Faith, Sin, and Seeking Justice in the Lives of Working-Class Men and Women

In his new book, Justified By Work, sociologist Robert Bruno shows us that religious faith matters for the working-class men and women of Chicago-area congregations-Christian, Muslim, and Jewish–by infusing their lives with meaning, shoring up their sense of identity, and providing them with a charter that gives them no alternative but to act justly in every sphere of life. The livelihoods of these men and women continue to be subject to the devastating effects of workplace injustices. While some might define these injustices as sin, many of the workers Bruno interviewed generally did not. Perhaps because of this, they tend to refrain from taking up some form of social action against workplace injustice.

Bruno unabashedly lays out for readers the place, meaning, and power of religious and moral concepts in the everyday lives of these working-class believers. In “Missing God’s Best” (ch. 3), Bruno highlights the faith concept of sin. Resisting the temptation to tidy up his data, he reveals instead the confusion and the ambivalence working-class believers feel in defining sin and extending its scope beyond the personal. They end up bifurcating moral wrongs into the category of personal sin or that of secular and nonpersonal injustice. “Somehow devout believers could readily describe a corporate act as unjust, not right, and not fair or appropriate, but still not sinful. They were not, however, so ambivalent about their own personal behavior” (105). “Conceptions of sin are deeply personal. Sin is subjectively felt” (114).

Justified By Work primarily is about how working-class people think about and use faith to find meaning, though it also examines whether faith-particularly naming and responding to sin-is a key determining factor behind social activism. The respective Jewish, Muslim, and Christian charters give their adherents no alternative; they demand followers to seek justice actively (Micah 6:8). Bruno’s working-class adherents believe this with all their hearts, but, in the case of Christian congregants, for example, “only a fraction (9.4%) have ever participated in anything that remotely resembles an act of social protest” (80).  He adds, “With few exceptions, congregants of all faith traditions responded to employer injustice more like bystanders than followers of Christ, Allah, or Hessham” [sic] (92).

What stands in the way of acting justly in the workplace? Some possible explanations include:

1) The socially divisive factors of race, class, ethnicity, religious denomination, and gender can inhibit workers who suffer the same injustices from coming together and acting for their common good.

2) The fear and potential costliness of confronting big, wealthy, and powerful employers and the institutions that serve them.

3) The American core value of individualism often results in hurting the individual workers who tenaciously cling to it.

4) The “idea of an ‘institutional sin’ or ‘sinful context’ was alien to most of the working-class believers [Bruno] spoke to” (111).

5) The tendency “to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”-that is, to acknowledge authority even when it acts against one’s own interest.

6) The working-class conceptions of God and their theology of justice. Trusting that a just God will bring justice in his own way and time may keep believers from acting on their own. Still others believers prefer a merciful God to a God of justice.

Yet there is another possible explanation to consider: If believers follow the general culture by viewing sin as those intentions and actions judged as wrong by God but largely accepted by society, as is the case with many injustices in the workplace, then perhaps workers may be reluctant to define these actions of companies and bosses as “sin.” If shrinking wages, poverty, homelessness, lack of health care, and disappearing retirement funds, for example, are categorized as injustices but not sins, does this somehow remove the obligation to act? Workers are conflicted about this.

Finally, is Bruno moving beyond communicating how workers view sin to suggesting that sin can serve the social sciences as a useful analytical term that covers all the moral failings of everyday life-including the sphere where working-class men and women spend most of their waking hours and which affects the length and quality of their lives? To redeem this term for interdisciplinary discussion, it is helpful to know that what has been translated from the biblical languages of Hebrew and Greek into English as the word sin were the words or phrases of everyday life that were used to say something about moral failures involving human relationships. (see Robert Priest,”Christian Theology, Sin and Anthropology”).

Robert Bruno offers another way that the conceptual barrier between sin and injustice can be taken down. Rather than desacralizing the concept of sin, as proposed above, or, better, alongside such a desacralization, the labor of working-class men and women can be undertaken as sacred or religious. If work itself was sacralized and, even more, treated as having a part to play in the process of salvation (e.g., “faith without works is dead”) or building God’s kingdom on earth, would people of faith be more likely to respond actively to workplace injustices?

Paul Gordiejew

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One Response to Faith, Sin, and Seeking Justice in the Lives of Working-Class Men and Women

  1. Reading the New Testament, which abounds in exhortations to do good work, I’ve often felt that Luther’s “justification by faith alone” has been taken out of historical context and in a direction that he himself probably wouldn’t have favored – a Christianity that sometimes seems to turn into a kind of spectator sport for the spirit in which Christian cheer Christ’s accomplishment while focusing on leading safe and comfortable lives.

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