We’re Misreading the Bible on Laziness

Scripture warns against sloth—and against using it to explain away oppression.

In 1997, Anthony Cooper was working two jobs and barely getting by. “I would work almost 24 hours straight, go take the kids to school, go home, get some sleep, and go and do it all again.” His two jobs—at a pizza restaurant and a warehouse—provided just enough income to rent an efficiency apartment in Madison, Wisconsin. “My kids slept on one end; I slept on the other end with my futon.” As an African American man with no high school diploma, coming out of a two-year prison sentence, better jobs weren’t easy to get.

With the United States hitting record low unemployment rates in recent years, it might seem that anyone—with perhaps a little prayer, patience, and perseverance—could find good employment. But employment rates don’t tell the whole story.

In the past two decades, even as more Americans have found jobs, those jobs have become less likely to be long term, full time, and matched to people’s skills and education. The trend toward underemployment and disappointing work certainly impacts college graduates. But it hits especially hard for many people of color and for those who are differently abled, have an incarceration record, lack higher education, or live in economically depressed regions.

Before meeting Cooper, I’d worked and conducted research among nonprofits in South Africa that were trying to help people find good work. Some of the organizations used Scripture in their trainings. The founder of one organization, emphatically tapping his fingers on a table, summarized his group’s message with these words: “The whole Bible is about hard work.” He recited a proverb about laziness, a story of Moses making plans, and the fact …

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