On Work and Wealth

September 16, 2015

One of the dangers I have sometimes attempted to address is the attempt to graft an ersatz of Christian moralism onto a framework of quasi-Christian or even anti-Christian economic concepts. Invariably, these concepts are presented as irreducibly ‘sound’, and thus pre-emptively exempted from any Christian critique. The Acton Institute seems to be one organisation which makes an art of this kind of wallpapering. I should note up front once again, that I have nothing in particular against the members of the Acton Institute themselves; only against their distortions, wilful or otherwise, of the Christian witness as it applies to questions of the material realm. And, of course, their distortions of the views of various Christian authors ranging from Vladimir Solovyov and Fr. Sergei Bulgakov to Clive Staples Lewis.

Of course, setting the record straight on what these authors actually said and thought is very much a necessity. But as the Orthodox Church is beginning to build a corpus of social thought – the most prominent of the documents in this corpus being the Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, written in 2000 – it seems the more important and daunting task will be to begin asking and exploring the depth of the inquiries begun by this document in the light of the Patristic witness. This task becomes even more urgent as the necessities of economic involvement begin to spur ideas and initiatives like the alternative Orthodox financial system recently proposed by the Moscow Patriarchate. Instead of presuming the ‘soundness’ of the regnant principles of a de-personalised, globalist, secular economy, should we not instead be scrutinising the ethical and anthropological assumptions that underlie these principles? Should we not be looking instead to harmonise our economic praxis with beliefs that accord with the ethics and anthropology of the Church?

What do the Scriptures, the Fathers and the Church have to say, in short, about the nature of man’s labour – both as it exists in a fallen world, and as it should be as we strive for union with God? What do the Scriptures, the Fathers and the Church have to say about wealth, its acquisition, its purpose and its disposal? And what role do both Church and state play in this process?

Firstly, the purpose of labour. When the Church Fathers speak of honest labour, of labour in a morally positive sense, they do not speak of it as being aimed firstly toward self-enrichment or toward acquisition of wealth. The basic and fundamental character of work, in the words of S. Basil the Great, takes ‘the good pleasure of God’ as its goal, and seeks to ‘satisfy our debt of gratitude to Him who gave us the power to do the work’; or in the negative, as S. Mark the Ascetic puts it, labour which is not ‘done for God’, is ‘in vain’. We are called to imitate God in our work, who as S. Justin Martyr says, ‘created in His goodness everything out of shapeless matter for the sake of men’: we are therefore meant to work as co-creators with God, having been fashioned in the image and likeness of God. Just as God created all things for our benefit, so must our creative activity be ultimately aimed at the benefit of others, to thus participate in the creative work of God.

Indeed, this is the general thrust of the Basis of the Social Concept’s teaching on labour. ‘Labour is the creative fulfilment of man who was called to be the co-creator and co-worker of the Lord by virtue of his original likeness of God.’ But in a post-Edenic world, in a fallen world wherein man is mortal and sinful, man must labour in order to sustain himself: ‘the creative component of labour weakened to become mostly a means of sustenance for the fallen man’ (VI.1). Labour is tied to the need to eat, to survive – there are ‘two moral motives of labour: work to sustain oneself without being a burden for others and work to give to the needy’ (VI.4). Labour which runs against this need, or which denies it to others, is not morally sanctioned; as S. Augustine says, ‘whatever work men perform without guilt and trickery is good’. S. John Chrysostom goes still further in his Homilies, when he tells the wealthy people listening to him: ‘If thou tellest one of money-getting, and of traffick, and of the increase of thy goods; I would also say unto thee, Not these, but alms, and prayers, and the protection of the injured, and all such things, are truly works’. Likewise, labour which does not meet the standard of provision for oneself and for one’s family points to a moral failing, but not of the labourer: ‘refusal to pay for honest work is not only a crime against man, but also a sin before God’ (VI.6) – and again, ‘every one should have resources sufficient for life in dignity’ (VII.1).

There is always the exhortation to the labourer, in reading the Fathers, that labour must be honest, that it must be creative, that it must be done in a way which pays honour to God. But on the other hand, we can already begin to see a connexion in Patristic and Orthodox thinking – a meaningful moral connexion, in fact – between the question of labour and the question of wealth. Not the ideal, but the baseline moral standard in a post-Edenic economy, is that a labourer must be given the means to work honestly, and in so doing, provide for himself. The necessities of consumption must match in some direct and meaningful way the capacity for production. If the fruits of a labourer’s productivity do not allow him the wealth sufficient to live a dignified life – including basic necessities (food, clothes, shelter), social well-being (family), and the opportunity for rest and for worship of God – there is a moral and spiritual failure within the system wherein he works.

Such a moral and spiritual failure becomes evident when, for example, in the American economy productivity has steadily increased, but compensation has largely stayed stagnant, with the gains from the productivity increase accruing to the top percentiles of earners. Such a moral and spiritual failure is made clear when a worker must spend between 53 and 100 hours a week working honestly at the minimum wage to afford a one-bedroom apartment at fair market rental rates, in any state in the United States. We are living in a society wherein the productivity of the worker has been thoroughly and systemically detached from the wealth he creates. This goes directly against the wisdom of the Holy Fathers of the Church.

Lest one be tempted to think or argue that this Patristic connexion between work and wealth is a problem which is relegated to the past and can have no relevance to the present, wherein questions of scarcity have been solved or made irrelevant: this connexion has been made, explicitly and urgently, in our own day, by the Church hierarchs. In 2010, His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia made the following statement:

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“The modern economy is built largely on fraud, creating money out of thin air. [Money is] equivalent to human work and the riches God has given us: namely coal, ore, oil, our intellect, our physical labour, our culture and our spirituality. [But today,] every company produces its own money in the form of shares, which in the secondary market, rather than acting as simple securities, are used as items of trade and speculation. If these spectres earn billions, not being backed by real labour or capital, how can such an economy exist? And what becomes of the simple worker, who produces the value behind this entire bubble! [We need] a fair economic system, where money and capital are equivalent and are the expression of real work.”

This quote gets into a discussion of money, which is connected with but distinct from wealth; and the Patristic and Orthodox approach to money is perhaps a topic for another essay. However, His Holiness’s basic point is that an economy cannot be just or fair that decouples wealth, or rather the markers of wealth, from the real value produced by work. Additionally, an economic system in which private banks or corporations create markers of wealth for themselves, which fail to represent the full scope of the creative work of God – whether in natural or human riches – is in essence a form of fraud, and falls under the condemnation of S. Augustine.

This gap between the economic praxis of the modern world on the one hand, and the moral needs of the human beings who live in it on the other, ought to deeply trouble all Christians, and Orthodox Christians not least of all. It ought to trouble us that the modern ideology of homo Ĺ“conomicus on which market behaviour is theorised, is not Patristic, but instead ultimately based on the neo-paganism of the Renaissance, beginning with Machiavelli and Hobbes. In light of these considerations, the Russian Church must be applauded for having the boldness to begin a serious exploration of the wealth of Patristic wisdom and the Apostolic deposit, to answer questions of persisting importance in our own times – and for doing it in a sane, measured and humane way. However, much work (so to speak) yet remains to be done.

Matthew Franklin Cooper

Matthew F. Cooper is an AmeriCorps alumnus, ESL teacher and policy analyst currently based in Rhode Island, where he makes up about a third of the bass section in the choir of St. Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church in Pawtucket. He has done some policy writing for PlaNet Finance China, as well as for the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council; the opinions he rather haphazardly scribbles elsewhere are very much his own, however. He is a contributing editor at the Solidarity Hall thinkerspace, and maintains a blog at The Heavy Anglo-Orthodox, where he meanders about theology, geopolitics, economics, and heavy metal.


This article previously appeared at The Heavy Anglo-Orthodox