Talking about Privilege, Part II: Lousy Jobs


See Part I here.

I recently met a man who had worked emptying pig intestines in a sausage factory. Now that is a lousy job.

But there are plenty of ways a job can be lousy. Whether it’s packing boxes in a swelteringly hot warehouse, listening to coworkers brag about one-night stands, or getting eclipsed for a promotion by someone with “prefered” gender, race, accent, or physical features, you know a lousy job when you’re in one.

What can you do with a lousy job? In Christian circles, people turn to Paul’s advice to slaves in the first century, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters” (Colossians 3:23).

If you’ve ever worked in a miserable job, you know that’s easier said than done. You might wish the Bible had more to say about miserable jobs (and slavery, for that matter). It turns out it does.

Sometimes lousy jobs are a temporary step on the way to better things, like the tough summer jobs parents are glad will “make you work harder in college.” But for many people—probably the majority of people in the world—disappointing jobs are a long-term fact of life. Even in the recent record-low unemployment, the United States is in a decades-long trend of fewer people getting jobs with the work hours, skills, or consistency they hoped for.

And yet much of the conversation and trainings on vocation, faith, and work operate on the assumption that people will choose from a buffet of jobs that are safe and dignifying, and in line with their personal calling. When disappointments come, we assume people will simply put on the smiling face that presumably comes with “working for the Lord, not human masters.”

But what does it actually mean to work for the Lord in a lousy job?

To start answering this question, we can look at evidence from people in tough jobs. In my own research as an anthropologist, I spent a year in South Africa—the world’s most economically disparate country—shadowing people moving in an out of some of the world’s lousiest jobs. Here are some things I learned from them, combined with some theology of lousy jobs that attempts to go deeper than trite advice to “keep smiling for the Lord.”

Build your identity beyond work. People in working class jobs often avoid starting introductions with the middle-class question, “What work do you do?” Instead they tend to frame their identity outside of work, in things like having a great sense of humor, volunteering in their communities, and being dedicated friends. Who says work should be anyone’s identity anyway?Sociologist Max Weber famously traced how ideas from Luther, Calvin, and Puritan preachers merged with the unfolding of capitalism to implant the idea in the Western world that work proves human goodness. As Theologian Gilbert Meilaenderpoints out, sixteenth century Puritans would have been appalled at the ways modern Christians warp their words to claim that “work is integral to human identity and fulfillment.” Living in a capitalist market-driven society, people are surrounded by messages that a person’s value and status is equivalent to the value of the goods a person produces. That simply doesn’t line up theologically. Humans have value because God values them—period.

Relationships matter. People I interviewed who lasted in low-paid, low-skilled, dull jobs usually found good relationships at those jobs, either with coworkers, managers, or better yet, both. People quit even relatively lucrative jobs when they couldn’t maintain good relationships at work. In a lousy job, look around—are there ways you can build relationships to make the workday more bearable? At work as anywhere else, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal. 5:6). That said, faith and love means more than being a good friend. It can also mean…

Find the purpose of the job. People who see the connectionbetween their tasks and a larger purpose last longer in jobs. Often employees can find creative ways to find that purpose, even when employers aren’t good at noticing their purpose. But as psychologist Barry Schwartz points out, creating more work that is meaningful is a task that requires everyone in society, not just individual employees. Not every job contributes to a good purpose. If your only option is contributing to an unethical company, don’t kid yourself that you’re doing this for the glory of God by being nice at work. Call oppression and injustice what they are. Which brings us to…

Take a stand on discrimination and injustice. Discrimination in vocational direction, hiring, promotions, and worker treatmentare real and prevalent. In one study, minority applicants weremore than twice as likely to get called for an interview if they hid their race. In another study, white applicants disclosing a criminal record were still more likely to be called for interviewsthan black applicants with identical applications but no criminal record. And workplace injustice doesn’t end with hiring. Lousy jobs are often lousy because of violations of workers’ rights that are unethical or outright illegal. It’s easier to keep silent than speak up when injustice is done, especially when that precarious job is all you’ve got. What if “working for the Lord” meant not just smiling at work, but taking a brave stand as a witness to injustice? Pushing back against injustice in a workplace might mean losing privileges or losing a job. But it also means following the clear and prevalent Biblical warnings that workers not be treated unjustly.

Practice dignified quitting. Quitting is not necessarily failing—it can also be bravery. Angela Duckworth, author of Grit, once recommended never to quit on a bad day at work so as to avoidquitting out of short-lived emotions. Decisions about quitting are best made based on seeking God, not momentary emotion. But when a job harms yourself, the people affected by your work, or your loved ones, don’t assume it’s right to hang in there just because the alternatives are financially scary. As Evan Koonsreminds us, it’s appropriate to mourn a lousy job.

The church can also think creatively about economic alternativeswhen a better job isn’t possible. That can mean actively pushing against the stigma against receiving help that’s spread in society, and sometimes in churches most of all. Being a Christian does not mean being without any needs. Christians are by definition net receivers—people whose worth is defined by receiving grace and every good gift from God. If the church is serious about helping people find their vocation, the church also needs a complex theology of how to help people in—and also departing from—lousy jobs.

Christine Jeske is assistant professor of anthropology at Wheaton College. She loves thinking about the moral and cultural questions behind economic development and about what North Americans have to learn from the global South regarding finance and wellbeing. Her current research in South Africa considers how people define and imagine achieving a “good life,” especially when unemployed or working in low-wage jobs. Prior to coming to Wheaton, Christine worked in microfinance, refugee resettlement, community development, and teaching while living in Nicaragua, Northwest China, and South Africa. Christine aims to notice and live out a good life within her own work, which is a mix of research, teaching, hospitality, parenting, and farming. She is the author of two books and has been a frequent contributor to Relevant magazine and a newspaper columnist. She lives in an old Wisconsin farmhouse named the Sanctuary, complete with a dozen chickens, several pigs, innumerable weeds, two children, and one wonderful husband.

  One thought on “Talking about Privilege, Part II: Lousy Jobs

  1. May 29, 2019 at 12:43 pm

    One of the best articles I have read on how a Christian should respond to a lousy job.


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