To Work Is to Pray: Faith and Working-Class Resilience

Justified by Work: Identity and the Meaning of Faith in Chicago’s Working-Class Churches
By Robert Anthony Bruno
The Ohio State University Press, 2008

Charity in Truth (Caritas in Veritate)
By Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger)
Ignatius Press, 2009

Reviewed by Brian R. Corbin

Something unique happened whenever César Chávez of the United Farm Workers entered a room: you felt a presence, an aura. You could feel how Chávez’s Catholicism influenced his worldview. He sought an integration of his faith and his everyday work life. Many contemporary labor leaders, members of the working-class rank-and-file, and whitecollar employees still exude their faith both on their “day of rest” and in their jobs.

Lately, faith and workers often seem divided. Some scholars maintain that faith no longer matters in working-class life, while on the other side, organized religion’s adherents tend to be more socially conservative and less inclined to work for justice. Some argue that faith has become too focused on the personal level, forging a chasm between one’s religious life and the everyday world of work. Interestingly, during the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the Catholic Church declared that one of the most serious errors of the modern era is the false dichotomy between one’s faith and the world in which one lives. Faith should form a person’s understanding about the cosmic questions of life and death, but also about the grungy details of daily toil.

Robert Anthony Bruno and Pope Benedict XVI share a common hope: to show how faith does and should impact one’s perspective and praxis. They call for a stronger sense of and commitment to justice in workplaces and in the general economy. Bruno’s goal in Justified by Work: Identity and the Meaning of Faith in Chicago’s Working-Class Churches is to demonstrate “how a small number of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim working-class believers used their faith to inform their lives” (p. 9). He investigates, through hundreds of interviews with working-class individuals in Chicago, how people view their work as having inherent religious meaning. Bruno is concerned that many secular and religious leaders do not recognize the religious value of everyday work and few want to talk about the relationship between faith and labor. His true fear is that the only group interested in religion and work consists of corporate executives and evangelical leaders who want to insert religion into the workplace in order to justify and pacify workers to the capitalist system.

Pope Benedict XVI is no less concerned. Drawing on the Christian Gospels with over two thousand years of social thought, the pontiff builds upon the Catholic Social Tradition in his third encyclical, Charity in Truth (Caritas in Veritate). He raises profound criticisms of the logics of the market and the State. Benedict, like his predecessors, rejects a total reliance on capitalism and statism as a mechanism for social justice and a moral economy. He is convinced that both of these polar extremes of economic thought create their own internal logic that either neglects the common good or denies respect for human dignity. These logics neither humanize nor advance the world’s condition. Millions still live in absolute poverty awaiting their turn for “development.” Social structures based on these models have failed. The pontiff calls for a new logic of solidarity and gratuitousness (or generosity). All peoples, especially those who witness to the Christian faith—workers, employers, government and civic leaders— must rethink the purpose of the economy. For Pope Benedict, the key is to develop people, families, communities, and the global society through structures of justice based on a worldview of abundance and gift. We are all one human family called to share with each other in a network of charity and solidarity. A moral economy requires that we change the very way we think and act from an over-reliance on markets or the state to a perspective of seeing each person endowed with dignity, working with others to build the common good of each neighborhood, nation, and world.

These two authors assert that religiosity really does matter to working-class individuals and anyone who toils, even whitecollar decision-makers. Faith is not moribund but vibrant in the world of everyday work. Bruno interviewed working-class individuals in Chicago who profess religious beliefs and are, for the most part, active adherents. He selected people from five Catholic Churches, five other Christian Churches, and several others who belong to a Jewish synagogue or Muslim mosque. His sample over-represents Catholic respondents, though he spends much time with evangelical Christians. Some of his respondents are Muslim taxicab drivers who willingly describe the challenges of maintaining their faith, such as praying five times a day, on the job. These interviews provide useful insight into these workers’ faith and understanding of work. Many believe that they have been given gifts by God to be engaged in their work; some even claimed to have a “calling” or a vocation to be a good carpenter, bookkeeper, painter, butcher, union leader, or teacher. Bruno explores how their faith helps them understand suffering and pain, the nature of salvation, and the purpose of work. The interviewees’ stories display deep reflection about their work, family, and religious life, though many claim that they do not truly understand the intricacies of theology and dogma. These working-class individuals are not afraid, however, to share their intimate faith in their God. Though they do not proselytize, they willingly reveal how their religion provides resources for resilience in their oftentimes difficult working-class lives. Many believe that God hears their prayers, guides them through periods between paychecks, and gives hope to those working dead-end jobs.

Bruno, however, seems unsure of what to make of it. Drawing on his interviews, he poses three questions: How does faith inform the lives of working-class people? How do working-class people use their faith to find meaning in their lives? What influence does faith have on a person’s daily work? He asserts that the work people do constitutes an authentic religious ministry, and the interviews show how working-class believers use their faith to inform their lives. Bruno probes his interviewees with questions about their faith life and how they think it relates to their work. He divides his questions, and structures his book, into several areas probing the relationship between faith and work: 1) human suffering and healing, 2) an understanding of what doing God’s will means, 3) the nature of obligation to others due to one’s faith, and 4) interviewees’ understanding of the genesis of work. We read stories of real people honestly trying to articulate their understanding of how their faith informs their work lives, and how their daily toil informs their understanding of God.

At times, though, Bruno seems incredulous that working-class people might express a worldview and practice informed by faith, while at other times he expresses a desire that they would be more radical in their interpretation of their faith. It is unclear whether Bruno is just listening to his interviewees’ stories about how faith impacts their lives, or if he wants to goad them into acknowledging that corporate capitalism is morally wrong and that their faith ought to lead them into more socially radical lives. Bruno concludes that many of the working-class people he interviewed sought to be “morally just” in their personal dealings with others but failed to understand how certain social structures incorporated wrongdoing in their very nature. Bruno writes that even though many working-class families are victimized by corporate structures and decisions, it is harder for them “to call the logic of capitalism or the particular market moves” (p. 217) of executives sinful. He thinks that religious working-class people should be more engaged in transforming the injustices of corporate capitalism, even though many of his interviewees did not make such a direct connection.

Bruno’s lack of a clear understanding of religious identity and theory detracts from the development of a coherent argument. His analysis of religion’s contributions (especially his treatment of the Lutheran and Catholic traditions) to a theory of labor lacks any depth or meaningful insight. Bruno provides pithy quotes from various theologians and a few papal documents, though they do not provide substantial insights into these various faith traditions’ teachings or understanding of labor. The book presents superficial theological analysis on how many faith traditions view and critique capitalism. Though he notes that he grew up Catholic, he does not display much understanding of his faith tradition’s social theory or historical actions. Despite some of these shortcomings, Bruno’s work adds to the database of how working-class people see religion as a positive force in their daily lives, reminding us that faith remains an active force.

Benedict XVI’s opus provides that integrated theoretical synthesis and critique of capitalism, but sometimes lacks the details on how these positions can be practically integrated into everyday life. While Bruno explores workers’ understanding of faith in their lives, Benedict prophetically challenges the logic of economics and its impact on the poor. Since the publication of Rerum Novarum in 1891, papal encyclicals on the economy have sought to protect the working class and their institutions in the face of unfettered capitalism. In Charity in Truth, the Church goes a step further by providing a critical analysis of neoliberal economic thought and the problems of globalization, while reiterating the need for basic protections for workers and unions.

Charity in Truth is not limited to a Catholic audience—it petitions all people of good will to avoid the pursuit of narrow, short-term economic interests and practice genuine love, pursuing the common good in our economic choices. Governmental leaders, business tycoons, stockholders, and laborers are called to reflect upon the October 2008 market meltdown and review their moral commitments to transform the current economic situation. Benedict writes: “the economy needs ethics in order to function correctly—not any ethics whatsoever, but an ethics which is people-centered” (par. 45). The Pope writes explicitly that justice abhors great disparities in wealth and that societies need “to prioritize the goal of access to steady employment for everyone.” Employment, however, needs to be “decent work.” Benedict states that such work:

Expresses the essential dignity of every man and woman; work that is freely chosen, effectively associating workers, both men and women, with the development of their community; work that enables the worker to be respected and free from any form of discrimination; work that makes it possible for families to meet their needs and provide schooling for their children, without the children themselves being forced into labor; work that permits the workers to organize themselves freely, and to make their voices heard; work that leaves enough room for rediscovering one’s roots at a personal, familial, and spiritual level; work that guarantees those who have retired a decent standard of living (par. 63).

Benedict XVI affirms the moral importance of unions as an organized voice for the working class. He challenges unions, however, to change the way they “do business” and model ethical agency. Solidarity, justice, and the common good must replace the worn-out binary logics of markets and states. Further, labor unions must be more than economically self-interested units caught in the logic of exchange. Benedict dares unions to focus more on “defending . . . exploited and unrepresented workers, whose woeful condition is often ignored by the distracted eye of society” (par. 64). This call for respecting workers’ rights and the proper role of unions dates back to 1891 with Rerum Novarum, which Samuel Gompers called the Magna Carta for labor. The Church has sometimes complicated its message pertaining to unions by providing multiple models of union action. In some cases, the Church has called for a more corporatist approach to labor-management-state ownership of businesses, which provides for a more conciliatory tone of behavior. At other times, the Church has called for the outright ownership of the means of production by the workers. Strife and conflict are typically seen by the popes as potentially dangerous, though the Church continues to defend the right to strike. The common good must always be preserved. In other instances, some Church leaders have been cautious about or opposed to inviting unions into their own institutions, though there recently has been much work developing paradigms for bargaining in Catholic-sponsored health care institutions. In Charity in Truth, Benedict clearly articulates a vision that organized labor is essential as a voice for those whose labor is forgotten or threatened. This voice cannot become self-absorbed, however; it must venture to organize and represent those left on the margins.

A major obstacle for Benedict’s message relates back to Bruno’s concern regarding how working-class people integrate their faith and work life. Religious institutions have powerful social justice messages that should impact their adherents’ worldview. Sometimes faith communities miss opportunities to engage their adherents in integrating faith with economic decision-making.

Formal educational programs and worship form the core of how religion shapes people’s understandings. Laborers or managers, who are religious adherents, can experience means to integrate their faith and work. An old adage is that what we pray is what we believe. Worship and prayer provide such an integrating force; religious events and one’s own life experience of work can mutually penetrate each other and provide resources for resilience in daily struggle and a critique of our economic reality. The personal and communal prayer to “give us this day our daily bread” is itself rich with meaning.

During daily Catholic worship, for example, the priest accepts and blesses the gifts of bread and wine transformed from natural elements (wheat and grapes) “by the work of human hands.” This repeated prayer is an essential theological insight— though not always so explicit—into how one’s faith can be integrated into daily living. These words of prayer proclaim that work is sacred and necessary.

Religious practice does form worldviews about the importance of labor. Struggle and toil can provide insight into the power of God in one’s life. Bruno and Benedict help us remember this intersection. Bruno exposes how laborers regard the importance of their faith in dealing with cosmic and daily concerns. Benedict, relying on faith and human moral reasoning, challenges all economic actors to infuse justice in the world, especially for the poor and marginalized. Though some will find these works to be foreign to them, religion remains an important resource for working-class resilience and a radical critique of economic systems. César Chávez’s witness to the power of his faith continues in the lives of many others who drive our taxicabs, clean our hotel rooms, and pick our lettuce. You see many of these faces at their houses of worship, “resting” from their labor and recharging for another day of work