Several weeks ago I read an article that continues to haunt me. In the article, Walter Brueggemann reflects on the interactions between the Egyptian pharaoh and the Israelites at the time just before the exodus. He took note of the fact that one of the ways the pharaoh oppressed the Israelites was over time to make them do more and more with less and less. At first the straw was provided to make bricks. Then in what sounds like a 21st century cost-cutting measure, the Israelite slaves were required to make the same number of bricks, but now also get their own straw. In the story, the demands continued to grow until they simply could not be met. Moses intervened with the call to action, “Let me people go.”
Over the past several years, I’ve shared many meaningful pastoral moments with people listening as they tell me what they do for their work and how their work is going. Work is somehow very basic to what it means to be human. Quite a few of those pastoral moments have uncovered frustration with the corporate downsizing movement that sounds eerily like what the pharaoh imposed on the Israelite slaves – to do more and more with less and less.
Like a conversation a couple of weeks ago when 30-something guy, working in the corporate world, father of an elementary and a preschool child, told me that he heads off to work in the morning just as his kids are climing out of bed and generally works until past 7 at night and rarely gets home in time to have dinner with his wife and kids. Over the past several years, his unit has laid off people and simply transferred the work to those who still have jobs. He doesn’t like it, but has simply accepted it as the way it is.
The story is replayed over and over; only the company-specific details change. And while few like it, the prevailing refrain is that it’s just the way it is and in this economy, they’re just happy to have jobs.
But I wonder a couple of things. Having a job is a good thing, even a necessary thing. Having meaningful work brings satisfaction, not to mention keeping a roof over the head and food on the table. But is having a job the highest good? When do we step back and reflect on whether a particular job is robbing us of the more basic intangible things that bring meaning and satisfaction. What happens when putting food on the table is in direct conflict with the even more basic calling to be in relationship with spouse and children? What will it take for those who work in the American corporate culture to collectively rise up and say, “You are exacting too high a price on things that are most basic to my humanity. I will not give you anymore.” And whose job is it to go to the nameless and faceless pharaohs of our culture and say, “Let my people go?”