[serious thanks to Fern for helping me word this essay in the best way possible]
We’re taught growing up that slavery is a thing of the past in our society, that human rights in the U.S. are paramount among our culture’s values. And indeed, this seems historically accurate, doesn’t it? The Emancipation Proclamation heralded the dawn of a new era based on equal worth of every human. Our country has made great strides toward protecting the social rights of each of its members, from the right to vote to the right to benefit from one’s own work. But something has gone awry. In place of the outright slavery of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries came a subtle, shadowy slavery, one that we often inflict upon ourselves: the spectre of obligation.
Our society loves industry. We champion being breadwinners and productive members of society. We encourage men and women alike to be providers for themselves and their families. We teach our young people to seek lucrative careers in order to lend value and meaning to their lives and relationships. Even higher education is only valuable as long as it leads to a better job (“You’re going to be a(n) art/philosophy/music/[insert subject] major? Are you going to live in a box?”). We also value resilience: there’s nothing that a bit more elbow grease and stick-to-itiveness can’t fix, especially in a job you don’t particular like. We all have to do jobs we don’t like, we rationalize, and if we want to be accepted in society, we have to do them exceptionally well. Just put your head down and work through it; you’ll be all right.
The seed is sown. We lose the notion that work is a God-given gift to be enjoyed and found fulfilling. We gain in its place an understanding that fulfillment and enjoyment come with the rewards of a Job Well Done. We corrupt the correct notion that “a good worker should put the interests of the company first” until we are deferential even to the extent that continuing in the job is detrimental to our own well-being. We put in the hours, keep our head down, meet expectations, and hope that our superiors notice and reward us for our supreme sense of duty. What inevitably happens, of course, is that those same superiors see this subservience and exploit it, piling more responsibilities on without increasing the reward at all. And we willingly take it all because at this point we feel obligated to keep working: they need me! I can’t back out now or I’ll be a bad worker.
We do this in our personal relationships as well, and in this arena Christians can be some of the worst examples of obligation slaves out there. We assume that doing things like standing up for our beliefs in relationships automatically means we don’t care about the other person; that if we really care, we should just learn to put up with whatever slings and arrows come our way. Out of a correct desire to be Christ-like, we misguidedly approximate “turning the other cheek” an infinite number of times in place of speaking truth through accountability and love.
Even the language we use is abominable. “If I were a good boyfriend, I would …” “If you really loved me, you’d …” “I just think as a roommate, you should…” We substitute filling fictitious roles in place of honest and meaningful relationships in the vain hope that we can “fake it ’til we make it,” and in the process we lose not only our own sense of self-worth but any hope of salvaging fulfillment in the relationship. We even stick around in toxic relationships long past their expiration date simply because we feel obligated not to “give up” on something that at one point held the promise of being fulfilling.
Obligation robs us of the one thing that should be kept under all circumstances – the same thing of which the institution of slavery robbed its victims – dignity. We forfeit the notion of equal natural rights to dignity by allowing ourselves to be obligated, compelled to action against our better judgment and against our self-interest, by our various commitments.
Now please hear me when I explain that I’m by no means against submission and humility, nor do I think that self-interest is necessarily a good thing, though these accusations have been levied against me. There is a subtle difference between choosing to submit, choosing to value another above yourself, because you honestly and candidly want the best for that person, and because you feel obligated to act in that way. It means nothing to me if you give me a halfhearted Christmas gift because that’s just what people do at Christmastime; I’d just as soon you keep your DVD of a movie you like more than I do. If I compliment you on your new dress because I feel like I should, the comment has lost its worth in the loss of its honesty and I shouldn’t have even opened my mouth.
This distinction is critical but often unnoticed. If you give me a gift because you honestly care about me and want to express it, if I compliment you because I honestly believe your new dress looks good on you and want you to feel good about it; these are the circumstances under which subservience is virtuous and good. The important thing is not and has never been the actions taken but the motives and goals behind those actions.
We have the incredible opportunity to lend meaning and worth to even such trivial actions as cleaning the kitchen and working minimum-wage jobs by infusing them with our own immense worth. But if we cast aside our dignity in favor of simply meeting expectations, we lose that opportunity and the ability to give worth to our actions, our circumstances, and eventually even ourselves. For Christians, this means losing the opportunity to bring the Kingdom of God to reign in all places, actions, and people.