The production of wealth, whether by primitive or modern methods, requires three things. First, land. God has given us the land, and it is from the land that we get the raw materials which we reshape to meet our needs. Secondly, tools. We have found by simple experience that tools do help! So we make the hoe, the axe, or the modern factory or tractor, to help us to produce wealth—the goods we need. And, thirdly, human exertion—or labor. We don’t need to read Karl Marx or Adam Smith to find out that neither the land nor the hoe actually produces wealth. And we don’t need to take degrees in Economics to know that neither the worker nor the landlord produces land. Land is God’s gift to man—it is always there. But we do know, still without degrees in Economics, that the axe and the plough were produced by the laborer. Some of our more sophisticated friends apparently have to undergo the most rigorous intellectual training simply in order to discover that stone axes were produced by that gentleman ‘Early Man’ to make it easier for him to skin the impala he had just killed with a club, which he had also made for himself!
In traditional African society, everybody was a worker. There was no other way of earning a living for the community. Even the Elder, who appeared to be enjoying himself without doing any work and for whom everybody else appeared to be working, had, in fact, worked hard all his younger days. The wealth he now appeared to possess was not his, personally; it was only his as the Elder of the group which had produced it. He was its guardian. The wealth itself gave him neither power nor prestige. The respect paid to him by the young was his because he was older than they, and had served his community longer; and the ‘poor’ Elder enjoyed as much respect in our society as the ‘rich’ Elder.
When I say that in traditional African society everybody was a worker, I do not use the word ‘worker’ simply as opposed to ’employer’ but also as opposed to ‘loiterer’ or ‘idler.’ One of the most socialistic achievements of our society was the sense of security it gave to its members, and the universal hospitality on which they could rely. But it is too often forgotten, nowadays, that the basis of this great socialistic achievement was this: that it was taken for granted that every member of society—barring only the children and the infirm—contributed his fair share of effort toward the production of its wealth. Not only was the capitalist, or landed exploiter, unknown to traditional African society, but we did not have that other form of modern parasite—the loiterer or idler, who accepts the hospitality of society as his ‘right’ but gives nothing in return! Capitalistic exploitation was impossible. Loitering was an unthinkable disgrace.
Those of us who talk about the African way of life and, quite rightly, take pride in maintaining the tradition of hospitality which is so great a part of it, might do well to remember the Swahili saying: ‘Mgeni siku mbili; siku ya tatu mpe jembe’—or in English, ‘Treat your guest as a guest for two days; on the third day give him a hoe!’ In actual fact, the guest was likely to ask for the hoe even before his host had to give him one—for he knew what was expected of him, and would have been ashamed to remain idle any longer. Thus, working was part and parcel, was indeed the very basis and justification of this socialist achievement of which we are so justly proud.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).