I think from the time I was a child I could intuitively sense that there was something wrong with the world. As a teenager this sense and understanding was expressed through the energy of hardcore punk music. I began to calm down as I moved out of those teenage years and came to understand more deeply that there was something wrong with the world and that it could be explained through the use of theological categories. The problem was sin and we human beings are sinners, easy enough. I took comfort and solace in learning such things. But now what? Along with the typical Gospel statements that Jesus took care of the problem of sin through his death and Resurrection came the doctrine of vocation. The understanding was that God was now at work through the lives of his people in the various roles and occupations that they fulfill whether father, son, student, auto-mechanic, cashier and that it was all going somewhere; that it was all purposeful.
What always made me a little uneasy about the doctrine of vocation is that, in my experience, it is often used as a legitimizing force for the world as it is. More specifically, for the world as we know it as 21st century Americans. Instead of actually lifting the veil (this is what apocalypse means) to see what’s going on behind it all, we simply take the veil to be the ultimate reality assuming that God gives his approval of it because it’s there.
But is that really so?
Or maybe the better question to be asked is,
“Is this what we were made for?”
When God created human beings did he do so with the intent that we would one day be cashiers or bartenders or scholars or data entry specialists? Or is there something more integral and more primary to our creation and thereby our vocations? In other words, when a friend of mine says to me that he hates his job, that he is miserable working in a cubicle all day, is there a deeper reason for the way he and many in his situation are feeling? Or do I just swoop down and sweep his feelings away by telling him about what Luther says about his vocation? That because of Christ he is now free to do his work with the understanding that it’s all going somewhere in this wage economy.
While we are quick to legitimate and even validate the way in which we order our lives we don’t seem to be asking the deeper questions. For instance, like whether or not the way in which we’ve ordered things in the first place is at all problematic. This becomes even stranger when we take the time to actually look at the Scriptures which we claim to hold so dear. Embedded within them is a constant condemnation and subversion of the world we human beings have created. It’s not the hardworking farmer who does what is expected of him who is acceptable to God but rather the lackadaisical and creative shepherd. This is but a symbol and microcosm of the life of empires from Egypt to Babylon to the United States versus that of a small and basic people like Israel (notice how upset God got when they tried to be like other nations) and the indigenous tribes throughout history. It’s the difference between understanding that creation is here to be exploited, controlled, and ruled over versus stewarded, taken care of, respected and lived in harmony with. Christians in the West have overwhelmingly fallen on the side of the former, failed to note the value of the latter and the doctrine of vocation has only served to legitimate this. Notice the words of Gene Veith on vocation:
“When I go into a restaurant, the waitress who brings me my meal, the cook in the back who prepared it, the delivery men, the wholesalers, the workers in the food-processing factories, the butchers, the farmers, the ranchers, and everyone else in the economic food chain are all being used by God to “give me this day my daily bread.””
Quite romantic, isn’t it? In many regards that’s part of the problem. While in one sense this is fine, well, and good he fails to note the deeper malady that is driving this very system wherein we are all connected. It’s also a bit out of touch. For the most part, gone are the days of butchers and ranchers and in have come the scourge of factory farming. Having worked in the restaurant industry it’s a tough job that can be quite demeaning and wearing. I don’t think such an endeavor is what we were created for (remember, this is key, what we were created for). Not to mention that much of what drives our economy is the result of the exploitation of those who live outside of our borders in Third World countries. But, you know, it’s all working together for good, right?
Just a few nights ago after taking my girls to play at a Barnes and Noble (how fitting, right?) we passed more than a few Shell gas stations on our ride home. Just last night I read about how Shell Oil, in regards to their activities in Nigeria in the mid 1990s, stated in a memo, “Shell operations still impossible unless ruthless military operations are undertaken for smooth economic activities to commence.” After this ruthless military operations commenced with activists and protesters (Ogonis) being murdered. Shell got their oil. As one Shell Nigeria spokesperson stated, “For a commercial company trying to make investments, you need a stable environment; dictatorships can give you that.” The stories like these are numerous and the U.S. government has often supported such endeavors whether by way of our own military (a vocation which is greatly respected by the church and LCMS Lutherans in particular) or by our very own covert ops (CIA). I guess at this point, it’s all gravy anyway. We’re blessed, those people aren’t, well sort-of, right? After all, God used them to bring me my daily bread, right?
I write this in large part because I am currently wrestling with the way in which we order our lives in 21st century America. We have become so fractured and individualized much of which is the result of modernization. While we reap the benefits of technological advances in positive ways there’s also a malignancy behind such advances. In order to have the good life someone somewhere is often being exploited and oppressed. As Friedrich Engels said, “We should never forget that our whole economic, political and intellectual development has as its presupposition a state of things in which slavery was a necessary as it is universally recognized.”