Devising economics as if people matter

Last month we considered the biblical doctrine of work and began to look at the growing numbers of the unemployed. Yet the problem of unemployment is not one of statistics but of people. In the Third World there is the threat to physical survival; in the West there is the psychological trauma. Industrial psychologists have likened the loss of a job to bereavement and have described its three stages. The first is shock. To be declared “redundant” (an awful word) is to receive a serious blow to one’s self-esteem. “I felt immediately degraded,” said one man, and thought to himself: “I’ve become a statistic. I’m unemployed.” The second stage is depression and pessimism. By now savings are eroded, if not exhausted, and the prospects of finding a job are increasingly bleak. People lapse into inertia. Said one: “What do I do all day? I stagnate.” The third stage is fatalism. In the case of the long-term unemployed, both hope and struggle decline. The spirit becomes bitter and broken. Such people are demoralized and dehumanized.

Further, the worldwide problem of unemployment is going to get worse. I have read a statement attributed to Robert McNamara, President of the World Bank, that “by the year 2,000 A.D. there will be 6 billion people unemployed.” What causes this galloping problem? It is partly that when developing nations have become industrially developed, the steel and ships and commodities they produce will compete with those of the West—and in many cases displace them. It is also partly that microelectronics (silicon chips) will shortly complete the industrial revolution. The experts say that computers will take over the running of factories, the plowing of fields by driverless tractors, and even the diagnosing of diseases. Economists do not seem able to tell us how the problems of inflation and unemployment can be solved simultaneously.

In the light of the biblical doctrine of work, what Christian response should we make to the contemporary problem of unemployment? I claim no expertise, but I venture to make three suggestions.

First, we must change our attitude toward the unemployed. The so-called Protestant Work Ethic has tended not only to encourage industry but also to despise those who are losers in the struggle to survive. Well, no doubt some are shirkers, but the great majority of unemployed people want to work and are victims of the system. We need more Christian compassion towards those who suffer the trauma of “redundancy.” I have recently learned that an unemployed male member of our church in London has stayed away for two whole years because he has feared that people will ask him what he is doing and, when they discover that he is not working, will make him feel a failure. Is not the failure rather ours that we have made him feel despised and rejected? It is not a stigma to be unemployed. Paul’s dictum “if anyone will not work, let him not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10) was addressed to the voluntary, not involuntary, unemployed; it condemns laziness not redundancy. So we need to understand, to welcome, to support, and to counsel the unemployed. Otherwise the very concept of the body of Christ becomes a sick joke.

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Second, we must press for more job creation. Successive governments in Britain have done much, by methods of tax inducement, regional policies, retraining, and subsidies. But in areas of serious unemployment, Christians ought not to hesitate to lobby parliamentarians, local authorities, industrialists, employers, union officials, and others to create more employment opportunities. In England some churches and Christian organizations have themselves entered the job creation field. I have read, for example, of the Portrack Workshop in the North of England in which forty-five disabled people are making toys and remaking school desks.

Third, we must remember and act on the distinction between work and employment. What demoralizes people is not so much lack of employment (that they are not in a paid job) as lack of work (that they are not using their energies in service). I know, of course, that God intends us to earn our living, that the paycheck gives people self-respect, and that those receiving unemployment benefit feel themselves to be spongers even if they are in fact receiving their dues because they have contributed to a national insurance plan. Nevertheless, I reaffirm my point that, as a means to self-esteem, work significance is more important than work earnings. To employ people to dig holes and fill them up again gives them pay but not self-respect; to help them to work significantly gives them self-respect, even if the work is unpaid. Unemployed people can still use their time and energy creatively. This distinction will become increasingly important, because all of us will be engulfed in the coming social revolution. Many think that the only way to anything approaching full employment will be “work sharing.” That is, shorter hours with no overtime (perhaps a 35-hour, or even a 30-hour, week), longer holidays, and earlier retirement would spread the same employment opportunities over a larger number of employees. The net result will be that everybody has more leisure. But how will they spend it? God’s fourth commandment is not only to rest one day a week, but to work six days. How can people work six days on a 30-hour week?

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We need to develop more opportunities for creative leisure, for this is an authentic form of “work” (even if unpaid) and a welcome relief from interminable hours of destructive television viewing. Do-it-yourself improvements to the home, servicing your own car, working with wood or metal, dressmaking, pottery, painting, sculpting or writing, and community service like prison visiting and sick visiting, working with mentally or physically handicapped people, teaching illiterates to read—these are a few examples, but the list could be greatly extended. Some will doubtless dismiss this as a middle-class reaction to the problem, which would be inappropriate for the so-called working classes, especially in cities and ghettoes. Maybe. Yet I would appeal to the biblical truths that mankind by creation is creative, that we cannot find ourselves or serve God if we are idle, and that we must find a creative outlet for our energies. Therefore, if people do not have facilities either to learn or to practice skills, and cannot find these facilities, should not the church pioneer by providing them?

It is only when we continue to spend whatever energies we have in some form of service that we can bring fulfillment to ourselves, blessing to others and glory to God.

John R. W. Stott is rector emeritus of All Souls Church, London, England.

John R. W. Stott (1921 – 2011) is known worldwide as a preacher, evangelist, author, and theologian. For 66 years he served All Souls Church, Langham Place, in London, England, where he pioneered effective urban evangelistic and pastoral ministry. During these years he authored more than 50 books, and served as one of the original Contributing Editors for Christianity Today. Stott had a global vision and built strong relationships with church leaders outside the West in the Majority World. A hallmark of Stott's ministry was his vision for expository biblical preaching that addresses the hearts and minds of contemporary men and women. In 1969 he founded a trust that eventually became Langham Partnership International (, a ministry that continues his vision of partnership with the Majority World Church. Stott was honored by Time magazine in 2005 as one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World."

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