Preliminary Theological Perspective on Building

Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages (Jeremiah 22:13, NRSV).

Listen!  The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts (James 5:4, NRSV).

Have you ever noticed those big signs they put outside of renovations of buildings?  They are normally in a kind of triangle shape and have a long list of all the people associated with the remodel.  If it is a city building, they typically have the mayor and other elected officials on the list, perhaps a project date, and usually the architect and probably a general contractor.  What is always absent from these lists, though, is the actual people who did the renovation.  The people who literally built the building, did the remodel, or whatever the sign may be showing get little to no credit for the labor they do.

For example, take a look at the list of names associated with the Hillsboro High School renovation in Nashville, TN.  The closest we get to the actual builders is the general contractor American Constructors, whose tagline is “Building America Together.”  Interestingly, despite having a long list of completed projects from churches to healthcare buildings, their “Our Team” dropdown menu has no highlights of the people who built those churches and healthcare facilities.  Of course, they show leadership like the CEO and project managers who supervise the projects, but not one mention of the people who did the literal building appears on their pages.

This is just one example of many.  The same is true for the renovation going on at my current school, Vanderbilt Divinity School.  Nearly every day for several months I have seen workers with subcontracted companies who will never get recognition for the work they do, and if they are even more unlucky, they may not get paid, much like the workers who built J.W. Marriott in downtown Nashville.

I think this problem is theologically significant.  Drawing from a notion ubiquitous in America of the exceptional individual, we often forget to honor those who came before us and those who make us who and what we are.  If we have a faith conviction of some type, we may think that God or another entity beyond us helped shape us, but the standard view in America is to consider ourselves rugged individuals who forged our own paths and made ourselves into a success (or a failure, as it were).  This is simply not the case, though.

From a very literal viewpoint, we would not be here without other people.  From the sexual reproduction that led to our inception to the feeding and teaching and caring that gave us the chance to grow up, we just cannot do this thing alone.  And for those who have a faith conviction of any sort, not just Christian, we must recognize the community that shapes us as we continue through this life.  For those who are Christian, especially, the call is significant throughout the entire Bible to be in community and care for one another.  We are nothing without the community that surrounds us, and that is true regardless of one’s religious beliefs.

It seems to me that the lack of communal concern stems from a more root issue of not noticing those around us in the first place, taking much that we have and experience for granted.  Have you taken time to think about the people who grew the vegetables that are on your dinner plate?  Do you consider the folks who make sure the electrical grid is up and running so you can read this post?  Do we think twice about the labor that went into our places of work or worship?

In order for us to live in community as we are called, we must first recognize those around us.  Not only that, but we must actually love them.  Not with a superficial love that offers “thoughts and prayers,” but a deep love that sees people in all of their identities, joys, trials, hopes, fears, and more.  A love like this does not take others for granted, but instead grants them our recognition that they are part of this beloved creation, a dignified person who deserves to be a part of the community simply by their being.

If we do not see others and share community with them, we cannot possibly hope to recognize the work that they do.  As a part of this body of humans, we each have something to offer to the community.  If we continue to cling to the idea of rugged individualism, though, we will miss what others do and even what we can do because of what others have poured into us.  Speaking personally, if I cling to rugged individualism, I would not recognize that I am able to build furniture because of people like Ron Srygley who taught me and let me use his shop for two years, Marc Spagnuolo who has inspired me to try countless new methods, and my wife Kalie who has encouraged me every step of the way to continue on this path even when I felt like I couldn’t work wood to save my life.  This does not even account for the nearly innumerable people who have shown me support for my craft through their social media affirmation, their buying my work, and their contributions to my tool acquisition addiction.  I am who I am because of those who poured themselves into me.

Taking it to the bigger scale, we are who we are because of those who poured themselves into us, directly and indirectly.  Without people to build schools, we would not be able to attend a school.  Without people to construct hospitals, we would not be able to get healthcare.  Without people to grow crops, we would not be able to eat.  We must honor and recognize those around us and remember that they, like us, are a part of this human community.  If we do this, we just may start to recognize who really builds this nation.

3 Replies to “Preliminary Theological Perspective on Building”

  1. Agreed. To understand the realities of who actually is constructing and literally building the places we are in and out of everyday, is to understand and to appreciate our greater community who regularly are unseen and unheard.

  2. As a volunteer builder at a prison rights cooperative, I am keenly aware of how much actual physical labor is undervalued, undervalued to the point of harming us all as we continue to lose touch with reality. At a conference in Nashville concerning supplying skilled labor to the ever expanding gentrification, one contractor recently exclaimed, you tell kids to do well in school or they’ll end up digging ditches. Digging ditches is what we do! And I have just learned from my granddaughter that general science physics in junior high is “stuff about molecules, or something”, but no mention of the seven basic machines, which describe in beautifully simple mathematical terms how anything in the world of construction gets done. We are braining ourselves to death out of fear of being branded sub-human, and you all know what that brand is. This work of honoring the work of hands is sacred. Thank you.

    1. Thank you, Jim, for sharing those stories about your own experience and what your granddaughter’s class is teaching and not teaching. I agree with you, we certainly focus on the brain so much that we demean that value of manual labor, and it costs people their lives on a daily basis.

      May I ask where you do your volunteer work? I would like to do some work in prisons and your cooperative may be a valuable place for this research.

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