Torturers versus nurses

‘Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men,’ — that’s the advice of Colossians 3:23. It’s also the basis (with the very overworked 2 Thessalonians 3:10) many evangelicals use for our (at least theoretical) attitude to the (post)modern Protestant work ethic. It simplifies any vocational angst: it doesn’t matter what you do or what you achieve, as long as you’re doing it for Jesus.

But last week’s news of how Margaret Haywood lost her living as a nurse highlighted the fact that sometimes employment morality is not always easy. Ms. Haywood filmed undercover for a BBC programme that exposed negligence and poor conditions at Royal Sussex Hospital.

The painfully unconvincing ‘reason’ for her being struck off the register given by medical spokespeople was because she was filming terrible hospital conditions, she was not paying enough attention to her work and was therefore guilty of misconduct. Which, from a Biblical perspective, is kind of like giving the good Samaritan a ticket for stopping on a double yellow line on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Yeah, you’re within your rights, but you’re also a bit of a pratt.

In terms of working for the Lord, it is clear that the moral and Godly decision was for the nurse to break rules, disobey orders and even neglect parts of her job description, in order to do the right thing. But what about other jobs? What about soldiers, who are taught and trained that the correct, if not the only way to do their dangerous and highly pressurised job is to obey orders automatically and without question? Alleged Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk rediscovered last week that history is reluctant to accept the ‘only following orders’ defence, after all.

From: -- click pic to see entire demonstration

Even more simplistic-theology-defying is the case of CIA agents who, last week, were essentially granted immunity from prosecution for participating in what the current US administration considers torture but which the Bush government sanctioned as legal. Critics were outraged that torturers would go unpunished. Righteous enough. But other commentators and the government pointed out that it would be unfair to punish someone for doing what they were assured was legal. And that, too, is fair.

But working for the Lord rather than man is not a simple command and it is not necessarily easy. And if your job makes it difficult to put righteousness, mercy and love first, then maybe you are in the wrong job.

The assumption we often draw from Colossians 3:23, that all jobs are equal as long as we do our best, is wrong. We don’t expect Christians to be the best slavers, drug dealers or hit-men they can be. We expect them to change jobs. We presume a conflict between aspects of the job and Godly values. Why, then, are we so squeamish about speaking out about other jobs where you might be expected to kill civilians, torture for information or take livelihood from the poor? I am not saying it is wrong to be a soldier, an intelligence operative, a banker. I am just wondering whether we are so conformed to the thinking of this world and the roles, values and outcomes it accepts and applauds, that we are incapable even starting a dialogue as to whether one can, in good conscience, work for the Lord in some of our most respected professions.

Here’s Bob Dylan singing about a dubious profession. I’m not sure about the theology, but the sentiments are good.


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