Geoff Tennant - Promoting access to mathematics for all
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29/1/17: Christian living (6): in the workplace

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord,
not for human masters
Colossians 3:23

Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.
Attributed to Francis of Assisi

When I was considering coming to work for the Aga Khan University I was worried about the potential conflict of living as a Christian working for an organisation with its roots in Islam, and came to the conclusion that there would be no more conflict than working for a secular organsation as I had been previously.  In fact, I have been proved wrong in the opposite direction.  So leaving aside the occasion I taught 200 Ugandan secondary headteachers a children's Christian song (see this blog post), I quote verses from the Bible in making particular points, not least, "Do not let the sun go down on your wrath" (Ephesians 4:26) as an alternative wording to 'Keep accounts short' when setting up communication channels in sorting out problems as they arise - and that seems entirely accepted.  As far as I can make out, our Muslim students like the fact that I have a clearly articulated Christian faith, and appreciate efforts eg. to ensure a prayer room whilst building work was going on and so limiting the space available.

And one other instance I'd like to tell you about.  I met a Muslim friend and colleague over the Easter weekend one year, who said, "Happy Easter!  But is that the right thing to say?  Because I thought Easter was a time of mourning", so opening up the chance to explain the difference between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  There are times when being here in Tanzania is absolutely brilliatnt!

So, in looking to live as a Christian in the workplace, what are the implications?  Colossians 3:23 above would teach us to be conscientious, hard working and honest - doing the work we do as for our Almighty God is setting a high bar!  Whilst one might reasonably expect employers to be sympathetic when particular issues come up, in the normal run of things this means ensuring that our personal lives, including Christian activities, do not conflict with the time and effort our jobs require to do them to a high standard.  I was once at a training meeting for mentors working with other members of staff when one of the other participants talked about the problem of dealing with a member of his team who consistently turned up to work exhausted because of Christian activities going late into the evening and on into weekends, and I was not impressed!

I am very aware that the nature of the jobs that I have done over the years, mostly in schools and Universities, mean that there are not the conflicts which some people face.  The worst I've had has been feeling uncomfortable when sexual ethics issues have been in discussion in the press. Well, crumbs, in the greater scale of things, that barely registers, does it?  Working in a University as an academic member of staff mean that we have challenging work with its own rewards, so that the culture of working rather more hours than are strictly required does not seem especially cumbersome - and means there is a bit of leeway when needing to take time out of the working day.

Of course, there are some jobs which present direct conflicts with a Christian faith.  So, for example, it would be difficult to see how a Christian could reasonably be working as a receptionist in a brothel.  But other jobs may bring more subtle conflicts - taking more stationery from the cupboard than is necessary with some finding its way home, applying undue pressure to close a sale, a culture of gossip which crosses the line from professional concern for others.

Time to return to Colossians 3:23.  Let me paraphrase it very freely: what would you be doing if our Lord Jesus Christ Himself were physically present?  Once you have answered that question you know what to do.  Straightforward?  Yes, I suggest.  Easy to implement in practice?  No, it may not be. What consequences are there here?  Losing face in the eyes of our fellow workers, being overlooked for promotion, maybe losing our job?  In Matthew 16:24 Jesus said, "Take up your cross and follow Me" and this would seem to be an occasion where this teaching directly applies, trusting in our Lord God that He will look after us.

There is another side to all of this.  As a keen PhD student I read Max Weber's classic 1930 text, "The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism".  The argument is complex and it's a while since I read it, but in part I think it's fair summary of the book to say - when Christianity is new in societies it often appeals mostly to people in low economic and social circumstances (see how many qualifiers I am sticking in here to cover myself!).  I understand this continues to be true in the Indian subcontinent, where a strong caste system operates, with Christianity offering opportunities to people in low castes which are not otherwise available.  But because of Christian teaching encapsulated in the verse above, people who become Christians are conscientious, honest workers which in time means that they are eligible for promotions, so over time there is an upward shift in the social circumstances of Christians more generally towards the middle classes.

The extent to which churches are racially and socially homogeneous is a point of interest to me and one I have tried to explore a little, when I have the time and energy I want to return to it.  But for those of us privileged to lead relatively affluent lives it is important to remember the concern we see through the Old and New Testaments for the poor and oppressed, and to consider how we as individuals and churches can show the love of Christ in this important regard.

2 Comments to 29/1/17: Christian living (6): in the workplace:

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David Mansergh on 31 January 2017 17:42
Hi Geoff, thanks very much for another helpful blog post. The quote from St Francis reminded me of a comment from someone who said they would like to strangle him for saying that - using hands if necessary! While our lives should be consistent with the gospel, I think they were suggesting the gospel needs to be explained with words for it to be understood. It is exciting to hear about your new plans - I hope that all works out well. Best wishes, David.
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Geoff on 31 January 2017 23:22
Thank you, David, great to hear from you. I didn't want to get into this in the blog itself, and covered the doubt as to exactly what St Francis did say by 'attributed to' which is of course true, St Francis was not saying that we shouldn't use words (too many negatives here). Currently pondering my next blog post, the starting point is what God said to Isaiah in Isaiah 6 after the famous, "Here am I, Lord, send me." so watch this space! Hope to see you shortly, meanwhile, very best wishes, Geoff

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