Work as Holy War: What’s Wrong?

By Greg Forster; part four of a series.

Last time we saw how spiritual formation in daily work and resistance to the world’s injustice are deeply and extensively interdependent. We ended by contemplating two amazing sentences about how we should do our daily work, drawn from Dallas Willard’s Divine Conspiracy in a section titled “The Glory of My Job.”

In this post we’re going to start unpacking those two powerful sentences by focusing on the first half of the first sentence:

A gentle but firm noncooperation with things that everyone knows to be wrong…should be our usual overt manner.

People who have a message to send put a lot of thought into what they say first. The thing we put first in our message is going to be the thing that sticks out most in people’s minds. And it provides an interpretive frame for all that comes after.

In the faith and work movement, what do we put first in our message of how to do your daily work? Often it’s service to others. That’s something Willard covers, but he doesn’t put it first.

Often it’s doing our work in a way that is oriented toward harmony and reconciliation. Willard’s got that covered, too, but he doesn’t put it first.

Often we put dependence upon God first. Willard’s all over that – but it’s not what he puts first.

Often the first box we check is the Christian ethic of love for neighbor. That is indeed a summation of all that God requires, as Jesus himself says. And thus Willard closes his two-sentence masterpiece with it.

But Willard begins with nonconformity to evil.

As did John the Baptist and Jesus himself. Both of them started their public ministries with the word “repent!” What does that mean but making the turn away from conformity to evil?

I would note three things about Willard’s forumla:

1) The central imperative here is noncooperation. This may seem to present evil to us as something that primarily comes to us from without, not something within. I think that is only because we are talking about the workplace context, where so many evils do in fact come to us from without, demanding our conformity. Willard knows how evil our fallen desires have become, as his books attest at length, and his subsequent statements in these two sentences we’re looking at do direct our attention to that side of the problem.

In the workplace, it is right to put the threat of the World first, rather than the Flesh and the Devil. The workplace is a primary stalking ground of the World.

To describe our central task in resisting evil as “noncooperation” may seem to excuse us from taking affirmative steps against evil. It does not, obviously. But I do think it is right to keep noncooperation at the center. Declining to cooperate with evil is logically prior to any affirmative steps we take against it (in the sense that we can do X without Y, but not Y without X). Moreover, noncooperation with evil is usually the largest affirmative step we can take agaisnt it – the most effective way to root it out. That is the point of Willard’s image of the wave in the ocean, which we looked at last time.

2) Willard emphasizes that our noncooperation with evil must be “gentle but firm.” The implied analogy here is to the scriptural command (1 Peter 3:15) that we answer the non-Christian inquirer “with gentleness and respect.” I would note that in that passage the non-Christian in view is not the oppressor against whom we are bearing prophetic witness, but the sincere inquirer who wants to know the reason for our hope. With the oppressor we are not always in fact gentle (see Elijah’s mocking of the priests of Baal, or Paul wishing out loud that the legalists would emasculate themselves, or Jesus telling his opponents they were sons of the devil). But I’m willing to agree with Willard that gentleness should be our “usual” approach.

Both the gentleness and the firmness are part of our sanctification, as a witness for God’s holiness and a witness to his grace. The gentleness testifies to grace, but also to holiness; the firmness to holiness, but also to grace. Just as God’s love is holy and his holiness is loving, so must our noncooperation with evil be.

3) There is great depth in the formula “things that everyone knows to be wrong.” We have no space to sound it fully here, but in this formula Willard is deftly handling complex issues.

There is always limited agreement in the present age about what is right. This is true in our workplaces as much as anywhere else. It is important to note that there is some agreement, and also to note that the agreement is limited. The agreement is there because of the image of God in all people; the limits are there because of the fall, and also because of the already/not yet tension of the present stage of redemptive history.

The presence of some agreement about what is right makes working together possible. We could not have workplaces at all if we did not have some common ground regarding what is right. Therefore part of our Christian formation and witness is to be the people who actually do what is agreed to be right. We are to be the people who come to the aid of those who are lied about or cheated or discriminated against or sexually harassed.

On the other hand, Willard’s formula may – I’ll come back to that in a moment – be seen as limiting the scope of his statement to those things that are agreed to be wrong. Christians and pagans alike agree that lying about a coworker is wrong, but they may disagree about other important ethical boundaries, or about the level of priority given to things like reconciliation and restoration. Our coworkers may not think it’s wrong to exploit the ignorance or psychological weaknesses of our customers, for example.

If we take this construction of Willard’s statement, it is still not to say that when ethics are disputed, we can simply relax and go with the flow. The other things Willard says in these two dense sentences imply otherwise. It is, however, to say that we may need to take a different approach where the wrong that we are resisting is not agreed to be wrong by everyone in our workplaces.

On the other other hand, however, we need not take this construction of Willard’s statement. There is wiggle room in the meaning of the word “knows.” One may take the position that there are many things in our workplaces whose wrongness is disputed in spite of the fact that everyone knows these things to be wrong. Our coworkers may say they don’t think it’s wrong to exploit the ignorance or psychological weaknesses of our customers, even if they know it is wrong. In that case, Willard’s formula provides a much broader scope for prophetic noncooperation.

Coming next time: sensitive, nonofficious, nonintrusive, nonobsequious service to others.

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