Christine Jeske on How We Misread the Bible on Laziness

Christine Jeske is a professor of cultural anthropology at Wheaton College. She is the author of three books, including the forthcoming The Laziness Myth (Cornell).


In 1997, Anthony Cooper was working two jobs and barely getting by. “I would work almost 24 hours straight, go take the kids to school, go home, get some sleep, and go and do it all again.” His two jobs—at a pizza restaurant and a warehouse—provided just enough income to rent an efficiency apartment in Madison, Wisconsin. “My kids slept on one end; I slept on the other end with my futon.” As an African American man with no high school diploma, coming out of a two-year prison sentence, better jobs weren’t easy to get.

With the United States hitting record low unemployment rates in recent years, it might seem that anyone—with perhaps a little prayer, patience, and perseverance—could find good employment. But employment rates don’t tell the whole story.

In the past two decades, even as more Americans have found jobs, those jobs have become less likely to be long term, full time, and matched to people’s skills and education. The trend toward underemployment and disappointing work certainly impacts college graduates. But it hits especially hard for many people of color and for those who are differently abled, have an incarceration record, lack higher education, or live in economically depressed regions.

Before meeting Cooper, I’d worked and conducted research among nonprofits in South Africa that were trying to help people find good work. Some of the organizations used Scripture in their trainings. The founder of one organization, emphatically tapping his fingers on a table, summarized his group’s message with these words: “The whole Bible is about hard work.” He recited a proverb about laziness, a story of Moses making plans, and the fact that Paul sewed tents as evidence that hard work is the key to success. As he talked, my mind turned over his words. How else might a Christian have ended that sentence? The whole Bible is about—grace, maybe? Or God’s love?

I met Cooper through a mutual friend soon after I returned to the United States, and recently we grabbed coffee. He has had many jobs since his pizza-baking days, including recruiting employees for a national company. Today Cooper serves as the vice president of strategic partnerships and reentry services at the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development in Madison, where he leads support groups, meets with potential employers, and every year supports dozens of people through employment challenges.

When I asked Cooper how he might finish the sentence from my past interview, he suggested, “The whole Bible is about community.”

Challenges aren’t distributed equally

Individuals in society don’t face the same challenges. The man who saw the whole Bible as being “about hard work” was a white male raised in an upper-middle class Christian household with family members, role models, employers, and teachers who trusted and supported him. Hard work may have seemed to advance him economically, but others work equally hard with different results.

Cooper’s mentees come from a different side of society. Consider one man who came to the Nehemiah Center after serving a 12-year prison sentence for sexual assault. His parole agent required him to wear a GPS ankle bracelet and seek permission to accept any job offer. “I’ve been denied for so many jobs,” he told me. “A basketball referee job, a parking lot attendant job—anything with a leadership role.” I asked what reasons the agent gave, and he shrugged. “You never know. If it’s a job with a living wage, seems like they’ll probably deny it.”

He is hardly a unique case. Discrimination according to class, race, incarceration, and what Cooper calls “the good old boy system” is widespread. Numerous studies have found that white job candidates are more likely to get hired than African American candidates, even when white candidates have lesser credentials. The late sociologist Devah Pager, researching in nearby Milwaukee, had black and white actors turn in identical resumes for jobs, some listing an incarceration record and some not. Even when white candidates listed incarceration records, they were more likely to get call-back interviews and job offers than black candidates with identical credentials and no prison record.

Such discrimination contributes to median incomes among black Americans that are 34 percent less than the national average. Employers who hold implicit, unacknowledged prejudices skew their views of the quality of work employees perform. “We can be doing the exact same thing, exact same speed, exact same everything, but yet you’re still looked at as less than,” Cooper said.

How opportunities diverge

Inequalities along the journey to employment begin long before a candidate drops off a resume. Schools with the lowest percentages of white children are staffed by less-qualified teachers with lower salaries and fewer resources. And higher education costs money, which black and brown families are less likely to have. The average net worth of households headed by white Americans is ten times higher than households headed by black Americans. Hispanic and Native American households fare little better.

Recent books and media coverage have drawn attention to scholarly research demonstrating how these inequalities grow out of a long history of stolen assets and opportunities—from the centuries-old confiscation of Native American lands and the enslavement of African peoples to the more recent exclusion of people of color from the
GI Bill and affordable home loans. Yet the idea that the plight of the poor is largely due to their lack of hard work remains stubbornly pervasive.

The laziness narrative has roots at least as far back as the European slave trade, when the capture and possession of other humans as property was rationalized in part by the warped ethics that forced labor made better, less lazy people. I’ve seen this documented in sociological research on South Africa; justifications for slavery and crushing manual labor abound in colonial and missionary documents of the 19th century.

Yet when many Christians talk about poverty today, they often continue to overlook unequal inclusion and resource access and instead turn to blaming laziness. Sociologists Jason Shelton and Michael Emerson analyzed a 2006 survey that asked Americans to choose explanations for the income gaps between African American and white people in the United States. More than half of white Protestants chose the response “because most African Americans just don’t have the motivation or will power to pull themselves up out of poverty.” Only 26.5 percent choose the option “mainly due to discrimination.” (African Americans choose responses in nearly the opposite percentages). Shelton and Emerson found that white Protestants were even more likely than whites in the general population to blame poverty on laziness.

Like most Americans, I grew up hearing that hard work is essential for success. What I didn’t hear, though, is that hard work isn’t the same in all circumstances, so it doesn’t have the same results. My white parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were not excluded from neighborhoods, schools, or jobs on the basis of the shade of their skin. They passed down to me the economic rewards of increasing home values, years of education and job promotions, as well as the optimism that comes from being in a racial group that is given the benefit of the doubt again and again. While I heard messages confirming that racism is wrong, there were also plenty denying that race really mattered. That combination can leave people with the false assumption that hard work is the sole determinant of success. From there, it’s an easy leap to believing that inequalities must be caused by some internal flaw among marginalized people.

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Source: Christianity Today