by David Geelan | 1 July 2021 |
I don’t know about you, but in a world and a time when I always seem to have more work than time, one of my favourite promises from Jesus is “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”. The simple idea of a release from work and burdens, and a genuine rest, is so attractive.
I’m aware that, while I tend to have too much work, there are also people without jobs who would love to have paid work to do, but that they too need a rest from the crushing stress and worry of keeping body and soul together, and often feeding family, without a regular pay cheque. I think all of us could do with a rest.
Some of my workload is self-inflicted, of course: I have a demanding job, but am also a member of a political party and of Rotary International. In both cases, I joined because I think doing so is a small step to making the world a better place for all human beings, but both commitments take time and work. And, of course, I have regular writing deadlines for Adventist Today! And I think that’s worthwhile work, too!
Housework is a shared responsibility at our place, between my wife, myself… and the cleaner we pay once a week to come in and do the lion’s share of it! That’s one of the ways we’ve managed to make sure that the tasks and chores that keep our home liveable are shared more fairly between the people who live here, but we understand that it’s a privilege to be able to have someone share the load. And even then, it’s easy to have a nagging feeling that there’s always more we could be doing, to make the place a shade tidier and better squared away.
Part of the promised rest is the Sabbath, and it’s a boon to have a day a week on which, not only do we not work, we don’t have to feel guilty about not working! The second part is, I think, as important to the idea of ‘rest’ as the first. When students complete their master’s thesis and graduate, and are thinking of moving on to a doctorate, I encourage them to continue their studies… but first to take a little time to rest from ‘thesis guilt’: the constant feeling, no matter what else is going on, that they should be writing more of their thesis. I think most of us, even if the job ends when we clock off, have some work guilt even when we’re relaxing: somehow, somewhere, there’s work we should be doing.
But the Sabbath rest isn’t the whole story, I don’t think. Another favourite promise is this one from Isaiah 65, speaking of the Kingdom of Heaven:
They will build houses and inhabit them;
They will also plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They will not build and another inhabit,
They will not plant and another eat…
I want to digress for a moment – the reason will become clear as we go. I’m a science fiction nerd, and read voraciously, especially as a teen. Science fiction imagined so many of our possible futures, both utopian and dystopian. In many of them – The Jetsons cartoons are one example even non-nerds might know about, though maybe only those of a certain age – robots and automation meant that human beings were largely freed from labour, and lived lives of rest and plenty, served by mechanical assistants programmed to address their every need. Iain M Banks’ excellent (but not for the fainthearted) series of novels set in The Culture explore the idea of a post-scarcity society in which technology means no one is poor and everyone can receive the necessities of life.
Right here and now, automation is taking over quite a lot of the work formerly done by human beings… and yet it seems as though we’re working harder than ever! Or, at least, some of us are, but unemployment and under-employment are also chronic, with many people struggling just to survive. Instead of moving from a 5-day working week for everyone to a 4-, then 3-day week as robots and computers take on more of the menial tasks, some of us work harder and others have no work. Some have to work multiple jobs, and still supplement their work with food stamps or other government assistance, just to get by, and a medical emergency or other crisis can lead to further pain.
This is a problem of economics, government policy and political will, but it’s also a problem of inequality. Wages are flat or even falling in real terms for the great majority of workers at all levels, while at the same time the number of millionaires and particularly billionaires keeps increasing, and the share of the planet’s wealth held by the very wealthiest continued to rise rapidly even during the COVID-19 pandemic, while millions of other struggled… and millions died.
Wage growth used to be linked to productivity of workers: as productivity rose, so did wages. For the past 10-15 years, particularly since the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, this relationship has been decoupled: productivity has continued to rise, but wage growth has been flat. Minimum wage in the United States has been constant since 2009, while inflation means each 2021 dollar is worth only 79 cents of a 2009 dollar. For those on minimum wage, despite productivity increases, there has been about a 20% pay cut in real (inflation-adjusted) terms.
Lest this be seen as just lefty ranting, Jesus had plenty to say about wealth and the sharing of wealth. His words to the ‘rich young ruler’ are one example, and his dealings with Zacchaeus another. The saying about a camel passing through the eye of a needle (and don’t give me any explaining-away nonsense about a gate in Jerusalem: this is straight-up humorous hyperbole about something impossibly difficult) was about the difficulty of the wealthy entering Heaven.
The parable of the ‘rich fool’ in Luke 12 is yet another such example: the man says “I have more than I can store: I’ll demolish my barns and build even bigger ones”… and God says “Sorry, game over… what now?” The proverb about “Don’t build a bigger barn, build a bigger table” to share the wealth with others comes from this idea.
So I think the passage from Isaiah is partly about the ways in which the Kingdom of Heaven (which, remember, Jesus always spoke about as beginning right here and now, not just after we die or after the Second Coming) challenges a world in which some build and others inhabit, some reap and others sow. To me, it means I want to vote and advocate and work for more equitable, fair division of profit between those who work and those who own capital… and when political change is too slow or moving in the wrong direction, Rotary can help to support people in crisis and ease the pain.
But it’s too easy to challenge Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk and Bill Gates and place all the blame on the wealthiest and the “neoliberal,” trickle down, tax-slashing policies that lead to social inequality. It’s important to also recognize that most of the people reading this – and certainly the person writing it – are ourselves wealthy by global standards. A net worth – including assets and savings – of about US$93,000 is sufficient to place someone in the top 10% of wealth on Planet Earth. Around 1/3 of all Americans fall into this bracket.
So, if we rail against the wealthy, we rail against ourselves, and if Jesus challenges the wealthy, He challenges us (even if we don’t quite make it into the top 10%).
What are we each doing (and, as ever, when I point to a challenge, three fingers point back at me) to give rest to others, and to build bigger tables, not bigger barns. To share our own wealth, and to work for a world in which rest can be extended to more and more people. To start living in the Kingdom of Heaven, right here, right now.
Dr. David Geelan is Sue’s husband and Cassie and Alexandra’s dad. He started out at Avondale College, and in October will become Professor and National Head of the School of Education, within the faculty of Education, Philosophy and Theology at the University of Notre Dame in Sydney, Australia.