Work and Alienation
Old Testament Perspectives on Contemporary Experience
by Erskine Howcroft


The preacher’s role may be seen as one which first of all articulates the rage and alienation of the congregation and then responds with God’s word - a word that brings healing and peace amid a situation of unrest.[1] Qoheleth was a preacher who did precisely this for the instruction and moral benefit of the community of believers.
Moreover the preacher whose hand lies behind the Book of Qoheleth, or Ecclesiastes, is a prophet in the true sense of the word. Today, just as in Old Testament times, the role of the prophet is to diagnose the objective nature of the world around us and alert the public to its imperfections, even when this includes a reference to current religious expressions. Many religious people find it uncomfortable when religious custom or overvalued religious practices are subject to a critique. Yet the prophet’s role was, and remains, to protest and call the children of God toward an alternative reality. Qoheleth represents the apex of Old Testament protest literature.
Over the centuries religion has attempted to explain and offer a more reassuring view of the world around us. Religious leaders down through history have sometimes served their people badly by encouraging accommodation to the prevailing realities. At times they have blithely ignored or denied the actual impact of those realities upon the poor, offering a faulty analysis in place of a valid explanation for the distress and unhappiness experienced by so many. In short they have failed to tell the truth.
Qoheleth does not offer this service. Three centuries before the birth of Jesus pious people held a common belief that God rewarded the good and punished the wicked (9.2-3). But Qoheleth casts doubt on this kind of “orthodoxy”. While accepting that the commandments of God lead to righteousness he is attentive to the silence and apparent absence of God. In this respect Qoheleth articulates the experiences of many ordinary men and women whose only awareness of God has been as nothing other than “that great absence in our lives”.[2]
Cruel fortune, sickness and random violence are all features of modern life. Whether all this was more prevalent three hundred years before the birth of Christ is a moot point, but at that time the poor were certainly more exposed to sickness and pain than they are today. The tension and mental weariness which pervades the whole book of Qoheleth is never dissipated. However the poor have always witnessed the triumph, in earthly terms, of corruption, and I suspect that - just as today - ennui and a sense of overwhelming futility, the key note of Qoheleths lament, were the common reward of daily work.
The contemporary experience of work
Nearly twenty five years ago at a time of mass unemployment a new Scottish musical duo articulated the expectations of youth about to join the world of work. They sang: “Getting handouts can be so frustrating, get in line son there’s five million waiting”.[3]
This year there may be a few more jobs around but in a sense there is nothing new under the sun. Another Scottish band on the popular music scene is articulating the alienation felt by many youth of working age. They sing: “It’s always better on holiday/so much better on holiday/that’s why we work when/we need the money, but for chips and for freedom I could die.”[4]
It seems that in the last few decades working class youth have had had very little to look forward to. This isn’t surprising because in Britain today a large proportion of the workforce is employed in forms of occupation which offer little sense of reward beyond narrow financial terms.
In towns and cities throughout the country it is heartbreaking to see older men and women painfully out of tune with themselves, humiliated into wearing the gaudy uniforms of fast food firms or bingo halls or standing in supermarket malls with a microphone in one hand and a soft toy in the other. For many, such is the experience of work in modern Britain. For some proud men it turns out to be the final sorry chapter of a career that may have started forty years earlier with the reward of a craftsman’s apprenticeship.
The New Labour government have made it explicit that there is no longer any excuse for not accepting low paid work. This diktat has become a tenet of the “Third Way”. Consequently thousands of workers facing the withdrawal of welfare protection are being compelled to take on dangerous work in places like docks or on demolition sites. Whether it’s the gangmasters sending asylum seekers to their deaths on the sands of Morecambe Bay or the Gatos in the favelas of Brazil forcing the poor to work at gunpoint, the mechanisms are just the same and the fault lies in the objective working of the capitalist system.
By way of what should be seen as very conservative figures The International Labour Organisation estimates that across the world there are 250 million workplace accidents every year, leading to 335,000 fatalities. This only underlines what is increasingly obvious: that the experience of work for so many is either psychologically damaging or physically harmful.
In the least developed parts of the world one can only guess at the number of casualties and anonymous fatalities suffered by the workers forced into dangerous work. These are the workers that bear the brunt of Western appetites and desires, processing raw materials, handling toxins, doing heavy, dirty, noisy work.
Back at home it is estimated that psychological stress affects at least 50% of the current work force in Britain. One feature of the job market in Britain and throughout the world today is the telephone call centre boom. Millions of workers, mostly temporary casual labour, are employed by these organisations, ostensibly established to optimise our experience as consumers. In conditions akin to those experienced by battery hens, the workers experience an atmosphere of continual stress, total surveillance even to the point having their toilet breaks timed by stopwatch.
In Britain at the turn of the 21st century the Blair Government could boast about the relatively few days lost at work through industrial action compared with the 1970’s. Yet the truth is that compared with the 1970’s the number of days lost at work through sickness has increased at an exponential rate and working days lost through stress have reached astronomical levels.
Job insecurity and widespread casualisation of labour are the end result of the globalisation of production. Some observers have pointed out the rise of a new form of slavery.[5] One feature of the new slavery is that once the slaveholder has used up his assets they can then be simply disposed of.
And this is a phenomenon which is not just restricted to the so-called developing world. It is estimated that there are at least three thousand household slaves in Paris. In the UK the experience of feeling disposable will be familiar to thousands of workers in the North East, South Wales and the tens of thousands of civil servants in all parts of the country who will soon loose their jobs in the interests of “rationalisation and modernisation” of the global market place.
Even in the last half century many workers had a sense of contributing through their labours to the common good. But pride through work, a sense of local and national solidarity and other aspects of job satisfaction that flowed through being part of a national enterprise is a rare experience today.
It has been remarked that only allegiances involving mass appeal such as football or an interest in popular music provide people with the same and essential sense of communal belonging that was once derived from association with unions, church or progressive political movements. Union association is at half of what it was at the height of the miners’ strike twenty years ago. Even without reference to church involvement or political affiliation it is clear that compared with previous generations individual horizons have contracted.
Ironically this is at odds with what many actually believe about themselves. Young people boast about having “been there, done that, got the t-shirt” yet despite their faux internationalism and breadth of experience most are simply unable to identify themselves beyond their latest DIY project or the confines of their own family.
A key to understanding
So in the light of all “the tears of the oppressed and no one to console them” (Qoh. 4.1) how do today’s workers answer the questions which any reflective soul asks from time to time: “what is the meaning of life?” and “there must be more to life than this”? Is there a key to understanding that we can borrow from scripture and tradition? The answer is: of course. As ever, from scripture and tradition we can form a Catholic perspective on the world of work.
An obvious point worth making here is that Catholic tradition with its roots in sacred scripture does not stand aloof from the experience of ordinary working men and women who find themselves trapped within the machinations of the capitalist system.
However, although there are no easy answers offered by the preacher, the tension and mental weariness which pervades the whole book is never dissipated. The author seems sometimes to labour under the weight of a realisation that evil is all around him. (3:16-19.) Qoheleth stands as an ally for those souls overwhelmed by the sheer pointlessness of it all. It is scripture which reflects all the trials and twists of human existence. The preacher asks, “for what reward does man work, live virtuously, and act justly?” Toil and material acquisition are seen as futile.
In what is probably one of the most beautiful passages of the Old Testament Qoheleth conjures up the trials of old age: madness, regrets, mental weariness and maybe worst of all loss of faith:
When strong men are bent double…, When the first cry of a bird wakes you up..., When going uphill is an ordeal and the Mourners are gathering in the street. Sheer futility. (12:3;4;5;8.)
The book recommends itself to all those in society who find themselves dislocated and disillusioned with life, left feeling empty with current religious expression and alienated by shallow attempts to add meaning to the often random, arbitrary, cruel and brutal nature of our existence.
Catholic social teaching from Leo XIII’s letter Rerum Novarum, on the condition of the working classes, through to Pope John Paul’s many social encyclicals have contributed in no small measure to the objective diagnosis of social reality. The universal theme of alienation is clearly identified in Laborem Exercens (1981) and the point is made very clearly throughout all Catholic social teaching that the interests of the working class cannot be served by a system in which production is organised for the benefit of a privileged minority.
So a key to understanding is offered by Catholic tradition but the mystery of existence is never solved. Qoheleth warns against the dangers of relying too heavily upon closed theological systems as a security. Qoheleth is pessimistic about there being any meaningful pattern to life at all. Even the pursuit of wisdom is seen as a dubious endeavour bringing no apparent advantage in life (2.12-17.)
Meaningless injustice has always been a feature of life and the enigmas that Qoheleth confronts have never been resolved. After long searching Qoheleth finally concludes that we should take from God whatever blessings come our way with thankfulness. The author, exemplifying Antonio Gramsci’s optimism of the will but pessimism of the intellect, sees life as a gift from God, urging the reader to make the most of life’s opportunities and enjoy its pleasures while they last. (11.8.)
For Christians the book can serve as a powerful reminder of what life can be like without the centrality of Christ. In Qoheleth there seems to be an insurmountable void between the contingent experience of the individual and the divine reality. As in the Song of Songs the distance between the beloved and the loved one is felt as deep pain. With the grace of faith and hope it is still possible to acknowledge God as the gracious Lord of creation, even in the midst of human suffering.
“…And he showed me more, a little thing, the size of a hazelnut on the palm of my hand, round like a ball. I looked at it thoughtfully and wondered, ‘what is this?’And the answer came, ‘It is all that is made’. I marvelled that it continued to exist and did not suddenly disintegrate; it was so small. And again my mind supplied the answer, ‘It exists, both now and forever, because God loves it.’ In short everything owes its existence to the love of God.”[6]
Without the mind of Christ that sees all things, even the smallest, as resting in the Father’s hands we will easily fall prey to frustration and anger. So there is an answer, and that is given in Jesus.
Christ has conquered the power of death which seems to render the whole of life’s activities senseless. It is he who will fill the vacuum that exists between our earthly experience and the Father's ultimate plan for us.


Notes and References
[1] Walter Brueggemann, Finally Comes the Poet, Fortress Press 1989.
[2] R.S. Thomas, "Via Negativa", Collected Poems, J.M.Dent. 1993
[3] The Proclaimers, Cap in Hand, Capitol Records, 1988.
[4] Franz Ferdinand, Jacqueline, Universal Music Publishing, 2004.
[5] Kevin Bales, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, University of California Press 1999.
[6] Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, Penguin Classics 1984.