In his recent release, “Get Your Hands Dirty,” Jordan Ballor of the Acton Institute lays out a clear case for why Christians ought to have rightly ordered lives and what that might look like. While the book took shape around a collection of essays, this message was as hard to miss as the bright orange cover itself. Having a rightly ordered, God-centered life allows us to be more efficient in our work and more effective as “salt and light” in our world. The title is derived from this call to “get involved deeply and meaningfully in the messiness of the world,” and also probably from Ballor’s affinity for quoting Mike Rowe of the Discovery Channel show Dirty Jobs, whose thoughts about work make several appearances throughout the book.
Ballor describes an ordinate life as one that is “rightly ordered relative to other loves, regards, and interests” (62). He illustrates in great depth the perspective that this type of life will give us in regard to our vocations. He also speaks about how institutions—namely the government— can have a negative effect on our work when they are out of their rightly ordered positions in our lives. “We need to put politics and political life in its proper place,” he says. “That is, we need to properly relate the political to everything else (culture, business, family, charity, church)” (206).
This conception of order speaks to what Wilhem Ropke describes in “A Humane Economy,” as “an order which fosters individual independence and responsibility as much as the public spirit which connects the individual with the community and limits his greed” (125).
While found at the end of the book, the following quote by Lord Acton is a fitting place to begin examining Ballor’s argument:
Now liberty and good government do not exclude each other; and there are excellent reasons why they should go together. Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end (202).
“Notice the modifier ‘political’ in that quotation,” Ballor says. “[I]t makes all the difference in the world.” He explains that “the purpose of politics, in this view is for ‘liberty,’ and this answer begs the question of how political liberty relates to other institutions and spheres of human life, such as families, churches, charities, clubs, sports teams, businesses, and so on” (202). In fact, he goes so far as to say that “where government moves beyond the scope of its legitimate interests, it tyrannizes the proper authority of other spheres of existence” (183).
This should be of special concern to Christians in our pursuit to help the poor. “A true vision of Christian charity is one that embraces the whole human person, physical and spiritual… And this is something the government simply cannot do” (162). For Ballor, government has a place in our society, but that place must be rightly ordered.
[pullquote] We serve “the least of these” most often through our others-directed vocational work.[/pullquote]
Certainly the other side of this coin is that the role for the individual should also be in its proper place. The liberty for which he argues is not the “libertine” ideal, so often conflated with the positions of those who favor limited government. Making this point clear, Ballor states that “the social nature of the human person means that a view of absolute individual freedom, such that gives rise to ‘the ultimate right of an individual to his or her own life,’ is simply inadequate” (5). In a properly ordered life, the love of self would be in its place, not running rampant. He makes very clear that “self-love, self-regard, and self-interest are to be ordinate” (62).
When discussing work and vocation, Ballor does an excellent job of connecting what we do in our careers with serving others. In part, this connection is achieved by us recognizing “the validity of callings to all areas of life, including politics and business,” which in turn will “help us see how service in such realms can be truly other-directed and God-glorifying” (167). He also makes the following point which clarifies the church’s role in our non-ecumenical vocations:
There are Christians who already occupy Wall Street every day in their occupations as businessmen and women, bankers and investors, traders and executives, secretaries and receptionists, janitors and security guards. The church’s responsibility to these “occupiers” is to provide them with the moral and spiritual formation necessary to be faithful followers of Christ every day in their productive service to others (66).
For so many of us, including myself, we often fall into the trap of thinking that our works are only God-glorifying if they are not done in exchange for our income. But Ballor draws an excellent point from Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats in which the King says “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Ballor explains that “from the context of Jesus’ parable it’s not clear at all that the sheep explicitly have in mind the idea that they were serving God through their service of others… They even ask the King, ‘Lord, when did we do these things for you?’” (50).
We serve “the least of these” most often through our others-directed vocational work. Doing work is so important to Ballor that he included it in the very title of this book. He further argues that:
If we sow a culture that disdains work, then we will reap a dysfunctional society that pits class against class, labor versus management, rich against poor, strong against weak… But if we sow a culture that celebrates all kinds of work as inherently valuable, as valid and praise-worthy of serving others and thereby serving God, we will reap a society that promotes flourishing in its deepest and most meaningful sense (56).
The book begins and ends with two very poignant reminders that help put our work into perspective. The first is from Hunter Baker of Union University, who wrote in the book’s introduction:
Someday, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. But that will happen because all will be faced with the uncontestable majesty of love personified, not because we have mastered political techniques (xi).
The last is from Ballor in the epilogue, which reads, “the greatest encouragement in the call to get our hands dirty is that the dirtiest job has already been accomplished. ‘It is finished,’ cried Jesus as he died on the cross.”
This is perhaps the best way to sum up the nature of our rightly oriented work. The work that we do every day is good when it is others-focused and God-glorifying, but never because it will usher in Christ’s Kingdom. He has begun the good work, and He will finish it. He is doing that now, even while the fullness of His Kingdom is not yet.
That vision, excellently articulated throughout this book, is the right and proper orientation for our lives.