Along with all of the beautiful crafts and ideas of the handmade movement comes Marx’s idea that the worker is happiest when closely connected to his or her craft. A seamstress who sews Halloween costumes infuses a sense of uniqueness into each one she completes. Is this a more human process than the one in which thousands of princess costumes are mass produced in factories overseas and then shipped to us just in time to be bought off the hanger at our local discount store?
This last weekend we went to a town festival where there were antiques for sale, men and women dressed up in civil war costumes and a working blacksmith. The smith made brooms and various metal goods. We had just enough cash to purchase one of his small hooks. It is truly a beautiful piece and my hands are happy when I hold it. I can see the smoke and feel the heat of the fire that softened the metal’s cold heart just long enough to be hammered into a permanent dance. But is it a morally superior hook than a factory made hook? The popular push is toward locally grown organic foods and hand made crafts but a recent TED talk made me rethink the guilt I inevitably face at the Target check out.
Leslie T. Chang spent several years in Dongguan, China where she befriended factory workers and learned that the story of factory life is more complex than we often portray it. Usually we imagine the factory workers as oppressed and enslaved by the system driven by our own greed for cheap goods. She suggests that instead these factory workers, although they work in grueling conditions, consider their circumstances an improvement from where they have come from. They believe that their lives are improving. Although they are alienated from their products Chang suggests that this does not matter because they don’t care about the products but do enjoy their lives. Their lives and ambitions, according to Chang, are what truly matter. And with this she dismisses our guilt and we go along happily buying the latest techno-bit and tossing last month’s into the trash. It’s almost as if we are doing them a favor.
You can see the comments on the Ted website and join in on the discussion of whether or not the factories are a good thing but I want to focus in on the idea of estrangement that she mentions. Is the person who hand makes a hook happier than the person who twists a knob or repairs a conveyor belt on a machine that makes hooks? Is the connection with the end result of our labors an essential part of being human? Did the industrial revolution dehumanize us? Even before factories there were jobs that seemed mechanical and that looked in vain for the result of the labor. The purpose of factories was after all to give us more time and energy to enjoy the fruits of our labors. I don’t work in a factory but I feel very estranged from the end result of my labors – respectful adults who enjoy their own lives and contribute to the well being of society. I am always changing diapers, wiping up the floor AGAIN, putting away the dishes AGAIN and let’s not even mention the laundry.
According to the Genesis narrative this is the curse of labor. (Gen 3:17) When man and woman sought a life apart from God’s ways their work became difficult, repetitive and meaningless. Before the fall work had been meaningful and beautiful – a means of fellowship with God and each other.
Reading William Morris’ “News from Nowhere” I am struck that we all truly want the same things. We all want peace and harmony and joy in our work. We want the pleasure and confidence of our own skills and the joy of sharing them with others. Morris’ book is a Marxist utopia which describes a happy land with no government and no currency where everyone lives at peace and enjoys the beautiful work of their hands. The only question is, how do we get there? Sometimes we feel this peace and joy but we inevitably run into conflict, abuse, neglect and shame. How can we get to peace? Morris refers to some terribly bloody revolution in the past that had to be gotten over in order for his utopia to arise.
The prophet Jeremiah suggested that too often we treat the wound of our sorrows as if it isn’t all that serious. (Jeremiah 6:14) Our grief in our labor is not merely the result of our circumstances. We hope that factories will ease the difficult work of the laborer or that hand crafts will bring joy to the technologically weary. There is nothing wrong with either solution but neither will bring us true peace. Morris and others in the past have thought that perhaps all that’s needed is a brief revolution. But no manner of surgeries can revive a dead man. The bitterness of our wound is that we are estranged from our Creator God who is our life. True peace is only found in the person of Jesus Christ who died to take on the punishment of God’s wrath and lives again to bring us life. He meets us wherever we are: in the office, the studio or the kitchen. We may feel that we are slaves to our circumstances, our decisions or our boss but he calls to us, “Come unto me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
Christ can reconcile us to God the Father. We were not designed by our creator to be slaves to other men, or to machines or to our own bodies. We were designed to serve God. Serving Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the only way the workman can truly feel the pleasure of his labor.
“Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not as for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favoritism.” (Colossians 3:22-24)