September 23, 2023

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There are many opinions about what type of economic system is best. While all arguments about the type of economy that works best can be passionate, the Church does not concern itself solely with profit, property or wealth. Rather, the Church reminds us that above all, the primary purpose of human work is for the flourishing of humans. 
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The important power of work

“I would like to remind everyone,  especially governments engaged in boosting the world’s economic and social  assets, that the primary capital to be safeguarded and valued is man, the  human person in his or her integrity: ‘Man is the source, the focus and the  aim of all economic and social life’.” (Pope Benedict XVI, Charity  in Truth

There are many opinions about what type of economic system is best. While all arguments about the type of economy that works best can be passionate, the Church does not concern itself solely with profit, property or wealth. Rather, the Church reminds us that above all, the primary purpose of human work is for the flourishing of humans. 

We are made to work

That human beings are to work is made clear in the book of Genesis. The human being is made to till the soil and keep the garden. But we do not work simply for ourselves. Consider this from the book of Deuteronomy: 

At the end of every third year you shall bring out all the tithes of your produce for that year and deposit them within your own communities, that the Levite who has no hereditary portion with you, and also the resident alien, the orphan and the widow within your gates, may come and eat and be satisfied; so that the LORD, your God, may bless you in all that you undertake.

Deuteronomy 14:28-29

We work to flourish

While there is a certain benefit to work that is individual, all we are called to do is to place our work at the service of others human flourishing. For example, parents do not engage in work solely for themselves, but also for their children. I pay taxes because I recognize the things that make for a good society are provided not for business profit, but for human flourishing.

And yet, as I sit here typing my thoughts about human work, it is quite obvious to me at this moment (though all too often not at other moments) that I am working on a computer that depends on minerals mined by the desperately poor and was at least in part assembled by similar poor people. 

It goes deeper. I wear clothes made by the very poor, I eat food like chocolate that is the result of the desperately poor that are more like slaves than workers, and so much of what I use as furniture is the result of workers who do not make much to make it for my use.

Modern slaves

We may, in the United States, think that the days of slavery are behind us. We fought a civil war and that was that. But far too many people around the world are forced to work as slaves. “Many of the people characterized as modern slaves endure conditions considered “forced labor” — employed but unable to quit because their employer withholds their earnings, they owe debt to their employer or, for migrants, their employer threatens deportation.” (NPR)

Even a cursory look at what we use, wear and eat makes it likely we benefit from the work of slaves. Try to find clothes made in America. Try to buy top level electronics that were not the result of forced labor. Trace the path to planting and harvesting food and it likely was the result of forced labor or slavery.

Of the 24.9 million people trapped in forced labour, the majority (16 million) work in the private sector. Slaves clean houses and flats; produce the clothes we wear; pick the fruit and vegetables we eat; trawl the seas for the shrimp on our restaurant plates; dig for the minerals used in our smartphonesmakeup and electric cars; and work on construction jobs building infrastructure for the 2022 Qatar World Cup.

One in 200 people is a slave. Why? The Guardian

This happens when we ignore the quote we started this article with from Pope Benedict. When we view human beings as commodities, “things” to become the source of profits, we lose site of the very reason we are to engage in labor. We do not do so simply to eat, have shelter, or obtain clothing. Our jobs are not simply so we can see the doctor when we are sick or injured.

Moreover, when we view work as simply a means to get things, and nothing more, we again miss the point. How many children have an absentee parent or parents because the parents choose a job that never allows them to be home? (I am not talking here about those who must take a job or more than one job out of necessity to care for their children.)

It begins with awareness

We must research where the stuff we buy is made, and by whom it is made. We must demand that companies that produce goods are, in fact, attentive to a just wage, safe working conditions and humane treatment of those who labor.

If we commit to seeking out produce grown locally, as one concrete action, we make it less likely we are eating produce harvested by migrant workers. If we use pressure as a wealthy nation to insist on all laborers getting paid a just wage, with good working conditions, it may become possible to limit the use of forced laborers, or more accurately, slaves. 

It demands a commitment

The first commitment is to learn more about where the things we use are made. It is not just the case of searching out the employer, but more importantly, to search out what materials and natural resources are necessary to make the things we so freely use.

We also need to become more attentive to where the food we eat is produced. While this is not always as easy as it seems it should be, learning where the food we eat is grown and how it is harvested makes the decisions we make about foods more informed.

The Ultimate Work: The Mass

The word liturgy means “the people’s work.” But the Hebrew roots provide a deeper connection between the work we do and the love of God and neighbor. The Hebrew word ‘avad, has the meaning in the Old Testament “to work”, “to cultivate” but can and is also translated in the scriptures as “to serve.” That is to say, if the Mass is successful in its ultimate goal for humans, it means we leave Mass more disposed to love God, and to serve our neighbor, which Jesus tells us is everyone. 

So the Mass is the time when we first and foremost worship the Lord Jesus who served us by sacrificing his very self. Every Mass literally places us back into the sacrifice of Jesus, not in some morbid way, but to call us forth to imitate Jesus in the way he loved and cared for others. The service of Jesus is one made to those who need it most, namely the outcasts, the broken, the oppressed, the poor.

And so, on this day, let us remember those who made possible whatever celebration we enjoy. But let us see that the end, the goal, the purpose of work, is so that all people may flourish.

From time to time, the Friar writes commentaries on various topics. Check out more on this website

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