In 1873, German philologist Lorenz Diefenbach published a novel, “Arbeit Macht Frei.” The phrase translates to “Work Will Set You Free.”
While the 19th-century novel tells the story of gamblers and fraudsters finding virtue through labor, the phrase was adapted by the Nazis and used as propaganda during World War II.
Nazi SS Officer Theodore Eicke first placed the slogan above the entrance to the Dachau concentration camp. It was quickly added to other concentration camps, including the notorious Auschwitz.
In the book “The Kingdom of Auschwitz,” author Friedrich Otto offered this assessment of the phrase: “He (Eicke) seems not to have intended it as a mockery, nor even to have intended it literally, as a false promise that those who worked to exhaustion would eventually be released, but rather as a kind of mystical declaration that self-sacrifice in the form of endless labor does in itself bring a kind of spiritual freedom.”
The last line of Otto’s statement caught my attention: “a kind of mystical declaration that self-sacrifice in the form of endless labor does in itself bring a kind of spiritual freedom.” That sounds a lot like the mythological doctrine of the Protestant work ethic.
As Labor Day approaches and Americans prepare to celebrate the virtue of working hard, I started questioning the Protestant work ethic’s contribution to the worship of work in today’s capitalistic society.
Does work set you free? Does our labor give value to our personhood? Or is all this a facade tricking us into believing work will provide us with true happiness?
In 2022, Microsoft reported on its survey of 20,000 people. Here are some of the key findings:
- People are working more than ever, while leaders—already worried by macroeconomic decline signals—question if their employees are being productive.
- Microsoft found that the number of meetings per week had increased by 153% globally for the average Microsoft Teams user since the start of the pandemic, and there is still no indication that this trend has reversed, suggesting this peak could become the new baseline.
- 42% of participants multitask during meetings by actively sending an email or ping—and that doesn’t include practices like reading incoming emails and pings, working in non-meeting files, or web activity.
- 48% of employees and 53% of managers report that they’re already burned out at work.
While Good Faith Media has not conducted any official surveys, we can report that many clergy are leaving the profession due to burnout and congregational conflict. Clergy, like their secular counterparts, are suffering under the mythology of the Protestant work ethic.
The Guardian reported in 2021 that “the roots of this phenomenon can be traced back to the ‘Protestant work ethic’ in the 16th Century– a worldview held by white Protestants in Europe that made hard work and the quest for profit seem virtuous.” Much of what is currently understood as the Protestant work ethic can be traced to two significant reformers in the 16th century: Martin Luther and John Calvin.
While Luther advocated for grace-centered salvation, he was highly critical of monastic life. In a strange juxtaposition, Luther found the monks’ emphasis on a faith based on works lacking. He contended the work-based system actually led the monks to a faith dependent on charity. In other words, it made them lazy.
However, the theological juggernaut that solidified the Protestant work ethic in the minds of Europeans was John Calvin. According to Max Weber, it was not economic interests that solidified capitalism in America but Calvin’s doctrine of the elect.
According to Francis Fukuyama, writing for The New York Times, “Calvin’s doctrine of predestination led believers to seek to demonstrate their elect status, which they did by engaging in commerce and worldly accumulation.” While this may be an oversimplification, the notion has some truth.
Humans are inclined to vie for superiority over their fellow humans. If work can be defined by its monetized value, humans can then be classified by their value within an economic system.
If everyone buys into work being the standard of value, then a system is created for humans to find their worth through their labor. Unfortunately for the unconstrained capitalist, this idea goes against the teachings of Jesus.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus shares the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20). The parable is familiar: A landowner hires workers for his vineyard. Throughout the day, he hires more and more workers. When it’s time to pay wages at the end of the day, the landowner pays each worker the same amount.
This, of course, infuriated the workers who labored for the entire day. In their minds, their worth was tied to their amount of labor and they should have been paid more because they worked more. But Jesus has the final word: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Work neither offers a person value nor sets them free; only the truth can accomplish that goal (John 8:32). Therefore, as Americans gather this week to celebrate Labor Day, let’s do so with the right attitude. Let’s do so knowing that our worth is not tied to our jobs or wages.
Our value is determined by the reality that we are children of God made perfectly as God intended. Our value is in our relationships with our Creator and fellow humans.
Our value is through the heavens because you are a work and labor of love!
CEO of Good Faith Media.