Until recently I thought that only in England could one find a plumber whose response to an emergency call took so long that a leaky sink repaired itself. But since returning to the United States, after a year abroad, I have sensed a remarkable deterioration taking place in the world of work right here at home.

The gas company promptly turned on our kitchen burners. But after Saturday supper supposedly had been roasting for several hours, my fair and furious lady discovered that the oven hadn’t been connected.

The telephone crew installed our phones on schedule. But it took seventy-eight hours before the units worked well enough to get through even to the operator. No phones in the world have ever buzzed a busy signal for a longer period of inaction.

Carpenters showed up on time to install additional bookshelves in my seminary office. But it never occurred to the workmen—while buzz saws showered sawdust with gay abandon—to cover valuable research papers and several thousand books.

Fading from the workaday world, it would seem, are the factors of competence and service. Many workers are more concerned with higher wages and hurried completion of a job than with thoroughness and guaranteed performance.

I often remember a quite different experience in Sorrento, Italy, a city famous the world over for wood inlay craftsmanship. I ordered a small picture made of various woods, and the artisan promised its completion at a certain hour on a certain day. When I arrived as scheduled, he begged profuse forgiveness: he was finished with the job, yes, but was not completely satisfied with the results. Could he not take more time? So I watched as, by turns, he and his son gave themselves to polishing and repolishing, polishing and repolishing. The process continued for several hours until at last, delighted that “the moment” of artistic fulfillment had come, father and son beamed with satisfaction and with proud joy entrusted their handicraft to my keeping. The memento had cost about fifteen dollars; in value it has always represented far more.

I recall another experience, more recently, in Yugoslavia. Among the visitors to the Novi Sad evangelism conference was a Christian tailor with a wide reputation for fine custom work. My ten-day visit seemed a good opportunity to augment my wardrobe. The tailor was delighted to be of help—that is, until he learned the time limits. Of course, he said, he could finish a suit in ten days, and in all probability I would be wholly satisfied with the product. He refused to take the job, however; on so hurried a schedule, he said, he could not hope to maintain his own pride in his work. Would I forgive him, then, if he declined the present request in the hope that at some future time he might serve me better because less hurriedly?

Article continues below

Such experiences give me an uneasy feeling about what is now happening around us in America. I hesitate to escalate particulars into generalities, for there surely remain in America many workers who take pride in their work and many businessmen who know that service is not only the best salesman but the best policy. It is my happy privilege to know some of them. But if one were to multiply my recent frustrations by many parallels, one must surely be alarmed at the growing vocational shoddiness.

Just to nail down the point, let me add that on the first day after we moved into our Philadelphia apartment I bought a hammer. Hardly had I begun that vexing ordeal of picture-hanging when the hammer head parted company with its handle. Now I could have forgiven a Japanese hammer that had developed jitters during trans-Pacific shipment. But it was considerably harder to forgive a hammer “made in America.”

We ought to remember that Eastern European Christians live constantly with the Marxist assault on the capitalistic view of work. Exploiting the vacuum in the heart of the secular Western worker, Communism long ago promised to orbit a halo around the laborer’s life by enlisting him in the struggle for a new world order. It is increasingly clear, of course, that Communism glorifies not the worker but rather his work in the service of the state; the worker himself is but an instrument of the totalitarian powers. Neither the secular capitalist nor the materialistic Communist grasps the unique meaning and value of work.

Christianity brought to the world of work a new sense of significance and worth. Work was not, as the Greeks thought, at best an evil that ought to be avoided in the interest of philosophical contemplation as a higher way of life, nor was it to be pushed on a slave class of so-called half-men. The Bible has never been embarrassed that David was a shepherd, the early disciples were fishermen, and the Great Apostle to the Gentiles was a tentmaker. With patient industry, devout men so practiced their special tasks that they became qualified also to shepherd souls and to fish for men. Historic Christianity has much to say to contemporary man about glorifying God and serving one’s fellow man in the world of work and these things need today to be said with equal force in West and East. For the Christian, the daily job is not simply a means of economic survival—indispensable as that surely is; most of all it is an investment of one’s vocational gifts as a divine stewardship.

Article continues below

Communist leaders, as is well known, disparage Christian pastors as non-productive workers—a verdict grounded not in vocational realities but in atheistic propaganda. In Bulgaria, for example, and in some of the other Eastern European lands, authorities divert young men from the ministry by insisting that their country needs them in other types of work. When these Christians comply and in due course some of them rank head and shoulders above their colleagues in work performance, they are not advanced to managerial positions, simply because they are Christians and refuse to renounce the Church.

Such circumstances give Christian workers a prime opportunity to show what difference a sense of Christian responsibility brings to the world of work. By faithfully performing their work as a calling, and to the limit of ability, workers who suffer discrimination can clearly demonstrate, even without a word, what sort of “equality” Communism promotes, when it penalizes a better worker simply because of his belief in God.

While the worker in capitalistic lands is not penalized for his religious beliefs, he is nonetheless paying a penality for his lack of them. Every shoddy job for which people in the free world now pay (and pay more and more because of the inflationary spiral) is a peg in the coffin of free enterprise. The philosophy that puts a fast buck above a good job is an extension of the illusion that we can get something for nothing. Given enough of that sort of thing, we will end up with nothing, and with social chaos as well.


Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.