Is work irredeemably secular? – part IV

Continued from part III

The Methodist story gives us a vision for responsible work and broad social action, but we may still wonder today—and this is our third question—(3) how we can work faithfully while also while actively pushing back against those parts of our organizations and sectors that are unjust, or immoral—that is, that harm rather than hurt people? Where are the Christian resources that can help us act redemptively within unredeemed systems?

One Christian leader who armed others for such redemptive action was the late-Victorian American Congregational pastor Charles Sheldon.

It’s a Sunday morning near the end of the 1800s, in the comfortable upper-middle-class “First Church” in the town of Raymond, somewhere in the Midwest. Halfway through the service, a tired, sick homeless man walks into the church, up the aisle to the front, and begins to speak. He wonders aloud why there is so much trouble and misery in the cities when their well-off Christians sing so much about consecrating themselves entirely to God. “It seems to me,” he says, “there’s an awful lot of trouble in the world that somehow wouldn’t exist if all the people who sing such songs went and lived them out. I suppose I don’t understand.” Then he asks, in that now-familiar phrase: “But what would Jesus do?’”

This is a novel – in fact, the most popular novel in early 20th-century America. It is called In His Steps, and it was written by the aforementioned pastor, Charles Sheldon. As the story unfolds, the fictional minister, shaken by the homeless man’s words, challenges his congregation to try, in every part of their lives and especially their work, to ask the unfortunate man’s question, “What would Jesus do?”

In the action that follows, Sheldon explores how such a practice would change people’s working lives. His congregants are journalists, longshoremen, doctors, singers, businesspeople, schoolteachers, and more. Each finds elements and situations in their work that demand redemptive responses. Each agrees to pray and seek the Spirit, asking: “What would Jesus himself do if he were me, now, in this job, or this social situation, responsible to these people I serve?” Each then tries to act on what they discern from that prayer—sometimes at great personal and professional cost.

Who was the man behind this perennial classic? Sheldon lived from the Civil War to the Second World War (1857 – 1946). He grew up in Dakota Territory, in a log cabin he helped his preacher father build. From the time he could hold a hammer, he loved the daily toil of the homesteading life—and this birthed a lifelong affection for folks who worked with their hands.

Pastor Sheldon combined the progressive theology of the social gospel with a warm-hearted, Christocentric attention to individual salvation—two emphases that would soon be torn apart in the liberal-fundamentalist schisms of the 1920s. The legacy of that contentious age has been a church divided into two camps: one—now called “evangelical”—identifies the Christian life and mission almost entirely with the Great Commission to evangelize and make disciples through powerful preaching and event-based ministry. The other—the progressive “mainline”—takes as its mission the Greatest Commandment to love God and neighbor, and interprets that commandment through a program of social action and justice activism.

But today, no-one who cares about the meaning of the Gospel for material and social life can afford to ignore the holistic testimony of the pre-schism American Protestant church—and Sheldon represents the best of that holism. In his first pastorate, in Connecticut, no area of human work and flourishing seemed unworthy of Christian action – he worked tirelessly to help small businesses, the local newspaper, the town library. He took up a collection for a town hearse. He worked with a doctor to find the cause of a typhoid epidemic, which turned out to be the closeness of the town’s pigpens to its wells [again quite timely – a classic example of Christians “following the science”]. Unfortunately, a conservative element in that church felt all of this attention to the daily needs of the community was highly irregular in a pastor. They began blocking his efforts, and just two years into his pastorate, Sheldon was forced out.

His next stop was a church in Topeka, Kansas. As before, not everyone in his new flock was thrilled with Sheldon’s insistence on addressing daily life and work. For his whole 50-year ministry there, even as he galvanized his church’s youth and wrote the novel that would inspire millions, many older congregants resisted his message that to serve Christ is (as Gregory the Great would have said) just as much about what we do to help others in concrete ways as it is about supposedly “spiritual,” churchly activities.

In the “Gilded Age” of the 1870s—Sheldon’s formative teens and twenties, monopolistic industries little interested in the welfare of their workers were growing and sprawling across America. Workers typically put in long hours in poor conditions, earning only enough for bare survival. Soon enough, they began to lash out. When, in 1877, wage cuts were announced in Baltimore and Ohio, a wildcat strike spread, causing riots and looting, suppressed by vigilantes and militia.

The dislocation, bewilderment and suffering of those whose traditional rural and small-town life had been uprooted by mechanization, urbanization, greed, and corruption was intense – a national calamity. Soon, in the 1890s, economic depression returned.

Sheldon wanted to see the effects of the poor economy and unfair labor practices first-hand—as well as the genuinely Christian ways his congregants were living out their vocations. So he began, as he called it, “boarding around.” For one week at a time, he ate, talked, and worked and even stayed in the houses of congregants from eight different Topeka social groups: streetcar operators, college students, railroad workers, lawyers, physicians, businessmen, newspaper men, and—fatefully—the large community of dislocated Americans of color who lived in a shantytown on Topeka’s edge called “Tennesseetown.”

At every step and in many workplaces, Sheldon confronted the effects of the Fall. And In His Steps pours out all that he saw, portraying faithful Christians pushing back against this fallenness in their own places of work. The editor of the town paper decides not to run reports of a prize fight, and discontinues the Sunday edition, at great cost to the business. The supervisor of a rail yard discovers fraud in the rail company and reports it, at great expense to himself as he is demoted down the ranks. A leading merchant redesigns his business to give his employees more say in its operations and a share in its profits. Various characters, including a young seamstress and a young carpenter, put their skills to work in a “settlement house,” a turn-of-the-century social-gospel institution founded to provide social services to the urban poor. A wealthy businessman closes a lucrative saloon on his property and gives the land to the settlement house.

How can Christians bring redemptive influence into broken work situations? In His Steps does not offer all the answers, but it provides models for confronting systemic evils, while not pulling punches on the sacrifices such actions may require.

2 responses to “Is work irredeemably secular? – part IV

  1. Pingback: Is work irredeemably secular? – part V (final) | Grateful to the dead

  2. Pingback: Is work irredeemably secular? – part III | Grateful to the dead

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