Voices

A job to do

Hospital workers, police officers, and Supreme Court justices live out the doctrine of vocation

Issue: "New Orleans: Starting over," Sept. 24, 2005

In the aftermath of 9/11, the public lauded as heroes the cops, firefighters, and rescue workers who rushed into collapsing buildings and risked their lives to save others. Afterwards many of them blew off the praise, saying, "We were just doing our job."

To Christian ears, that statement speaks of the doctrine of vocation. God calls people to different stations-in the family, the church, the culture, and the workplace-where they are to love and serve their neighbors by "just doing their jobs." Today the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina throws vocation in high relief.

When the waters were rising in a New Orleans rest home, staff members ran away, saving their own hides, leaving behind 32 elderly patients to drown in their beds. At the same time, health-care workers at the city's Charity Hospital continued to care for their patients, as first the electricity went out, then the water shut off, then the food ran out. Nurses used hand pumps to keep ventilators going, and the staff continued to evacuate patients by helicopter, even as they came under fire from a sniper.

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When civil order broke down, some police officers joined the looters in plundering flooded stores. Two hundred just quit and walked off the job. At least two committed suicide. But another was shot in the head while battling a looter. Other police officers, many of whom lost their own homes, waded through fetid water to rescue people in danger.

Some people just did their job, and other people didn't. Some of the confusion in the relief efforts came from people not knowing what their jobs were. Whose job was it to get water and food to flood victims? The mayor's? The governor's? The president's? Sometimes the answers were not clear, but such issues of vocation need to be worked out in the process of emergency planning.

But the doctrine of vocation gives practical guidance for people on the ground. The purpose of vocation is to love and serve one's neighbor. Knowing that might help a FEMA worker or a Homeland Security bureaucrat realize that paperwork, regulations, and office procedure should not be allowed to get in the way of actually helping people in need.

Other issues currently before the country also have to do with vocation. The Senate deliberations over whether to confirm John Roberts as chief justice of the Supreme Court will hinge on different answers to the question, "What exactly is the job of a Supreme Court justice?" To apply the Constitution as it is written? Or to construct interpretations to advance an unlegislated political agenda?

Is it the job of a doctor to kill his patients-through abortion or euthanasia-or to heal them? Are not developing human beings at every stage "neighbors" who deserve to be love and served, even if they are only as small as an embryo? Or are they a crop to be "harvested" for their stem cells? What is the job of scientists or mothers or lawmakers or citizens? Isn't it to love and serve these neighbors?

What is the job of the soldier in Iraq? What neighbor is he loving and serving? Do we acknowledge the value of killing the enemy, protecting the innocent, and defending freedom abroad? Or do we think a soldier's calling is not worth the bloodshed, either his or his enemy's? Is it America's "job" to be the world's policeman? Opinions will differ, but thinking vocationally at least clarifies the issues.

According to Romans 13, rulers have the vocation of loving and serving their neighbors-us citizens-by punishing those who do evil and rewarding those who do good. Not the other way around. And in our remarkable constitutional republic, our rulers have rulers. Us. Every voter has a measure of Romans 13 authority and responsibility.

Politicians have a job to do, and sometimes they do more than their job allows. Holding politicians to their proper work and making them accountable for what they do is the job of us citizens.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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