It would certainly be a shame to stand up at your retirement party and say, “Now that I’m retiring, I can finally do something useful for the Kingdom of God.” Such pronouncements relegate the kingdom aspects of daily work to something tangential to the mission of God. What if, in an alternative vision, we view our formal education and careers as honourable activities—not simply because work is good, but because those activities are weapons in the fight against poverty and injustice? Sadly, many Christians miss the fact that not only is daily work a part of God’s plan to redeem creation, but it is also one of the most profound ways to promote human dignity. In our imperfect world, God uses the marketplace as a primary social means of distributing human dignity and peace.
Let’s start with two important definitions. By “marketplace,” I mean the space for free and open exchanges, activities, and mechanisms that function to contribute to the common good—in other words, goods, services, ideas exchanged between parties, groups, individuals, spheres, and nations. By “justice,” I mean sustaining contexts so that human beings are treated according to what it means to bear the image of God (Genesis 1:26-28): anticipating others to have a divine calling on their lives. The marketplace, then, is the most effective long-term theatre for the flourishing of justice, because it provides sustained opportunities for the experience of what it means to be a woman or man made in the image and likeness of God.
The Bible teaches that poverty is a result of people’s choices and structural injustice (Proverbs 28:19; Isaiah 10:1-2). But the solution to poverty, regardless of its cause, is much more clear. One the one hand, there is a need for equality under the law and the moral formation of the culture so that the products brought to market are in accordance with virtue; on the other hand, people need to be free to engage in the exchanges that allow them to meet their needs and those of others. If we survey the economic history of nations, we find a repeated pattern: the only long-term and sustainable solution to poverty is employment. Neither charity nor government aid programs create the conditions that unlock and sustain human potential in ways consistent with the God-designed vocation of being a human person.
Understanding the marketplace as an agent of social justice depends heavily on a Christian understanding of the integration of work and human dignity. As noted in Genesis 2, work is not only ordained by God, but also provides a life-giving opportunity to be truly human. In Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul II explains that “through work man must earn his daily bread and contribute to the continual advance of science and technology and, above all, to elevating unceasingly the cultural and moral level of the society within which he lives in community with those who belong to the same family.” The teachings of Christianity remind us that work is one of the characteristics that distinguish man from the rest of creatures—plants and animals do not work.
Moreover, work has a number of social functions. Work is good not only because human persons transform creation, but because we are fulfilled as human beings in community with others. Through work, we not only use creativity and rationality—we also grow emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually in our self-understanding of what it means to be a human person who is connected in the workplace, community, and nation in order to make contributions to the common good. In other words, work is more than simply the activity of performing certain tasks. Work is where we learn what it means to be human in solidarity.
Because work is so central to meeting a variety of human needs and the demands of justice, business—as the theater of work—takes on an entirely different meaning. By its very nature, business serves a social justice function, providing men and women opportunities to work so that they can be fully human while meeting their needs and making contributions to the common good. As business meets society’s needs through the production of useful goods and services, it creates wealth for society at large—not only from owners, but workers and customers as well. The creation of wealth provides liberation and economic empowerment for those on the margins, enabling them to be full participants in solidarity of economic life. Moreover, the marketplace creates a community of work and mutuality that encourages coordination, cooperation, and interdependence.
Marketplace leaders, then, have grave responsibilities, because they lead in creating and sustaining employment opportunities that provide platforms for the expansion of human dignity. Without marketplace leaders fighting poverty through innovation and culture-making, societies suffer. Human initiative is squashed and the poor remain economically and politically disenfranchised. Teachers, parents, doctors, pastors, bus drivers, and the like are necessary actors in forming, shaping, and sustaining healthy and virtuous members of the marketplace as entrepreneurs, innovators, and others open up opportunities for new applications of human dignity.
If you want to fight for social justice, you needn’t only work with a non-profit; your daily work is the mission of God. Social justice non-profits certainly do good work, but we ought to work toward a society that has no need of them. We want societies that allow the marketplace to fulfill its calling, sustained by a culture of virtue, so that all can experience the power of being made in the image of God—and so that, at your retirement dinner, you can reflect on the privilege of making of contributing to human flourishing as you transition into new ways of helping people understand what it means to be truly human.