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Dorothy Sayers on a Christian view of work, industry, and economic health: Part I

Firefighters at work in a bomb damaged street after a Saturday night raid in 1941.

On April 23rd, 1942, as the German Luftwaffe were beginning a series of devastating air raids on Britain’s cathedral cities, Dorothy Sayers gave a lecture on the Christian view of work and on what a healthy post-war economy might look like.  World War II was a time of great austerity, as people tightened their belts and rationed their resources, and as industries turned from the manufacturing of luxuries to the manufacturing of wartime necessities.

It was, to be sure, a very different time, and the crises of that War undoubtedly dwarf the woes of our present financial crises.  Nevertheless, many of the questions, challenges, and suggestions that Sayers posed as she cast a vision both for a sane and stable post-war economy and for a Christian ethic of work are worth our careful consideration today as we envision our own post-war and post-recession future.  The central question that faced the Greatest Generation then and that faces our generation now is the question of whether, when our crisis is past, we will continue to make sacrifices for the sake of the common good.  “Or,” asks Sayers, “shall we want to go back to that civilization of greed and waste which we dignify by the name of a ‘high standard of living’?”

Sayers, earnestly desiring the former, urges “a thoroughgoing revolution in our whole attitude to work” wherein work “should be looked upon–not as a necessary drudgery to be undergone for the purpose of making money, but as a way of life in which the nature of man should find its proper exercise and delight  and so fulfill itself to the glory of God.”  Work, says Sayers, “should, in fact, be thought of as a creative activity undertaken for the love of the work itself; and that man, made in God’s image, should make things, as God makes them, for the sake of doing well a thing that is well worth doing.”  This view of work, of course, runs entirely counter to the view of work which has animated our economy for the past few hundred years.  We have for quite some time been operating with the view that work is not so much to be done because the work itself is inherently worth doing, but rather it has to be done for the sake of receiving monetary compensation.

It must be noted, too, that the monetary value assigned to any given work in our current economic arrangement is no reliable indicator as to the importance, worthwhileness, or quality of the work or product in question.  “Supply&demand” does not equal objective value.  Meth amphetamines, for instance, are in relatively short supply and in unfortunate high demand, and will, therefore, fetch quite a bit of cash, but they are not, in any real, substantive sense, valuable.  Quite the opposite.  If our economics is to be founded on real values, we need to stop thinking along the lines that professional economists usually do, and that, says Sayers, is because “the professional economist is not really trained to answer, or even to ask himself questions about absolute values.  Any question about absolute values belongs to the sphere, not of economics, but of religion.”  But before we go looking for religious solutions, we need to look closer at the economic problems.

In our current economic arrangement our work  produces a great deal of junk for the sake of gaining a paycheck, rather than producing inherently valuable goods and services for the sakes of God’s glory and of the common good.  It is an arrangement that is inevitably bent towards the the service, not of God and neighbor, but of Mammon–and only after Mammon is appeased (and he seldom is) do we think of rendering unto God what is God’s.

Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957) was an Oxford educated playwright and scholar. She was a member of the famous "Inklings," with C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Wiliams

Such an economic system, says Sayers, is not only idolatrous and degrading, it is, to use a term from our own cultural moment, unsustainable.

A society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society founded on trash and waste, and such a society is a house built upon sand.

And let there be no mistake: we do live in a society in which consumption is artificially stimulated.  One need look no further than the billions and billions of dollars that companies spend every year on advertising, the sole aim of which is to gin up felt needs that otherwise would never have been felt (because they aren’t real needs and only become wants after the advertisements have got hold of you).  Our ubiquitous advertising and rising landfills are symptoms of our society’s being precisely a society (ill)founded on trash and waste.

According to Sayers, the building of society upon a trash heap is practically an all but inevetable consequence of industrialization.  “No nation has yet found a way to keep the machines running and whole nations employed under modern industrial conditions without wasteful consumption.”  It must be noted that nearly seventy years have passed since Sayers spoke these words and still no nation has yet found a way.  In Sayers time the wheels of industry turned from cranking out trinkets to cranking out armaments.  “But when war ceases, then the problem of employing labor at the machines begins again.  The relentless pressure of hungry labor is behind the drive toward wasteful consumption, whether in the destruction of war or in the trumpery of peace.”

While one might think that Sayers is warming up to endorse Das Kapital or some such, that is not the case.  The problem which Sayers has in mind, the problem of wasteful consumerism and consequent Mammon-centered economics, goes deeper than that:

The problem is far too much simplified when it is presented as a mere conflict between labor and capital, between employed and employer.  the basic difficulty remains, even when you make the State the sole employer, even when you make Labor into the employer.  It is not simply a question of profits and wages or living conditions–but of what is to be done with the work of the machines, and what work the machines are to do.

As to Sayers’ proposed solutions to this constellation of problems, well, that will have to await another post.



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NCSU Graduate Christian Fellowship

Hi! I'm David, the campus minister for InterVarsity's graduate and faculty ministries at NC State and Meredith College. I hope you'll join me as I learn to "practice resurrection" in the City of Oaks, in her universities, and in the wider world. You can contact me at dmwilliams83@gmail.com

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