Donald Andrew Henson II

Posts Tagged ‘Martin Luther’

Exploit the Protestants

In American Economy, American Society, Religion and Money on March 13, 2017 at 8:04 pm

In my last post I talked about the Protestant Work Ethic (PWE), and asked what would happen to this concept if technology rendered 95% of us unemployable. The reason I use such a drastic number is 1) I’m not alone in believing this is a real possibility in the coming decades, and 2) I’m pretty sure I know the answer to the question if that number were more like 35% – the unemployed third of humanity would be demonized by the two-thirds able to somehow hang on to a job. Low moral character, unwillingness to work, looking for handouts – these would all be named as ’causes’ for unemployment, even with clear economic evidence to the contrary.

Why do we feel that work somehow equals virtue? I’m only just re-acquainting myself with Max Weber’s collection of essays, but I’m sure you’re familiar with the basic idea of the PWE. It is an idea as old as the Reformation itself, and it permeates American thinking about work to this day.

“Protestants, beginning with Martin Luther, reconceptualized worldly work as a duty which benefits both the individual and society as a whole. Thus, the Catholic idea of good works was transformed into an obligation to consistently work diligently as a sign of grace….the notion developed that it might be possible to discern that a person was elect (predestined) by observing their way of life. Hard work and frugality were thought to be two important consequences of being one of the elect. Protestants were thus attracted to these qualities and supposed to strive for reaching them.” (Wikipedia)

Weber says this is why Europe and America have the dominant economic position in the world today – the superior belief system caused them to work harder. Therefore, they worked for it and they deserve it. That’s an oversimplification for sure, but one probably a majority of Americans and everyone who voted for Donald Trump would ascribe to.  A recent example here.

It’s no surprise that these ideas spring from the 1500s, at a time when great economic changes were occurring, stressing the medieval hierarchies of lords, priests, and peasants. A Catholic peasant farmer had only to give his earthly lord and heavenly one what was due – fruits of his labor in exchange for subsistence and tenancy to the former, performance of sacraments in exchange for eternal life to the latter. The Protestant believer had to be ever-working and vigilant to prove himself part of the elect.

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Notice how neatly this idea fits the demands of the workforce required by the Industrial Revolution. While farm work was done in seasons, with downtime in the heat of the day and during the long winters, cottage labor could be done year-round and by candlelight, and factories need never close. Is it accidental that a new religion would promote frugality and hard work as it’s own reward, at the exact same time factory owners needed laborers to work round-the-clock? Could it be – and I’m just postulating here – that the PWE was a way of maintaining the advantageous relationship (exploitation?) the aristocracy and clergy had enjoyed for centuries?

Now I know some of you are saying these beliefs are not constructs invented to keep the lower classes where they are, but instead are Biblical truths. My question to you would be – why wasn’t this the predominant Christian view for the first 1500 years? Isn’t it strange to you that a doctrine promoting the workaholic as ideal Christian comes around at precisely the time that the owners of the economy needed workaholics?

In America, the prevailing view is that hard work is its own reward. We tend to view our work as a contribution to the company we work for, and to society as a whole. Since we spend so much of our time focused on work, either doing it, preparing for it, or thinking about it – and because by nature we resist the idea that our lives are spent in exercises of futility – we see ourselves as key to our employer’s success. How could they ever make it without me? Look how much income I generate compared to what I’m paid! As Thoreau says in Walden, “We are made to exaggerate the importance of what work we do….”

We unquestionably believe that working for a living is virtuous. We don’t like to think luck has played any role in what success we have – we are ‘blessed’ to have what we have – a word that has, much to my annoyance, replaced ‘lucky’ only in my lifetime.

But corporations and capitalists seldom look at labor the same way. Employees are expenses. They require ever increasing pay to keep up with inflation. They want paid vacations and perks. They get sick and old, and over time become less efficient. They require expensive insurance and need sick leave. Employers are ALWAYS looking for a way to employ fewer people – often through using technology to get more work out of fewer people, finding a way to employ those who are willing to work for less money and fewer benefits, or investing in computers and machines that can do the work without using human labor at all.

Perhaps Americans are the most productive workers in the world because of the PWE – but is that a good thing? Our productivity increases almost every year, but our compensation has remained stagnant for three decades. Why should we work harder for ever-diminishing returns? Are our leaders using our religious beliefs against us to enrich themselves at our expense?

Blogging the Bible – Methodology

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament on May 15, 2012 at 4:03 pm

Before I jump right into reading the New Testament and posting my comments, I’d like to take a couple of paragraphs to talk about how I want to approach the whole project.

First and foremost, I want to keep an open mind. I spent half of my life in an evangelical church, and I understand how believers approach the Bible, how they read it, and how they feel God intends for it to be read. I don’t necessarily intend to abandon that kind of reading, but to add to it. There are earnest Christians who seek to understand the history, culture, and politics of the early Christian world in hopes of having a better understanding; I applaud that approach, and hope to incorporate some of that into my writing.

There are academics who take a completely different approach, which is to question nearly every claim that Christians make about the Bible – who actually wrote each book, when the books were written, whether the words of Jesus are recorded by first-hand observers, etc. Books of this genre, including Who Wrote the Bible by Richard Elliot Friedman and the much more recently written Forged by Bart Ehrman raise a lot of questions about the Bible’s authenticity that any serious believer should not be afraid to consider. I read Friedman’s book years ago when I still considered myself an evangelical, and it didn’t challenge my faith as much as affirm it. Some of his insights really livened up the Sunday School lessons I was teaching at the time. I’ve just finished Ehrman’s and it only confirms what serious students of the Bible since Martin Luther have said – the traditional attributions of authorship for many of the books don’t always seem accurate.

MARTIN LUTHER IN CHURCH OF MARTIN LUTHER IN MU...

Martin Luther

From my point of view, it doesn’t matter so whose approach you choose. What is of more interest to me is how scriptures are interpreted today in American society to form a prevailing religious mindset, and whether those interpretations are beneficial or damaging to our nation as a whole. I think anyone who truly wants to find truth can look at both sides of an issue without having to join one camp or another. I’m hoping to incorporate what I know about both approaches to the New Testament, and hopefully find common ground between those who fervently believe and those who don’t.

I’m going to start reading the books in the order in which they were written, not in the order in which they appear in the New Testament. Whenever there are huge discrepancies in dates, I’ll make a judgement call, but will lean towards a more traditional dating.  That means I’ll start with the letters of Paul, then work through the synoptic gospels. After Luke, we’ll go through Acts, the letters of other apostles, and end with pretty much everything attributed to John. I think studying them in this order should help us see the ideology of the Bible unfold, with the ideas presented in the order in which they were developed, not the order someone put them in 300 years later.

Ironically, my Dad sent me an email just yesterday, not knowing that I had just announced my intention to blog the NT. He urged me to ‘get back into the Word’, confident that anyone who does so will find God there. My brother, on the other hand, who recently ‘outed’ himself as an atheist, seems to think that actually reading the Bible with an open mind is the surest path to non-belief. It seems I’ll be walking a fine line to keep them both happy!

It will be interesting to see which way things go.