• The Precarisation of Life and Work and Alternatives from the Biblical Perspective

  • By Barbara Rauchwarter | 22 Oct 09 | Posted under: Theory
  • “The labourer’s Appetite Works for Him” (Proverbs 16, 26)

    A consideration of the biblical concepts of righteousness/justice and shalom/peace and of the climate of neoliberalism which sharply clashes with them prompted the members of the Ecumenical Council of Churches in Austria (ÖRKÖ) to publish a joint Social Mission Statement.1 The approach used in its preparation followed liberation theology’s three steps, which are “seeing – judging – acting”: To begin with, the perception and social practice of active groups and organisations in communities and institutions were surveyed. More than 500 equally weighted statements had been published in the 2001 Social Mission Statement and handed over to parties, the parliament, faculties, and the media. The feedback and resulting discussion clarified which topics should be published in the actual Social Mission Statement, released in 2003.

    What Informs people and their biographies

    In the first place, the Statement is meant as an analytical positioning and self-commitment of the churches, but also specifies tasks and responsibilities for society and politics. The list of topics comprises areas of life which fundamentally inform and influence human biographies: education, the media, relationships, living environment, work, economy and social security, peace with justice, justice worldwide, and future sustainability – responsibility for Creation. The Social Mission Statement allows Christians to refer to it and to seek support for their convictions. Work, economy and social security ought to be in the service of life. Paid labour is evaluated in a differentiated way, with women still earning up to 30 % less than men in many areas for the same work. The concept of work being reduced to paid labour is questioned and challenged (166).2 Forms of precarious work mentioned are flexible part-time and trivial jobs, temporary agency work, contracts for work and services and pseudo-independent work, all of them subsumed under the term of atypical employment relations (168) and disproportionately affecting women and immigrants. Maternity leave rarely permits women to return to their former workplace. Single mothers are drawn into a kind of downward spiral despite or because of childcare allowance. Almost all people concerned belong to the category of “working poor”. It becomes obvious: poverty is female3 and poverty makes you ill (170). In the most recent social report of the National Bank of Austria, the number of persons forced to live below or at the poverty line is already much higher than the number cited in the Social Mission Statement. In Austria today 235,000 persons live in poverty-stricken homes, the rate of risk of poverty for working single parents has doubled to more than 32% as compared to 1999. The current data presented in the social report are an inducement to energetically implement the watchword “from Social Mission Statement to social action”. Economy has to mean more than the market (190) and political decisions have to be aimed at the common good as well as counteract the unequal distribution of income, property and participatory opportunities (191).

    Therefore the churches want to struggle for a further criterion to become relevant in economic policy decisions which accounts for the social, gender and environmental picture. They also advocate a solidaristically organised protection against central life risks and are contemplating an unconditional guaranteed minimum income. They warn against abandoning the allocation system in favour of insurance that depends on investments in capital and in stock markets (219). The churches speak in favour of an active welfare state, for valorising nursing allowances, and they advocate guaranteed access for all to basic utilities such as water, energy supplies, public transportation and education and healthcare. Starting from the foundation provided by the Bible, Christians are invited to walk together on the road from Social Mission Statement to social action.

    In a worldwide process

    The ecumenical Social Mission Statement of Churches in Austria has to be seen in a larger context. Originally, ecumene referred to the inhabited world. Almost from their very beginning, Christian churches saw themselves as part of a spiritual globalisation. But it was not until the end of the 19th century that the narrowness of nationalism and confessionalism was recognised. Gradual approaches were made by the churches of Orthodox and Protestant orientations to speak with the different denominations – the self-conception of the Roman Catholic Church had in any case always been that of a world church –, a process which led in 1948 to the foundation of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Amsterdam with headquarters in Geneva.

    Nowadays, most of the churches of the South, but also those of Eastern Europe, enjoin the churches of the North with ever more insistence to share their point of view and experience, and to recognise their entanglement in behaviour and ways of life contrary to God’s will. In numerous statements and papers, the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC), the Conference of European Churches (CEC-KEK) and the World Council of Churches (WCC) called their member churches to join this process. Trondheim, Winnipeg in 2003, Accra in 2004 and Porto Alegre in 2006 all were critical discussion forums for the international alliances. In Accra the World Alliance of Reformed Churches went so far as to declare the problem of neoliberal economic policy an issue of faith. This means, it is a matter of a belief held by the entire church, not an individual concern. In Germany during National Socialism the Confessing Church adopted their confession of faith – the Declaration of Barmen – as a response to the situation. With this declaration the church told Christians quite clearly that those not following this declaration could not be members of the church. In 1986, the Declaration Criticising National Socialism of Barmen prompted the members of the WARC to publish the so-called Confession of Belhar as an answer to the Apartheid regime in South Africa. In it the signatory churches declared that Apartheid was by no means only a political or social problem, but contradicted basic elements of Christian belief and therefore needed to be declared a sin. In Belhar this led to the exclusion of the South African Reformed Church from the World Alliance and thus contributed to overcoming the Apartheid system.

    “We recommit ourselves to reflect on the question of power and empire from a biblical and theological perspective...,” – these were the rather unsatisfactory closing words of the “call to love and action” adopted by the representatives of churches gathered at the 9th assembly of the World Council of Churches in Porto Alegre in 2006. There the foundational position paper was the comprehensive AGAPE-document (“Alternative Globalisation: Addressing People and Earth”) adopted in Geneva in 2005, which had been especially popular and much discussed by grassroots church groups. But the argument around the term “empire”, for instance, cost the WCC the sympathy of the powerful Evangelical Church of Germany. Even the first encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI uses the term of “Agape” to convey the required reaction to the scandal of exclusion of the largest part of the world population from a good life. The most recent encyclical (issued in July 2009) focuses on the term “Caritas”. Again and again it becomes obvious that the institutionalised churches, tied down by relative wealth and arrangements with political leaderships, are not able to develop decisive solidarity with sister churches whose resources and influence are limited. In the end, analyses, appeals and above all an inflationary use of the word “love” is all that remains. Nowhere was a unanimous decision or unanimous attempt made to find a way to change the scandalous division of the world.

    The Bible as a source of faith

    If you start reading the Bible, the interest can be a literary one, but it can also be more profound and lead you to interrogate the texts in relation to the question of God. Faith attributes the greatest possible authority to God. But therein also lies the danger of concealing massive self-interest “in the name of God”: there are texts which explicitly want to justify domination of humans over humans. The point therefore is to differentiate. Bert Brecht’s “Questions of a Reading Worker“ may be helpful here:4 “Caesar defeated the Gauls. Didn’t he have at least one cook with him?”

    In the Bible cooks do get to speak. The socio-historical interpretation of the texts has largely been by-passed by theologians who are above all interested in dogmatic sentences. If you try to link economic questions to these contents, a discussion will be refused, often by referring to how particular the societal relations were at the time: agrarian and slave-based economic systems of a patriarchal character. Now, does this mean that the biblical references are utopian or even just fictional and idealising? Utopia seemingly plays a role, when God aligns himself with the oppressed and degraded people. But exactly this partisanship of God’s with those at the bottom would be a basis for faith: for Judaism the story of the Exodus is a text that remembers this partisanship; the incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth, asserted by Christians, emphasises this partisanship, this “inter-esse”, God’s “being-among” in the depths of human existence. A theology which separates this aspect from the sense of God’s omnipotence is therefore highly questionable.5

    The very fact that the biblical texts refer to a society structured by slavery would seem to assign a socio-historical place to them. The conception of God is defined ex negativo in relation to slavery, namely as liberation from slavery. God’s acting in the story of the exodus from Egypt, the “slavery-workhouse”, is definitely described as one of liberation and caring. The climax of Exodus is God’s covenant with the people at Sinai, which was sealed with the donation of the Torah (literally, “directive”) – a body of laws. The Torah is the Holy Scripture of Judaism and has become part of the canonical text for Christianity as well. In the first commandment of the covenant, God commits himself once again to the liberation of his people, “I am JHWH, your God, because I guided you out of the slavery-workhouse from the land Egypt.”6 The Ten Commandments broach the issue of work in the sense of the Bible: the Israelites should not work for other Gods.7 In the commandment to observe a day of rest (Sabbath) a commonly shared area of free space from work is radically opened up. The diverse reasons for this – in Deuteronomy 5, 15 again the motif of liberation, in Exodus 20, 9-11 God’s rest after the Creation – link together liberation theology and creation theology.8

    So God himself works, too. In principle, this idea connects labour with a creative, productive element. God’s rest, in which he wants to involve humans as well, is acompletion of, not contrast to, labour. Unlike the ideal of leisure in the ancient world, the aim of the biblical utterances is not liberation from work/labour but liberation from the compulsion to work.

    The Torah lays down laws of a general character for society and economy, which outline God’s will regarding a life in freedom and make it possible for man to enjoy the fruits of his labour (Isaiah 65, 17 ff.).

    Economic law prevents the impoverishment of the generations to come and wants to protect human work and its fruits from the grasp of others. The required measures are directed against a reality in which exploitation is the rule – then as now. The Commandments are, so to speak, signed with God’s name, with the additional clause “who has led you out of the slavery-house of Egypt”; the Commandment on the protection of the stranger adds “remember that you were a foreigner in Egypt”. Memory becomes the pedagogic model for strengthening man’s empathetic capacities, which is the precondition for solidarity. All these commandments want to facilitate a self-determined life and to protect people from abuse of power. The group which was in greatest danger was seen as the “widows, orphans and strangers”, whose vulnerability was particularly great, being without the protection of the extended family in a system of injustice. “Vulnerable people” is also the term used for these people by UNICEF today. In the name of God, many legal texts grant them particular privileges: the Poor Laws of the Torah guaranteed survival through payments from the tithe (Deuteronomy 14, 28), which was collected in a box into which everyone had to pay. 10% is a high tax; ATTAC would be happy with a Tobin Tax of 0.5% to fight hunger on earth. The right to glean fields of grain, olive groves and vineyards provided a kind of unconditional basic income (Deuteronomy 24, 20-22). Another way of protecting vital interests was the lien: the person concerned decided himself or herself what he or she could do without; moreover, it was prohibited specifically to pawn millstones or outer wear.9 These provisions make it clear that decisions were not made top-down, but that law was made in the interest of the under-privileged, by restricting the avarice of the privileged. God takes their side – not to comfort the underprivileged with a good hereafter, as was often represented in Christian religious history, but God ties himself to the question of the causes of poverty which must be looked for and found in the here and now. In the Bible, social justice is not a category separated from the relationship to God; rather there is no such relationship without the law and without justice.10

    “Justitia” and “shalom”

    That is also the meaning of the criticism of society and culture in the Prophets. In the Bible, justice is a central idea but contrasts sharply with the ancient conception of “iustitia”, the allegorical presentation of which confers “the law”, with blindfolded eyes, scales and a sword, apparently to everybody, no matter what the person’s social status was. The Bible refutes the Aristotelian motto of “To each his own”11, which attributes rights according to achievements and merits. The biblical counterpart to “iustitia” is “shalom”, peace, which does not only mean the absence of a war, but “contentment” in the sense of “to each what he or she needs”. It is exactly this importance and meaning given to the free unfolding of human life, which is at the bottom of Johan Galtung’s definition of structural violence. “Violence is present when human beings are influenced in such a way that their actual physical and intellectual realisation are below their potential realisations.”12

    To each what he or she needs: this is the theme of numerous Biblical tales about providing food, the model of which is the tale of manna in Exodus 16: sufficient food in the desert.13 “Bread” nourishes the desert people. There is plenty of it, you can eat your fill. For the Israeli society of dearth this means elementary happiness. Only in an affluent society would “having enough and plenty” be used pejoratively: I have had enough of it, I am fed up with it … The Bible reminds us that it is possible to be full of life and to die fulfilled with a satisfied life. What is forbidden is to stock up reserves. Thus what is being spoken of here is a socialist bread, in any case a democratic one.14 The right to have enough for your personal needs is more than the principle of equivalence in tax law – more than the principle of distributive justice in the current economic logic: it reflects the reality of God’s benevolence, it is the practice of the law of mercy in the Torah.15 Like the WHO, the Bible assumes that there is basically enough for all human beings and it perceives the reasons for poverty: in bypassing or bending the law, lobbyism, corruption, exploitation, suppression or even murder. 

    Labour and capital in the ancient world

    The majority of the population lived from agricultural work, which was carried out by peasants and characterised by reciprocity and subsistence. They produced what was needed for day-to-day survival. The only way of obtaining big estates was by expropriating the peasants. The top of society could only achieve this if they disobeyed the Torah, and so it happened that about 2 % of the population controlled 50 % of all wealth. Today, similar property relations can be found not only in the countries of the so-called “Third World”, but in highly industrialised countries as well. The social pyramid with the concentration of power and property in the hands of a few and their clientele on top and an ever broadening base of people in absolute poverty at the bottom was the same in biblical times as it is today.

    For most people, work meant paying back debts and working for others. Thus they formed a cheap human mass to be manoeuvred about. In most cases, incurring debt led to debt bondage. Before a man was forced to sell himself as a slave, he usually sold his wife and children. The slaves – about one third of the population in the Roman Empire – were used for very different jobs: hard, physical labour, worst probably in the mines. They were also used as sex objects. Sexual slavery and child abuse were the rule, not the exception. Sslaves did also have privileged jobs as legal advisors, as teachers, scribes, etc. In spite of this they had no or very few rights and were not regarded as persons in their own right but as objects. The slave market was supplied by Germania and Ethiopia, among other areas, mostly with prisoners of war – men and women, abandoned children and victims of kidnapping. As persons, slaves enjoyed no rights or protections. Nevertheless, the interest of their owners was directed at preserving their labour power. After all, they were a valuable investment and could therefore count on accommodation, food and clothing.

    As today, the criteria for social stratification were property, income and the subsistence level. The possession of goods was highly valued, while agricultural labour was not. Manual labour and skills – even those of artists16 – did not qualify for upward social mobility. The more surprising it is that God himself is often presented as artisan, as potter, weaver, bricklayer, metal worker or caretaker of a vineyard.

    Merchants, artisans and some small farmers lived in relative poverty. The Latin words for “poor”, such as “pauper”, “egens”, “miser” or “humilis” do not only refer to wretchedly impoverished persons and beggars but also to the somewhat better-off artisans and dealers, who doubtless were poor when compared to the rich, possessing classes.17

    The living conditions of free wage earners, so-called day labourers, were the hardest. Also women and sometimes even children belonged to this social stratum. They could hardly call anything their own and for an agreed wage performed any kind of physical work. As today, women were those most exposed to existential danger. Besides looking after the household and raising the children, they also worked on small farms and in artisans’ workshops, but without being a member of a family dominated by their husbands all that was left to them was begging and prostitution. In the sources, the prices paid for the services of a prostitute are extremely low: a quarter of a denarius. From this we can conclude that there must have been a great number of them.

    The economic doctrines of the ancient world are exclusively addressed to landowners who very rarely lived on their estates but preferred the more luxurious life in the cities. In his work “Res rusticae”, Varro (116-27 B.C.) recommends the landowners “to have their land when situated in bad areas worked by day-labourers, because this is more advantageous than to have the work done by slaves, and even for better areas it is more advantageous to have day-labourers carry out the hard work in the fields such as harvesting fruit, gathering grapes or doing other harvest work.” Cato (234-149 B.C.) recommended not employing a day-labourer longer than a day,18 because the supposedly poor nutritional situation would so weaken the day-labourer after one day of hard work that he could no longer be used efficiently. The usual payment of one denarius was sufficient to feed a family of four or five with bread for one day. Since hired labourers could usually only get work on a piece basis – during harvests and for building projects – survival was very precarious. They were supposed to put up with flexibility and mobility, which caused the breakup of their social environment – family and village community.

    The instruction to pay wage earners their wage on their day of work (Deuteronomy 24, 14 f.) was intended to counteract the apparently established practice of employers. The hard reality of day-labourers’ lives is broached in one of Jesus’ parables (Matthew 20, 1-16) where he contrasts it to God’s realm which is characterised by benevolence: even at the end of the day men are prostituting themselves for work on the market square hoping to be employed for one hour and getting the same wage as long-term workers. This, and the fact that the owner of the vineyard acts so generously, are the unusual aspects of the tale. The long-term workers protest against being levelled down in that way (Verse 12). The parable pleads for solidarity and wants to prevent privileges of rank. The appeal to God’s benevolent love requires the participation in a community of solidarity without envy. How destructive, even deadly, envy and selfishness are – that is what the famous text on Cain and Abel warns us against, a text which in the Bible stands at the beginning of the history of humanity.



    1. http://www.sozialwort.at
    2. The numbers refer to positions in the Social Mission Statement
    3. E.Katschnig-Fasch (ed.) Das ganz alltägliche Elend. Begegnungen im Schatten des Neoliberalismus, Wien 2003 p. 19
    4. Bertolt Brecht: Kalendergeschichten, Reinbek 1983.
    5. See the criticism of domination in Jotham’s Fable, Book of Judges 9, or the First Book of Samuel 8, the Magnificat in Luke 1, 46ff and in the Books of the Prophets.
    6. This explanation is missing in the Lutheran catechism.
    7. In ancient oriental religions, the service for the gods mostly was a motif for the creation of man.
    8. Jürgen Ebach: Menschsein mit nicht durch Arbeit. Zum Thema „Arbeit“ in der hebräischen Bibel. In: Th PQ 152,3 (2004), pp. 275-283.
    9. Without millstones there was no flour for baking bread. Outer wear was also a blanket for the night.
    10. J. Ebach: In den Worten, und zwischen den Zeilen: Eine neue Folge theologischer Reden, Wittingen 2005 (= Erev-Rav Hefte: Biblische Erkundungen 6), p. 86.
    11. Aristotle, Rhetoric I.9.7 (1366b). That these word were also written above the gate to the Buchenwald concentration camp should make us think twice just as the words “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work Brings Freedom”) were cynically inscribed above the gate of Auschwitz.
    12. Johan Galtung: Strukturelle Gewalt. Beiträge zur Friedens- und Konfliktforschung, Reinbek bei Hamburg, 1975, p. 9). The term “structural violence“ corresponds to “structural sin”, which is a necessary extension of, and supplement to, the Christian dogma of original sin and which is, in my opinion, not sufficiently reflected from a theological and practical point-of-view. 
    13. Manna is the nourishing product of the scale insect from the tamarisk tree. 
    14. L.u.W. Schottroff: Die kostbare Liebe zum Leben, Bibl. Inspirationen; München 1991 (=KT 104) p. 35.
    15. In his translation of the Bible into the Gothic language, Wulfila rendered the word “Erbarmen” which in Hebrew has the same root as “Mutterschoss (“Mother’s womb”) as “Ab-amen”
    16. In order to enhance their prestige, the rich endowed works of art.
    17. Ch.R.Whittacker: Der Arme in: A. Giardina (Hg) Der Mensch in der römischen Antike, Frankfurt/New York 1991, pp. 305 ff, p. 313 quoted according to E. W. Stegemann, W. Stegemann: Urchristliche Sozialgeschichte, p. 88.
    18. L. Schottroff: Die Güte Gottes und die Solidarität von Menschen. Das Gleichnis von den Arbeitern im Weinberg in: Der Gott der kleinen Leute: sozialgeschichtliche Bibelauslegungen/ ed.. W. Schottroff und W. Stegemann , Munich , vol 2 NT 1979, S. 71-93, p.75

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