Martin Luther’s doctrine of vocation—the principle that whatever role in life one occupies, one may honor God by loving and serving one’s neighbor within it—has long been a central subject of Lutheran and more generally Protestant ethical reflection. Far from devaluing the ordained ministry, as his Catholic interlocutors complained, Luther sought to recapture a radical vision capable of grasping the theological dimensions of all of life and every human endeavor. As Gustaf Wingren explained in his classic study of the topic, “In anything that involves action, anything that concerns the world or my relationship with my neighbor, there is nothing, Luther holds, that falls in a private sphere lying outside of station, office, or vocation.”
While the Lutheran concept of vocation extends beyond simply one’s profession—to wit, a wife and mother who works as a doctor serves God and her neighbor within at least three vocations—the concept often comes to the fore in the context of occupations, and the dignity of work that may not always be experienced as glamorous or high-prestige. As Luther himself wrote, “If [a man] is a Christian tailor, he will say: I make these clothes because God has bidden me do so, so that I can earn a living, so that I can help and serve my neighbor.” Whatever occupation one happens to hold, insofar as one loves and serves his neighbor, one inhabits a vocation from God.
But there is an important nuance embedded in that insofar as: this concept of vocation is not infinitely elastic. As Gene Veith has written, “[N]ot every occupation or way of making a living can be a vocation. Being a drug dealer is not a calling from God. This particular job does not involve loving one’s neighbors; rather, it harms them.” For Wingren, following Luther, “[t]he issue is whether the ‘station’ itself is sinful or not.”
This approach sounds straightforward enough, at least on its face. But what if the modern world—following the Industrial Revolution—has created a difficult intermediate category of job, one that does not tend toward the love of and service to one’s neighbor, but one that is not obviously sinful in itself?
Several years ago, anthropologist David Graeber identified the phenomenon of the “B*llsh*t job”—which he defined as “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence, even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.” For Graeber, BS jobs—which might be described in politer language as “make-work jobs”—do not possess social value in any intelligible sense, such that no one genuinely benefits when they are performed well. And so, for those occupying these positions, it may be uncertain whether their roles really provide an opportunity for God to “work through their labors to love and serve their neighbors.”
Graeber’s thesis, if correct, has substantial implications for the Lutheran doctrine of vocation. It may be difficult, for the Christian who finds herself inhabiting a make-work job, to understand how she can represent Christ to her neighbor in that context: if she has nothing of value or substance to give her neighbor, how can she exemplify the invaluable, agapeic love of Christ?
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Graeber’s argument for the reality of make-work jobs is intuitive and, for many of his readers, relatable. Many professions within the contemporary economic order seem to be of very dubious social value, leaving their occupants “haunted by the knowledge that nothing of value would be lost to the world were their jobs simply to disappear.” While these workers may be “respected as professionals, well paid, and treated as high achievers,” at bottom “they feel it’s all based on a lie—as, indeed, it is.” With a little reflection, it is not especially difficult for a worker to determine whether she actually has loved and served one’s neighbor in the course of one’s workday; for Graeber, many workers who ask themselves this question will simply find themselves unable to honestly answer yes.
Graeber’s argument invites Protestants to consider whether there are paid, “respectable” jobs in the modern economy that simply do not satisfy the Lutheran criteria for vocations. This is not a phenomenon that would have existed in Luther’s day. Consider Luther’s famous—if apocryphal—example of the milkmaid through whom, in a certain sense, God milks cows; it is evident here that the milkmaid interacts with creation to gather foodstuffs that nourish others, thereby loving and serving her neighbors directly. And Graeber himself is keen to note that individuals occupying analogous roles in the modern economy are extraordinarily unlikely to describe their occupations as make-work jobs:
One must assume that the percentage of nurses, bus drivers, dentists, street cleaners, farmers, music teachers, repairmen, gardeners, firefighters, set designers, plumbers, journalists, safety inspectors, musicians, tailors, and school crossing guards who checked “no” to the question “Does your job make any meaningful difference in the world?” was approximately zero.
The make-work job is largely a white-collar phenomenon. While “[a] world without teachers or dockworkers would soon be in trouble,” Graeber notes, “[i]t’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs, or legal consultants to similarly vanish.”
Graeber breaks down the concept of make-work jobs into five categories: (1) flunkies, “those that exist only or primarily to make someone else look or feel important”; (2) goons, who “try to convince others to do things that defy their common sense”; (3) duct tapers, “whose jobs exist only because of a glitch or fault in the organization; who are there to solve a problem that ought not to exist”; (4) box tickers, “who exist only or primarily to allow an organization to be able to claim it is doing something that, in fact, it is not doing”; and (5) taskmasters, or “those whose role consists entirely of assigning work to others.” To those who have worked in office jobs for several years, many of these pathologies will be familiar.
Each of Graeber’s categories of make-work jobs is strikingly out of alignment with Luther’s original conception of vocation. Some appear to rely primarily on deception: a flunky whose principal role is to promote the vanity of another person certainly does not “serve” him in the Christian sense, nor do box tickers truly promote the moral ends for which goals and regulations exist in the first place. Goons may actively undermine their neighbors’ good, duct tapers spin their wheels pointlessly rather than effectively serving their neighbors, and taskmasters exemplify idleness rather than faithful work. If it is true that, as Luther urged in On the Freedom of a Christian, “[i]n this life we can never be idle and without works toward the neighbor,” then it would seem that make-work jobs lacking that orientation can’t be squared with a properly Christian sense of vocation.
Here an objection arises: don’t these make-work jobs still benefit others at some level, even if only in some narrow, intra-institutional sense? Veith argues, for instance, that “most lawful occupations do give service to others. If someone is willing to pay for a product or a service, they must consider themselves benefiting from it.” Here, social value (service to one’s neighbor) is roughly pegged to market value. If Veith is correct, then the whole idea of a make-work job, along with the question it poses for the doctrine of vocation, is simply inapt.
But this concept of value seems desiccated. As Veith acknowledges, this reasoning wouldn’t hold in the case of a drug dealer who peddles toxins to others. One could surely extend that caveat (to take an example of an occupation that is lawful in the United States) to someone who sells pornography. And yet on a strictly market-based account, it is not clear why these would fall outside the bounds of vocation: drugs and ever-more-extreme sexual images may bring fleeting pleasures, and many people are willing to pay a high price for those pleasures. By rejecting the case of the drug dealer, Veith’s argument implicitly acknowledges that economics isn’t enough. A higher-order criterion for “service to one’s neighbor” is required.
Hence Graeber’s challenge. Within today’s advanced capitalist economy, for the first time in economic history, larger numbers of jobs have arisen that bear little if any connection to the common good. And taken on their own terms, they do not seem to be cognizable within Luther’s familiar account of vocation, but represent something altogether novel. Even in the midst of the current AI revolution, this type of occupation does not seem to be going anywhere.
What Is to Be Done?
For Luther, a wise civil ruler “must consider his subjects and set his heart aright. This he will do if he sets his whole mind upon being useful and serviceable to them.” That principle raises an important question: can anything be done in the “left-hand kingdom” of the state to push back against the growth of make-work jobs, and in so doing help more individuals engage in work that truly permits them to love and serve their neighbor? While Luther himself obviously never took up the question directly, several elements of his short study On Trade and Usury are suggestive.
For one thing, make-work jobs are most likely to arise in the context of concentrated, ossified industries, where companies have grown to such a size that they can employ a range of functionaries solely devoted to navigating the challenges posed by operations at that scale. And for Luther, a political regime acts rightly when it takes actions to prevent this kind of consolidation of economic power in the hands of a few. As he wrote, “the rule is false and unchristian that any one sell his goods as dear as he will or can; more abominable still is it that any one should buy up the goods with this intent.” It is this practice that “imperial and common law forbids and calls monopoly; that is, selfish purchases which are not to be suffered in the land and city, and princes and rulers should check and punish it if they wish to fulfil their duty.” While Luther’s account is focused particularly on the monopolization of commodities—given the time in which he lived —the logic is readily extended to the problem of quasi-monopolistic scale in general. Mandatory economic deconcentration, in short, offers a mechanism by which the state may free up workers to pursue genuine vocations.
Moreover, Luther was sharply critical of those who would make money solely through financial speculation—perhaps the archetypal make-work job. In commenting on the sale of economic futures, Luther described this practice as “a knavish performance” and “a cunning way of living on the street by other people’s goods and money without needing to travel land and sea.” Transposing Luther’s logic into the modern context might mean that the state should impose much stricter regulations on the sale of certain financial-services products on Wall Street, which in turn would likely go a long way toward removing the economic impetus toward the growth of make-work jobs.
Taken together, these measures outline a roadmap by which faithful political leaders can better love and serve the citizens they represent, helping every person find their “‘station’ which is by nature helpful to others if it be followed.” That assumes, of course, that political authorities have the will to do so.
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All political solutions to widespread problems, unfortunately, take time to develop, and often stall out in the face of pressures from special interests. Where does this analysis leave the worker who comes to realize that she in fact occupies a make-work job, one that lacks “social value, as apart from mere market value”? What if, for financial reasons, she cannot readily leave her role? (Consider, here, her possible vocation as a mother of small children, or daughter of aging parents who must be provided for.)
Lutheran principles suggest one possible solution. Within the context of her job, she might recommit herself to plumbing the depths of her vocation as coworker, a vocation common to all who labor in organized groups, wholly apart from any specific profession. In so doing, she might seek to love and serve those she works alongside by demonstrating compassion and a willingness to always speak well of them to others, as well as displaying interest in them as individual souls with intrinsic value. On this view, her “neighbors” are not so much the beneficiaries of her professional output as they are the individuals she works alongside each day. Of course, the nature of some workplaces may make it difficult to fulfill this vocation . Despite what The Office might suggest, sterile, humdrum workspaces, pervaded by a clock-watching culture, are not often conducive to relationships of meaningful mutual service. Remote and hybrid work have exacerbated the problem: how can one embody the vocation of “coworker” when one’s teammates and colleagues are never seen in person? Such questions and challenges remain outstanding.
All of the above is not a call for quiescence, but simply realism: absent some form of organized pushback on an unprecedented scale, the proliferation of make-work jobs is likely to continue indefinitely. Many modern Christians seeking to faithfully inhabit their vocations will come to realize over time that their professional responsibilities resemble the make-work jobs described here. As this process advances, civil authorities, insofar as they have the power, ought to promote the growth of genuine vocations—but even in the absence of that relief, Christians may not abandon the fight.
Whether one serves God in the left-hand kingdom of the state or labors on behalf of their family in the marketplace, understanding and resisting structural threats to the logic of vocation is, in its own way, a means of learning to “serve the well-being of others” in a fallen world.
John Ehrett is a Commonwealth Fellow, and an attorney and writer in Washington D.C. His work has appeared in American Affairs, The New Atlantis, and the Claremont Review of Books. He is a graduate of Patrick Henry College, the Institute of Lutheran Theology, and Yale Law School.
Gustaf Wingren, Luther on Vocation, trans. Carl C. Rasmussen (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2004), 4. ↑
Frederick J. Gaiser, “What Luther Didn’t Say About Vocation,” Word and World 25 (2005): 361. ↑
Gene Edward Veith Jr., God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002), 65. ↑
Wingren, Luther on Vocation, 3. ↑
David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (London: Penguin Random House UK, 2018), 8. ↑
Graeber, Bullshit Jobs, 61. ↑
Graeber, Bullshit Jobs, 12. ↑
Graeber, Bullshit Jobs, 15. ↑
Gaiser, “What Luther Didn’t Say About Vocation,” 359–60. ↑
Graeber, Bullshit Jobs, 6. ↑
Graeber, Bullshit Jobs, xix. ↑
Graeber, Bullshit Jobs, 28. ↑
Graeber, Bullshit Jobs, 40. ↑
Graeber, Bullshit Jobs, 40. ↑
Graeber, Bullshit Jobs, 45. ↑
Graeber, Bullshit Jobs, 51. ↑
Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, ed. Timothy F. Lull and William R. Russell (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 418. ↑
Veith, God at Work, 74. ↑
Martin Luther, “On Civil Authority,” trans. W.H. Carruth, The Open Court 8 (1917): 493. ↑
Martin Luther, “On Trade and Usury,” trans. W.H. Carruth, The Open Court 1 (1897): 27. ↑
Luther, “On Trade and Usury,” 27. ↑
Luther, “On Trade and Usury,” 29. ↑
Wingren, Luther on Vocation, 3. ↑
Graeber, Bullshit Jobs, 10. ↑
Wingren, Luther on Vocation, 3. ↑
*Image Credit: “Office in a Small City, 1953” by Edward Hopper