Scholars into Workers

In my opinion, one of the most brilliant (male) minds of the 20th century was Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement with Dorothy Day, another of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century, though in some circles she gets a lot of air time. Peter Maurin was a simple French peasant to emigrated to the United States and was a true prophet, a humble man who lived out his principles and ideals with such fervor. Together with Dorothy Day, he blew open the doors of Catholic social teaching, calling all people and not just the cloistered monks to live out the “doctrine of the common good” by not seeking to advance beyond the social status of the poorest among us. Their radical hospitality and simplicity has been the inspiration for thousands of Christians and Christian communities.

Maurin is the lesser known of the two in part because he never wrote books like Dorothy. As far as I know, the only works of Peter Maurin’s are his Easy Essays, a collection of his poem-like essays that appeared in The Catholic Worker newspaper for many years (and are still reprinted in some current CW newspapers). Maurin called for a “green revolution” and return to our connection to creation and not machines decades before that phrase was in fashion. He foresaw and resisted the negative consequences of industrialized labor and called for a “new society in the shell of the old.” He had such a mastery of the writing craft:

The world would be better off
if people tried to become better,
and people would be better
if they stopped trying to become better off.
For when everyone tries to become better off,
nobody is better off.
But when everyone tries to become better
everyone is better off.
Everyone would be rich
if nobody tried to become richer,
and nobody would be poor
if everyone tried to be the poorest.
And everybody would be what [she] ought to be
if everybody tried to be
what [she] wants the other fellow to be.

Absolutely brilliant. Maurin was very keenly aware that inequality in education can lead people to think that the well-educated “scholars” among us are better or have more to share than the “workers.” But he envisioned, and practiced, a radical society where the scholars “collaborate with the workers in making a path from the things as they are to the things as they should be.” “Scholars must become workers so that workers may be scholars.” The only way that the learned among us can be of any use to the world at large is if we become workers ourselves and thus have a vision to offer that resonates with our neighbor.

I think Peter would have something to say today to the way technology and computers have created a whole slew of “activists, writers, and theologians” who are “sought after speakers” (I am here referencing the obscene number of blogs I’ve seen with this in the tag line about the author.). I ask for a measure of grace from my friends who find themselves in this boat. What I’m about to say is not meant to be harsh, but is to raise some sincere concerns I have about a trend I see particularly amongst educated young white men. I worry that a lot of our Christianity is favoring the scholars but not helping them become workers, or it is “about” the workers and not helping the workers become scholars.

Here’s the trend, as I understand it:

More people are going to college these days, though certainly not everyone. Young Christians are getting exposed to more academic and sophisticated theological works, enticing them to do more studying. This is of course not a bad thing (sometimes). However, since so many of the theological conversations in the past (and present) have been dominated by men, seminary is particularly appealing to young men. In the past, the only way to be respected as a theologian was to have gone to seminary. But the “emergent” movement has thrown a wrench in this process by making it hip and cool to be a pastor having never gone to seminary, because as we all know now, seminaries are really just cemeteries for the spiritually energetic (right?). I also imagine that there are more self-employed full time speakers and authors in the 21st century than in any other period of history. Spending one’s life (starting at a young age, like Shane Claiborne) writing and speaking has become a seemingly realistic career option. (Again, let me re-iterate that I am friends with Shane and many other people like him whose ministry I support and think is meaningful) On top of all of that is the phenomenon of blogging., spending one’s life behind a computer screen coming up with brilliant thoughts to dispense to the masses. “Connecting” has never been so removed.

Are we becoming too educated for our own good? Have we become so concerned with creating work that uses our mind that we have lost the incentive or the ability to do work that uses our hands? Are many people aspiring to live a life that is nothing more than thinly veiled laziness, a life of obesity and lack of real enjoyment of God’s creation?

I pose these critical questions because the abundance of jobs and vocations that rely exclusively on technology and the Internet ought to scare us, especially those jobs that are specifically theologically focused.  I worry and wonder if it drives us further from the oppressed people we advocate for in our writing. I want to know how we can better achieve Maurin’s ideal of scholars becoming workers and workers becoming scholars.

Perhaps I am so cynical because I understand the temptation to want what seems like an easy life, just doing what I enjoy and never having to do the things I don’t enjoy. I love to write, I love to read, I enjoy speaking to groups, I like traveling, and I enjoy teaching about the Bible; doesn’t that mean I’m called to a vocation as an itinerant preacher, writer, and speaker? I’m not so sure. I don’t enjoy washing the dishes or picking up trash or vacuuming the carpet, so obviously I’m not called to a vocation of house cleaning, right?

We need more scholars who are willing to put aside what some people call privilege (white privilege, male privilege) and become the listeners and students of others. I think we need some of our prominent white male Christian leaders to step aside and let women and leaders of color have the spotlight, to become students of the very people they advocate for, to refuse to accept the stage even when offered it from time to time.

It seems to me that as much as possible, we need more people taking jobs that are actually in their neighborhoods and communities, jobs that benefit local economies, jobs that get people away from the computer. Mechanized labor and industrial farming is taking away more and more of the jobs that employed Maurin’s “workers” in the past, so we need a creative imagination to begin to bridge the gap and break free of the educational caste system being created by so-called “technological advances.”

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One comment

  1. Ethan · March 8, 2011

    Great article, Brian! Although I myself am currently working on a book, I don’t want to be a writer for my whole life. I’m attending some functions about urban farming this week, and getting more involved in stuff like that. I once dreamt of intentional communities that could have a large enough agricultural component that a few people from the streets or wherever could live and work there enjoyably. I too really liked Maurin and his ideas. I read a few of his essays.

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