There was laughter at our church meeting this evening. A member talked about reusing materials again (and again!).
“Protestant prudence,” I laughed.
Another person at the meeting joked that “reduce, reuse, recycle”, was part of being Protestant.
Deep within our culture there is an ethos of making every cent count. What we regard as prudence is probably an excuse for plain meanness in some cases. Our catechism, which would have deeply imbued the thinking of those over 40, stressed the central place of work in our lives, it stressed our responsibility to be independent and self-supporting.
The Protestant work ethic didn’t just shape thinking on this side of the Irish Sea, it was prevalent during the days of my youth in England. School holidays weren’t a time for sitting around and enjoying oneself. Once I was sixteen, school holidays were a time for having a job. One summer I spent Mondays to Fridays of the two month summer vacation working on a plant nursery and Saturdays and Sundays pumping petrol.
Protestant work ethics and Protestant prudence are fine, they motivate effort, they ensure things get done, but they have a downside as well. They can lead to a lack of charity towards those not working; they can prompt judgmental attitudes towards people living on social security payments; they can give rise to a pride and arrogance that one has achieved everything by one’s own efforts.
To understand how deeply our thinking is shaped, it is only necessary to look around the walls of our churches. Catholic churches have the stations of the cross, Protestant churches have plaques commemorating the rich and successful of the parish.
When Saint Paul said people who wouldn’t work shouldn’t eat, he surely didn’t mean that work should become the sole purpose of life.