In 1997, Anthony Cooper was working two jobs and barely getting by. “I would work almost 24 hours straight, go take the kids to school, go home, get some sleep, and go and do it all again.” His two jobs—at a pizza restaurant and a warehouse—provided just enough income to rent an efficiency apartment in Madison, Wisconsin. “My kids slept on one end; I slept on the other end with my futon.” As an African American man with no high school diploma, coming out of a two-year prison sentence, better jobs weren’t easy to get.
With the United States hitting record low unemployment rates in recent years, it might seem that anyone—with perhaps a little prayer, patience, and perseverance—could find good employment. But employment rates don’t tell the whole story.
In the past two decades, even as more Americans have found jobs, those jobs have become less likely to be long term, full time, and matched to people’s skills and education. The trend toward underemployment and disappointing work certainly impacts college graduates. But it hits especially hard for many people of color and for those who are differently abled, have an incarceration record, lack higher education, or live in economically depressed regions.
Before meeting Cooper, I’d worked and conducted research among nonprofits in South Africa that were trying to help people find good work. Some of the organizations used Scripture in their trainings. The founder of one organization, emphatically tapping his fingers on a table, summarized his group’s message with these words: “The whole Bible is about hard work.” He recited a proverb about laziness, a story of Moses making plans, and the fact that Paul sewed tents as evidence that hard work is the key to success. As he talked, my mind turned over his words. How else might a Christian have ended that sentence? The whole Bible is about—grace, maybe? Or God’s love?
I met Cooper through a mutual friend soon after I returned to the United States, and recently we grabbed coffee. He has had many jobs since his pizza-baking days, including recruiting employees for a national company. Today Cooper serves as the vice president of strategic partnerships and reentry services at the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development in Madison, where he leads support groups, meets with potential employers, and every year supports dozens of people through employment challenges.
When I asked Cooper how he might finish the sentence from my past interview, he suggested, “The whole Bible is about community.”
Challenges aren’t distributed equally
Individuals in society don’t face the same challenges. The man who saw the whole Bible as being “about hard work” was a white male raised in an upper-middle class Christian household with family members, role models, employers, and teachers who trusted and supported him. Hard work may have seemed to advance him economically, but others work equally hard with different results.
Cooper’s mentees come from a different side of society. Consider one man who came to the Nehemiah Center after serving a 12-year prison sentence for sexual assault. His parole agent required him to wear a GPS ankle bracelet and seek permission to accept any job offer. “I’ve been denied for so many jobs,” he told me. “A basketball referee job, a parking lot attendant job—anything with a leadership role.” I asked what reasons the agent gave, and he shrugged. “You never know. If it’s a job with a living wage, seems like they’ll probably deny it.”
He is hardly a unique case. Discrimination according to class, race, incarceration, and what Cooper calls “the good old boy system” is widespread. Numerous studies have found that white job candidates are more likely to get hired than African American candidates, even when white candidates have lesser credentials. The late sociologist Devah Pager, researching in nearby Milwaukee, had black and white actors turn in identical resumes for jobs, some listing an incarceration record and some not. Even when white candidates listed incarceration records, they were more likely to get call-back interviews and job offers than black candidates with identical credentials and no prison record.
Such discrimination contributes to median incomes among black Americans that are 34 percent less than the national average. Employers who hold implicit, unacknowledged prejudices skew their views of the quality of work employees perform. “We can be doing the exact same thing, exact same speed, exact same everything, but yet you’re still looked at as less than,” Cooper said.
How opportunities diverge
Inequalities along the journey to employment begin long before a candidate drops off a resume. Schools with the lowest percentages of white children are staffed by less-qualified teachers with lower salaries and fewer resources. And higher education costs money, which black and brown families are less likely to have. The average net worth of households headed by white Americans is ten times higher than households headed by black Americans. Hispanic and Native American households fare little better.
Recent books and media coverage have drawn attention to scholarly research demonstrating how these inequalities grow out of a long history of stolen assets and opportunities—from the centuries-old confiscation of Native American lands and the enslavement of African peoples to the more recent exclusion of people of color from the GI Bill and affordable home loans. Yet the idea that the plight of the poor is largely due to their lack of hard work remains stubbornly pervasive.
The laziness narrative has roots at least as far back as the European slave trade, when the capture and possession of other humans as property was rationalized in part by the warped ethics that forced labor made better, less lazy people. I’ve seen this documented in sociological research on South Africa; justifications for slavery and crushing manual labor abound in colonial and missionary documents of the 19th century.
Yet when many Christians talk about poverty today, they often continue to overlook unequal inclusion and resource access and instead turn to blaming laziness. Sociologists Jason Shelton and Michael Emerson analyzed a 2006 survey that asked Americans to choose explanations for the income gaps between African American and white people in the United States. More than half of white Protestants chose the response “because most African Americans just don’t have the motivation or will power to pull themselves up out of poverty.” Only 26.5 percent choose the option “mainly due to discrimination.” (African Americans choose responses in nearly the opposite percentages). Shelton and Emerson found that white Protestants were even more likely than whites in the general population to blame poverty on laziness.
Like most Americans, I grew up hearing that hard work is essential for success. What I didn’t hear, though, is that hard work isn’t the same in all circumstances, so it doesn’t have the same results. My white parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were not excluded from neighborhoods, schools, or jobs on the basis of the shade of their skin. They passed down to me the economic rewards of increasing home values, years of education and job promotions, as well as the optimism that comes from being in a racial group that is given the benefit of the doubt again and again. While I heard messages confirming that racism is wrong, there were also plenty denying that race really mattered. That combination can leave people with the false assumption that hard work is the sole determinant of success. From there, it’s an easy leap to believing that inequalities must be caused by some internal flaw among marginalized people.
Mischaracterization of ‘hard work’
I recently searched BibleGateway.com for the word “laziness.” The website offered the “suggested result” of Proverbs 19:15: “Laziness brings on deep sleep, and the shiftless go hungry.” Other passages are blunter, admonishing that “laziness ends in forced labor” (Prov. 12:24).
Such verses offer a helpful lesson that motivation does matter. We are “created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:10). As the Bible reminds us, even wealthy people who choose laziness over the works prepared for them, like the farmer who chose to “take life easy; eat, drink and be merry” rather than be “rich toward God,” are condemned (Luke 12:19-21). The Bible condemns people who turn their back on their God-given responsibilities. Poverty (as well as exile and death) are some results of neglecting God’s calls to action.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story of poverty. Focusing solely on warnings against sloth can miss the Bible’s wider narrative regarding poverty. Scrolling further down through references to laziness, I found another passage, which I brought up in the conversation with Cooper. When Moses asked Pharaoh to permit Israelite slaves to leave Egypt and worship God in freedom, the ruler responded, “They are lazy; that is why they are crying out, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to our God.’ Make the work harder for the people so that they keep working and pay no attention to lies” (Ex. 5:8-9). A few verses later Pharaoh repeats, “‘Lazy, that’s what you are—lazy! That is why you keep saying, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.’ Now get to work” (Ex. 5:17-18a).
The passage points to some implications in the blame-laziness narrative of poverty. First, it ignores the ways that privilege, undeserved blessing, and even oppressing others can all account for riches, not just hard work. To people who believed that their own wealth came primarily through their own hard work, Hosea spoke the following warning: “Israel boasts, ‘I am rich! I’ve made a fortune all by myself! No one has caught me cheating! My record is spotless!’ ‘But I am the Lord your God, who rescued you from slavery in Egypt. And I will make you live in tents again’” (Hos. 12:8-9a, NLT).
If we miss this account of wealth, we might focus on one-time fixes rather than long-term changes. One promotional video from a Christian relief organization, typical of the genre, tells a story of an African woman who escaped poverty “with hard work and a little help.” Attributing her story to just a “little” help and her own “hard work” ignores a history including colonization, exclusion from international trade deals, and political corruption that created poverty for millions of people working just as hard as her.
Additionally, for individuals in poverty, this narrative piles on shame and a sense of personal blame for circumstances beyond individuals’ control. As writer Jeff Haanen emphasized in a 2018 piece in CT, the true “God of the second shift” offers dignity, not shame, for low-waged laborers.
The majority of the world’s people work for less than the US minimum wage. Across the globe, most people have jobs that are part time, seasonal, insecure, monotonous, physically dangerous, unacknowledged, or psychologically degrading. People who survive in these conditions are anything but lazy. They deserve a Christian message that acknowledges the whole of the Bible. In particular, they deserve to know that God does not stand for injustice.
Changing the internal talk
Pharaoh saw Israelites as “less-than people,” Cooper pointed out. He kept slaves in his control by creating a generational narrative that they were lazy liars, suited for harsh manual labor. “It’s verbal abuse that tricks the mind,” Cooper said. “Eventually you believe that—that you are nothing, that you’re lazy, that you have no self-worth. And then what do you do eventually? As you grow up, you do the exact same thing to other people.”
As marginalized people internalize messages about their own worthlessness, it becomes all the more difficult to muster the motivation people assume they don’t have in the first place. As early as 1952, psychologist Franz Fanon, himself descended from enslaved Africans brought to the island of Martinique, wrote about the deep psychological damage done when people are treated as worthless. In one of Fanon’s more strikingly personal moments, he compared being black to having a limb amputated. “Yet with all my being,” he wrote, “I refuse to accept this amputation. I feel my soul as vast as the world, truly a soul as deep as the deepest of rivers.”
When Cooper came out of prison, he wasn’t just struggling financially. He was struggling emotionally and spiritually, like a soul wrestling with whether to accept amputation. “I felt a lot of self-hatred,” he said.
As a child, he’d been to church only a few times. By the age of seventeen, he was selling drugs and knew his life was spiraling downhill. One day he walked into a church. Strangers offered to pray for him. He found himself weeping but still didn’t see himself as belonging. Years later, after serving two years in prison, the idea of going to church kept coming to mind. “I knew something was missing.” He wanted his sons to have better lives than his, and church seemed like it would be good for them. “But honestly,” he said, “I felt like it was too late for me—like the redemption part was already too late.”
That changed one day when he walked up to a friend’s house, and a local pastor happened to be sitting in a car outside. They struck up a conversation. Within minutes, the pastor invited Cooper to church. He began attending regularly and heard an impactful sermon. The pastor described Moses’ experience on Mount Sinai talking to God. Moses learned to shift his own internal talk—he wasn’t lazy and worthless as Pharaoh saw his people; he was loved by God. The pastor asked, “Are you daring to go to the mountain to meet God?” Cooper looked back at the ways God had been present in his life even when he wasn’t aware, and he asked God to create something new in him.
When Pharaoh shouted accusations at God’s people in the book of Exodus, God showed the opposite response. “God heard their groaning… and was concerned about them” (Ex. 2:24, 25). The biblical author called the situation what it was: ruthless oppression (Ex. 1:12, 14).
The Exodus story was not about a hard-working individual succeeding in a job—it was the story of God intervening to transform society and show his people how to treat each other rightly. From Levitical law to the New Testament church, God has taught people to redesign a society in which workers and dependents alike thrive.
Cooper believes people struggling in an unjust society need to be surrounded by a community that reminds them of a message that changes their internal dialogue. That message, as he put it, is God’s promise that “I love you as my child. I love you even in your wrongdoing. I still love you unconditionally. Do I want you to make the right choices? Yes. Will I provide you with the right choices? Yes. At the end of the day, no matter what, I still love you.”
He calls community the “magic sauce” of his organization. Support groups of people facing similar challenges meet on a weekly basis. “You have someone who’s willing to walk that with you. Someone who’s been there, done that, and can be an advocate for you.”
That, Cooper emphasized, means not just saying, “I’m going to help you.” Instead, Christians need to say, “We’re going to help each other, so we can lift up each other up, so we don’t have to walk this walk alone.”
But overcoming poverty takes more than a mindset shift among workers—as psychologist Barry Schwartz writes, “there are limits to what an individual can do psychologically to interpret a soulless job as a meaningful one.” It also requires changes by managers and others in positions of influence.
Humans have always found plenty of ways to blame sin and injustice on anyone but themselves. Viewing poverty as merely or even largely a problem of laziness has, all too often, been a strategy for preserving broken systems. But the Bible is clear: God breaks through those excuses, calling oppression what it is, and rescuing and reordering individuals, communities, and societies.
Christine Jeske is a professor of cultural anthropology at Wheaton College. She is the author of three books, including the forthcoming The Laziness Myth (Cornell).
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