Karl Marx and I Would Not Be Friends

Not just for the whole “religion as opium for the masses” thing, although I’m not really down with that.  I like a lively disagreement as much as the next person—perhaps more, actually.  And no, I’ve not read The Communist Manifesto, but I recently edited a manual on ethics.  That counts, right?

It’s more for the fact that I am the perfect product of Western capitalism driven by the Protestant work ethic with an unhealthy dose of Eastern European fatalism.

Being a teacher/student, my year runs from August to May.  The summer is sort of a no-man’s-land, a drifting place where the shock of not having to read four books a day meets the wonderment of being able to watch TV without simultaneously grading.  It is also a time of either under-employment or no employment whatsoever.  There are some who think that academic types treat the summer as a vacation; not really true, and I say this as a teacher who’s the daughter and granddaughter of teachers.  Summer is often a time of stretching things, of setting up a new schedule.

For right now, summer is a time of being a bit useless.

There is so much buried in the idea of work in this Great Experiment of these United States.  I grew up hearing all the time about this God Who helps those who help themselves, about the merits of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps (although, in the handful of times I’ve owned boots, they had no straps I was aware of), about the shame of falling to The Welfare Class.

When I took a class in college on Dickens and Eliot, my classmates felt it was outdated material.  I had no trouble with it.  I know exactly what class distinctions are.  One part of my family has spent a good chunk of its existence trying to prove that they can rise through the ranks from being immigrants to being Somebodies.  Four or so generations later, I’m not sure we’re anybodies yet, but there is still that push to try, to earn, to Make Yourself Useful.

The thing of it is, being unemployed right now seems to bother no one but me, but boy does it bother me.  It’s not just the worry about monetary stuff; as a grad student, that’s kind of an ever-present companion.  (Sorry, ancestors, for talking about money in a public place.  Extra shame.)  It’s more that I listen to my friends talk about going to work and how much they have to get done and I feel so freaking lazy.

I’m not.  Not that I have to justify myself to you, I realize, but even in not being employed I have tons of stuff to do—beginning to write my lectures for the fall, trying to get a couple of classes together to lead in the summer, catching up on my reading list, working on a cross-stitching project I need to have finished, and all of the little things that fell through the cracks of being super busy when I was working.  Objectively, it’s kind of fantastic being unemployed; there’s so much to be done, so much paperwork to get through.  I can help pick up the little things friends don’t have time to do, I can actually finish the books I’ve been reading since Christmas that have nothing to do with medieval studies—I can start looking at seminaries and the possibilities therein (no, I haven’t started yet.  That idea makes me too nervous yet).

But subjectively, in this crazy mindset I’ve built through years of Being Useful and not wanting to be a Social Loafer, a Tax Drain, I get up in the morning and feel so damn worthless.

I totally get the guys who drink at two in the afternoon to forget that they’re unemployed, and I’ve only been out of work for a month.  (It’s more the nothing-in-front-of-me that I get wrapped around.)  There is this concept that we—that I—have no value independent of external contribution to Society.


I don’t even need Interpreter’s direct stare or Watchful’s adamant denials or Magister’s quiet support to know that this isn’t true (although I’m sure I’ll get some mixture of each).  What has the past year (lifetime) of fighting been for if not for such a time as this?  How many times do I have to have God tell me I’m loved, do I have to look at my tattoo of the word, until I can divorce the concept from earning anything?

I was listening to an old dc talk CD the other day, Jesus Freak.  It’s a fantastic album, and just as searing now as it was when I bought it in an effort to out-Christian my stepmother in middle school.  I was listening to it to see if I want to keep it, because I’m purging my CDs like I can’t purge other parts of my life right now, and two phrases in particular hammered into me.  In In the Light, they insist that “all I want is to be in the light.”  Yes.  True.  I do want that, and that alone—what need have I, then, to seek validation from paid work if I am trusting that God uses me as He needs?  And in What If I Stumble (which is a powerful song for me on so many levels at this point), the refrain constantly asks, “Will the love continue when the walk becomes a crawl?”

Yes.  Praise God, it will continue, it is promised to continue, on the days when I don’t feel useful, on the days when I don’t have anything to say to God, on the days that I don’t want to answer the friends who don’t know not to ask if I have to work when they want to make plans.  God is still around, even if I’ve pretty much not been.  He’s listening, though I’m not talking.  He’s loving, though I’m not working.  My value is wrapped up in His concepts of things, and He was around long before the first paycheck.


We did not eat anyone’s food without paying for it. In fact we toiled and laboured night and day to avoid being the slightest expense to any of you. This was not because we had no right to ask our necessities of you, but because we wanted to set you an example. When we were actually with you we gave you this principle to work on: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.”  (2 Thess. 3:8-10, Phillips)

6 thoughts on “Karl Marx and I Would Not Be Friends

  1. treegestalt says:

    So you’ve read about as much actual Marx as I have… and you aren’t even pretending to know what he was about. I was thinking of inviting you to the Bible study blog I’ve inherited (Everybody else got busy after I arrived) but hey, I’d like comments to be about what’s there, not just about how you’re feeling this morning.

    There’s a real economy out there, and it’s chewing people up. Marx didn’t exactly have a handle on how life works — but he did catch on to the fact that the economic game was rigged (as Adam Smith also observed) and that this led to unacceptable suffering (as Jesus also observed.) What’s work-ethic got to do with Dives & Lazarus?


    • I do actually know more Marx than I use here (mainly through people influenced by him and ethical philosophies using him as a starting point), but the caricature makes a good set-up for what the West is.

      There is a real economy out there, and I think we (especially the We of Christians, but also just We of citizenry) need to engage that. The economic game has always been rigged because there is something inherently uneven about wealth, but then we (here being the Christian We) are also following a God Who talked about money a lot and had some very definite views on how to deal with it. Dives and Lazarus had a lot less to do with the accumulation of wealth or with work ethic than with the recognition of other humans; money is simply one of the best indicators of differential status. Understanding the foundation of relating to others as valuable no matter their economic level is one of the many challenges Jesus threw our way while being, Himself, a rather hard-working lower middle class tradesman-turned-preacher.


  2. Crystal says:

    Oh, DC Talk’s Jesus Freak. Yes, I remember. I loved that song, ‘What if I stumble?’. Reading through your post it made me think of a poster hanging in our house that says “In the dark times will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing about the dark times.”


  3. “Interpreter’s stare”…. I love it! He even intimidates me at times!


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