Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Duty of the Employee, the Responsibility of the Employer, and Justice in the Workplace : The Business of Christian Education XLIII

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.
And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.

Ephesians 6:5-9

Even in the time when slavery was still culturally acceptable, Paul reminded Christians of his time to carefully observe a mode of relationship between masters and slaves which is proper in the eyes of God.  2000 years later, in the era that we live in today, slavery is no longer considered to be culturally acceptable in any society.  Yet we might find a stunning similarity between the attitude of masters and slaves of Paul’s time and the employers and employees of our time.  Paul wrote the passage above to the church in Ephesus.  His address was peculiar.  Commonly in Paul’s letter such peculiarity indicates that there was a problem that Paul found to be necessary to be straightened out.  In this case Paul had to deal with the slaves’ tendency to serve their masters insincerely and the masters threatening their slaves.  The main point in the above passage is to remind both masters and slaves to work and treat each other out of reverence to the Lord.  It is important to understand that both masters and slaves are
human beings and they both are created in the image of God.  Particularly, slaves are not less human than their masters.  Therefore, masters can’t abusively use their authority over their slaves.  And slaves must respect their masters accordingly.

In today’s world we have a much improved work relationship dynamics.  No longer we support slavery, for slavery in many ways degrade slaves as less than humans.  Thus we abolish slavery and no longer call fellow human as slaves.  However the relationship between employers and employees remain.  The essence of work relationship lives on.  As much as employees need employers, employers need employees.  The relationship is mutual.  They are all brought together in what we know as employment.  Work is human nature.  We are created to work.  Whether we are employers or employees, both need each other to continue life on earth.  Unfortunately, often the position of power is surrounded by temptations that are very difficult to resist.  One temptation that steals the spotlight is the exercise of power beyond the prescribed ethics.  Stepping the ethical boundary of power brings consequences that cause suffering to the ones without power.  This situation is when employers do whatever they want because of the power they have and the helplessness of the employees that are powerless and in desperate need of the employment.  For the employees, losing their employment could mean disaster to their personal life and even to their family life.  Therefore, often the employees would repress their voice and cry for justice in order to keep their work and thus be able to survive one more day.  Injustice reigns and wins when power is being abused.

On the other hand, power can shift from the employers to the employees.  Nowadays we see many demonstrations and strikes rising from employees in order to challenge the power of their employers.  Commonly the goal of demonstrations or strikes is to bring justice back to the center.  In such situation, power suddenly shifts from the employers to the employees.  The common problem with strikes is the consequences that follow a strike.  Recently, teachers of public school in Chicago demonstrated, and because of the strike many children could not go to school and parents scrambled in confusion trying to find alternative child care for their kids.  Chicago district is the third largest in the country.  Or when a strike by the factory workers in Jakarta caused a traffic jam in the toll way, a lot of things were postponed.  And often demonstrations end up in riots, which can cause social instability in the area, security and safety issue, economic downturn, physical injuries as well as psychological, and not to mention the cost of the destructions riots do to the area.  Usually before the unwanted consequences take place, deals are brokered and demands are satisfied.

Some extremely powerful and bright employers could turn the corner and even exploit such situation in order to maintain their status quo and create even more dependency from the employees to the employers.  They know what the basic need of the employees.  Strikes can only last so long.  Chaos can only be sustained for a limited time.  In the end they still need food to be prepared on the table.  They still need their life to be in order.  Strikes bring dire consequences even to the employees well being.  Thus strikes seldom last too long.  The employers who have studied this and know how to navigate through it would just wait until the demonstrators become weary.  Then they will send their negotiators to pave the way that will satisfy the demand of the people a little bit and ground for the company to benefit more from the negotiations.  In the end power is being traded.

In many cases, both parties suffer if no agreement can be made.  If suffering does not end, their survival will be at risk.  The drive to end the suffering motivates the search for a common agreement.  Paul points out that the main common agreement lies in the fact that both masters and slaves are accountable to the Lord.  The fact that humans are created in the image of God becomes the key for understanding this matter.  The idea that some people are lower or higher than other in terms of their dignity and status is not supported by the Bible.  By nature we have the same dignity and status before the Lord.  Sin creates havoc in the world that humans degrade each other in order to lift up their own status higher above all others.  That is depravity.  Streaming from the understanding that we all, masters and slaves – employers and employees, must give account to God, then the mode of relationship between the two naturally is supposed to be honor.  Furthermore, our Lord has given us a command to love one another.  Now, this command should have been put into practice.  Especially for those who profess that they are Christians.  It would be a huge embarrassment if Christians do not love one another.  It would be a failure if Christian employers and employees do not love each other.  It would be wrong for Christian employers to exploit their Christian brothers/sisters who happen to be their employees.  It would also be inappropriate for Christian employees to slack in their work, especially when their employers are their fellow brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ.  Christians should be ashamed if they don’t treat their brothers and sisters with respect and love.

Unfortunately, the world dictates, even Christians, that the main common agreement is self benefit.  The question of “How does the arrangement benefit me?” dominates the conversation in search for agreement.  At some point compromises will be made, but not in the atmosphere of love, but in the atmosphere of survival urge.  If survival urge is the sole reason for the agreement, then it is like setting up a time bomb to explode in the future.  Because soon both parties will feel inadequate with the agreement, and more commonly the less powerful party will feel the heat sooner and thus a new strike will erupt again.  When such relationship mode prevails, then a war strategy is the one naturally picked up for the basis of survival.  Workplace becomes a battle field between employers and employees.  Each feels cheated by the other.  So the culture of suspicion lives and multiplies rapidly in that context.  Such thing should not happen among Christians.  Paul instructs both masters and slaves to honor each other for the sake of God.  Both masters and slaves deserve better than each other suspicion.  Love should become the basis for the employer-employee relationship.  Then and only then justice can be established.

In a culture of suspicion, hate flourishes.  When hate flourishes, everyone doesn’t get what they deserve.  When it is so, justice fails.  In order to define what everyone deserves, we must take a look at our nature as human beings who are created in the image of God.  What is to flourish is love, not hate.  We are a creature of love, and of respect and honor.  Therefore it is imperative for masters to love their slaves as they love their own selves, and vice versa.  Employers, then, must respect and honor their employees, for it is what they deserve, and employees respect and honor their employers, for it is also what they deserve.  Such is the ideal state.  In this world, such perfection is difficult to be found.  However, the ideal cannot be reduced.  If our workplace is not yet in such state, then our imperative is to pursue that ideal through love.  Imagine a workplace where love is the atmosphere, where people respect each other, from employer to employee, where there is no injustice.  Isn’t it beautiful?  Isn’t it what God wants?  In the atmosphere of love, manipulation and exploitation are given no air to breathe.  In the spirit of love, even when mistakes are done, people will readily forgive each other, and reconciliation becomes the common goal for conflict resolution.  We will strive for dignifying each other and not humiliating one another.  Listen to the word of Psalm 133:

A song of ascents. Of David.
How good and pleasant it is
when God’s people live together in unity!
It is like precious oil poured on the head,
running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron’s beard,
down on the collar of his robe.
It is as if the dew of Hermon
were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the Lord bestows his blessing,
even life forevermore.

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