Does all work really matter?
It’s a big question that’s entered the national conversation by way of actor Geoffrey Owens.
Owens, who starred as Elvin Tibideaux on “The Cosby Show,” has spoken up after photos of Owens surfaced with the seeming-intent of job shaming the actor, who has been working at Trader Joe’s in New Jersey to make ends meet for the past year. But Owens responded beautifully a few days after the photos were published with a meaningful message about the dignity of work.
“There is no job that is better than another job. It might pay better, it might have better benefits, it might look better on a resume and on paper,” said Owens, who wore his Trader Joe’s name badge to his interviews with major news organizations. “But actually, it’s not better. Every job is worthwhile and valuable, and if we have a rethinking about that because of what has happened to me, that would be great.”
While we’re not quite sure of Owens’ religious worldview, his thoughts on the nature of work are downright biblical. Turning to the opening pages of the Bible in Genesis it’s established that 1) God is a worker and 2) Humans, who have been created in His image, are called to mirror their maker by working, creating culture, all to the glory of God.
As noted in her essay “Why Work?,” Dorothy Sayers notes that “the worker’s first duty is to serve the work.”
“The only Christian work is good work well done,” Sayers writes. “Let the Church see to it that the workers are Christian people and do their work well, as to God: then all the work will be Christian work…As Jacques Maritain says: ‘If you want to produce Christian work, be a Christian, and try to make a work of beauty into which you have put your heart; do not adopt a Christian pose.’”
Owens’ message, intended or not, wonderfully aligns with scripture as both affirm that work itself is integral and important to human flourishing.
As I reflect on my own vocational journey, I remember the weeks I spent working in a family-owned machinery before beginning seminary here in St. Louis. The work broke me in the beautiful and necessary ways. I carried in my own stigma (that I imagine many inadvertently carry as well) that blue collar work was somehow “less mentally engaging” than work in a cubicle.
But I was wrong.
The work was physically demanding, yes, but it also provided a means for me to live, challenged me to steward my time and my steps well, and pushed me to be consistent and precise over a long period of time. And the work of my hands—producing 10,000 2.5-inch aluminum inserts for an order—will now serve as a key piece on conveyor belts across the Midwest.
My work cutting these pieces of steel not only provided a means for me to live but also provided a necessary product to keep conveyor belts functioning properly in businesses that depend on the belts to allow their product to transport effectively and efficiently. The work of my hands was impactful—both personally and communally.
My pride led me to believe my “soft skills” were more valuable than the labor of the blue collar worker.
This is the same mindset hidden behind the “job shaming” mob that aimed to see Owens taken down for his grocery store gig. It’s a mentality that says, certain work is important, but other work is not. In this mindset, Owens’ work as an actor had dignity, while his work as a grocery store bagger did not.
"We thought Dr. Huxtable was our role model,” wrote ERLC President Russell Moore on Twitter in response to Owens’ comments. “We were wrong. Elvin is."
But the great irony is that while many pointed out Owens’ fall from grace, what Owens has is precisely what the worldwide majority—admittedly or not—wants to possess: meaningful work.
According to Gallup’s recent State of the Global Workforce in 2017, more than two-thirds of workers surveyed nationwide in 2017 admitted they were not engaged at work. The groans for meaningful work and a good job—defined by Gallup as one with 30-plus hours of work a week with a consistent paycheck from an employer—persist for us all.
This is why, as Sayers notes in her essay, that “work is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do.”
“It is, or it should be, the full expression of the worker’s faculties,” Sayers writes in her essay, “the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental and bodily satisfaction, and the medium in which he offers himself to God.”
It’s embedded into our DNA. Going all the way back to the Garden of Eden before sin entered humanity, God created Adam and Eve to multiply and subdue the Garden. Even today, we are called to do the same. The Garden call is not annulled.
May the story and words of Geoffrey Owens push us all to call out the beauty in our everyday work and bag groceries to the glory of God.
Gage Arnold is the Communications Director for the Center for Faith & Work Los Angeles. He is currently an M.Div student at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO., and holds a B.S. in Journalism & Electronic Media from the University of Tennessee.