Thanks to Faith (and the Digital Revolution) A World without Overwork Is Possible

Today’s Readings: Ex. 16:2-4, 12-15; Ps. 78:3-4, 23-24, 25, 54; Eph. 4:17, 20-24; Jn. 6:24-35

Bonnie Ware, an Australian nurse working with Hospice International has written a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. Nurse Ware worked in palliative care for 12 years. And during that time she recognized an unmistakable pattern especially in dying men. As they talked of their past lives many of them expressed similar regrets. According to Ms. Ware, at least among men, the top death-bed regret was, “I wish I hadn’t spent so much time working.” They regretted not spending more time with family and doing the things that make life enjoyable and really worth living.

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There was an interesting article in The New York Times about a month ago. It was about happiness and its connection with money. The article was entitled something like “How Much Money Does It Take to Be Happy?” What do you think the figure was?

The Times article said that while everyone recognizes that money can’t buy happiness, levels of contentment stop increasing once households reach a level of $75,000. As incomes increase beyond that, more money and the consumption it allows do not actually make people more content. Do you find that surprising? It suggests that six figure salaries and the incomes of millionaires and billionaires might in the end be rather pointless – and not worth protecting (as many of our politicians seems so hell-bent on doing).  Am I correct?

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I recently published an article in the on-line news source, OpEdNews. The piece was called “Thank God for the Jobs Crisis.” (The article was also posted on this blog site last Labor Day.) Calling on authors like Jeremy Rifkin, J.W. Smith, and Juliette Shor, I argued that the unemployment crisis that has stuck with us since 2008 is actually a good sign. It indicates that the promise of what used to be called the “Cybernetic Age” has finally come true. Computers and robots have taken over the job market to such an extent that the only way to solve the “jobs crisis” is to share the work. That means that none of us has to work that hard unless we want to. Thanks to the new technology, we could all share the work and put in four-hour days or three-day weeks. Alternatively we could work for only six months a year, or every other year and still make a living wage.  We could retire at 40. And this would be possible world-wide.

We’d pay for all of this by cutting back the military budget 60% and by taxing the rich and corporations. Remember the 91% top-level tax bracket that was in place in the United States following World War II? We could reinstate that, I said. Share the wealth. Boldly restructure the economy. Embrace the new technology’s promise along with the life of leisure that it offers.

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Please hold those thoughts if you will. They were about spending too much time working to reach income levels that don’t really make us any happier, and about the possibility of a whole new way of life that disconnects consumption from the type of employment many of us resent.

In fact, all three of those considerations are closely connected with this Sunday’s liturgical readings. All three readings are about God’s economy of gift and abundance – unbelievable gift and abundance with no work required. The readings are about work, consumption and the power faith supplies to break away from overwork, competition, scarcity, and fear that have most of us overworked.

Consider that first reading. The Israelites have just been liberated from Egypt. It was an economy where God’s People were even more literally enslaved by their work than we are. (Can you imagine how many Hebrew slaves died with regrets about working too much?) But their slave labor, unsatisfying as it was, at least provided food. In fact, the Hebrews were so bound to Egypt’s enslaving economy that they could hardly conceive a reality outside it. Who would feed them now that they were without work? At least they had something to eat in Egypt. The Pharaoh ran a tight ship there and put food on their tables. But who, after all, was this rebel leader, Moses? How would he feed them out there? The Hebrews actually resented Moses and his “false promise” of a better life.

And the story’s response? Through the provision of manna, God suggests a new order God has in mind not only for Israel, but for all of humanity. Unbelievably, God rains bread down on the people. No work needed. The main requirement: don’t take more than you need. Don’t hoard. It’s like Jesus’ desert feeding of 5000 in last week’s readings. The message: everybody deserves food whether they can pay for it or not, whether or not they work, whether or not they want to work. There will be enough for all, as long as no one takes more than he needs. (Actually Gandhi said something like that: “There is enough in the world,” he said, “to satisfy everyone’s need, but not to satisfy everyone’s greed.”)

When you heard my proposal this morning about sharing the work, did you react like the Hebrews? “Yeah, right,” you might have thought. “When’s that gonna happen?” I mean, we find it almost impossible to break out of the mindset of overwork. We can hardly allow ourselves to imagine that God is so generous that overwork is not required to enjoy the good life. We can’t conceive of what we’d do if our needs were met without enslaving ourselves to those who would convince us that scarcity rather than plenty and abundance represent God’s way – God’s will for us.

Consider today’s second reading as well – still in the context of our work lives. There Paul tells the Christian community at Ephesus that the lives of those without faith are (in Paul’s words) “futile.” That’s because they are deceived by what Paul terms “desires” for more than they need. Those desires, Paul implies, always make promises beyond their capacity to deliver. I don’t care what The New York Times says, the better off among us might tell themselves, $75,000 per household is not enough. Others say neither is a million or a billion. More is always needed. But, Paul points out, despite what our unbelieving culture tells us, beyond the point of satisfying basic needs, more actually adds little to our happiness. In fact, it can greatly increase unhappiness. It seems The New York Times agrees.

Such considerations have relevance to today’s political scene. So-called “experts” argue that there are not enough resources to feed, clothe, house, and cure the earth’s seven billion people. But, of course, that’s not true. Remember my reference last week to the U.N. study that said that a mere 4% tax on the world’s richest 225 men (They are men almost without exception) could meet all those needs. What if $100,000 or even a million were set as the highest income anyone was allowed to earn in a single year? If the Times is correct, no one would be any unhappier for it. And think of the resources that would be released to enrich the lives of those for whom today’s cybernetic economy can’t supply jobs. (Keep that in mind the next time you hear a politician resisting tax increases on the world’s richest.)  

For Paul, it’s a matter of faith – yes even questions of taxation, I’d say. (And that brings us to that third point about a new future of abundance with greatly reduced hours in the workplace.) We used to believe in the world’s promise of unlimited more, Paul reminds his readers. But that was our old self listening. The New Self which we’ve adopted through faith in Jesus has learned God’s way from the Master not to mention Moses and the manna in the desert. And of course God’s way is the way of the Kingdom – a world with room for everyone. That’s what Paul tells us.

The gospel of today’s liturgy completely supports Paul’s point. John the Evangelist has Jesus say “Don’t work for bread that perishes. Work for imperishable bread – those relationships with family and friends, time with your spouse and kids, the fruits of creative self-expression in tune with your unique gifts,” Work for those, Paul suggests, and avoid the “top five regrets of the dying.”

Don’t we all wish we could do that? However to do so we must ignore that old self Paul refers to, and make room for the New Self to emerge. And what a struggle that is! It means actually believing that there is a Giver who will provide for us the way the Great Provider did in the desert with Moses and in the desert with Jesus when he fed the 5000.

Do we really believe there is such a Provider? Think about it in the context of work, deathbed regrets, money’s inability to make us happy, and structural unemployment connected to the digital revolution. What are the implications of that belief for our personal, familial, political and work lives? (Discussion follows.)

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

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