This is power of a different kind that also abrogates risk.

On the matter of Paul's injunction to obey human authority, I found North's idea of competing authorities: God ordained that some should have authority, but he didn't ordain that any human authority should not have competition. There are governmental authorities and business entities and the various jurisdictions within government and business. There are also voluntary organizations. The Catholic principle of subsidiarity is important in this regard: people's lives and communities should be ordered on the lowest level by which an area of interest can be managed.

I think that it is true that there is no way to live without risk. And this is as good an answer to my question as is possible: whether one should criticize management practices that are counter-productive and unjust. In this, one risks offending powers that can damage or destroy one's career. Or rather to serve as Paul advises slaves to work for their masters, regardless whether the master is a benevolent tyrant or evil. In a sense we're back to where we started: one can criticize management, and take the risks involved, or let things ride and make the best of the status quo. Progress--and I agree with North that kingdom jurisdiction applies to every area of life, not to some continually receding horizon of the eschaton--comes about both through heroic challenges to unjust authority and through self-effacing endurance under authority, unenlightened and oppressive as it may be.

But, Jesus did work wonders, and, in his resurrection, he overcame oppression more horrific than most men suffer. In this, one can find hope, both literal and metaphorical. I've seen metaphorical resurrections after defeat that provide some impetus toward taking new risks to oppose counterproductive authority.

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