#WCSK Episode 2.10b: The Sabbath

Picking up from last week…

Sabbath as Resistance

The Sabbath was instituted as a formal national command to Israel after God freed the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. While the Jews were in Egypt, they lived amidst a culture that was oppressive, had no regard for life, and was not concerned with communal wellbeing. The Egyptian ethos, in fact, was dedicated to profit and production, and the destruction of human life was an acceptable consequence to anything that threatened the economic system. Consider what the Bible tells us about what that Egyptian system looked like in Exodus 1:9-14:

“[Pharaoh] said to his people, “Behold, the people of the sons of Israel are more and mightier than we. Come, let us deal wisely with them, or else they will multiply and in the event of war, they will also join themselves to those who hate us, and fight against us and depart from the land.” So they appointed taskmasters over them to afflict them with hard labor. And they built for Pharaoh storage cities, Pithom and Ramses. But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and the more they spread out, so that they were in dread of the sons of Israel. The Egyptians compelled the sons of Israel to labor rigorously; and they made their lives bitter with hard labor in mortar and bricks and at all kinds of labor in the field, all their labors which they rigorously imposed on them.”

These verses tell us that Egyptian culture was inherently competitive, and anything that threatened national interest—even if speculative—required swift and destructive counter-measures. This ideology sacrificed people for the sake of fabrication. This way of thinking is also evident when Pharaoh orders that all firstborn Hebrew males be killed as soon as they were born because they were viewed as a threat due to their numbers and might.[1]

The point I am trying to make is that God liberated His people from this tyrannical system and then gave Israel a new set of commandments (Exodus 20:1-26) on their way to the Promised Land. The Sabbath was a part of these new rules, which stood in direct contrast to the life-destroying ways of Egypt. God even prefaces the commandments that He gives by saying, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). In other words, God was basically telling His people, “Hey, I am the one who set you free, so I am in the business of liberation. Now, let Me tell you My life-giving rules.” The Sabbath was thus a part of a blueprint that not only prescribed how to live God’s commandments but also made the people aware of the pervasive forces of the world that seek to thwart God’s purposes.

Accordingly, in Sabbath as Resistance, the authors elucidate observation of the Sabbath as both the acknowledgement of an alternative consciousness (as already discussed) and an act of resistance. This resistance is not an armed insurgency but rather a purposeful, deliberate, and visible insistence that the seductive ethos of consumerism—characterized by competition, consumption, privatization, and perfection—is not what we ultimately worship.

Indeed, the ideology of insatiable consumption invades every aspect of our lives, so not only does celebration of the Sabbath involve tremendous effort on the part of the individual, but a sincere effort amongst a community of believers as well. In turn, this alternative consciousness leads us to neighborliness, cooperation, communal well-being, and fallibility. This leads to resistance against four aspects of consumer culture, all of which have a chapter devoted to them in Sabbath as Resistance.

Resistance to Anxiety.[2] As the authors write:

“Sabbath-keeping is a way of making a statement of peculiar identity amid a large public identity, of maintaining and enacting a counter-identity that refuses “mainstream” identity, which itself entails anti-human practice and the worship of anti-human gods. Understood this way, Sabbath is a bodily act of testimony to alternative and resistance to pervading values and the assumptions behind those values.”[3]

Anxiety is the fear of the future. Restless anxiety results when we are preoccupied with having enough or producing enough or concerned that others will inhibit our ability to get more. Anxiety results from legalism or moralism, where one violation of a rule tramples upon our sense of worth. Anxiety results when people on the margins have no genuine identity in a system obsessed with consumption. Yet, in a paradigm where the Sabbath is considered holy and people are placed in the center of a new imagination, anxiety fades away because it is no longer I that is my ultimate source of trust. It is no longer the Dow Jones Industrial Average. It is no longer the number of likes, followers, or connections that I have:

“[T]he work stoppage permits a waning of anxiety, so energy is redeployed to the neighborhood. The odd insistence of the God of Sinai is to counter anxious productivity with committed neighborliness. The latter practice does not produce so much; but it creates an environment of security and respect and dignity that redefines the human project.”[4]

The consecration of the Sabbath persuades us to realize that indeed, there is much about the future that we do not know, but we have a relationship with God, who stands above time. We therefore don’t preoccupy ourselves with the uncontrollable future but with the known God who set us free from endless Egyptian anxiety. The treatment, therefore, for the disease of anxiety is prescribed in a system of rest, perfectly dosed in a day of rest, the Sabbath. This idea is what Jesus relayed to His disciples in Matthew 6:25-31:

“For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life? And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith! Do not worry then, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear for clothing?”

Resistance to Coercion.[5] The Sabbath resists the overriding theme of coercion that essentially equates to keeping score: doing more, achieving more, participating in more, and being more than someone else. This means trusting God enough to rest and believing that taking a break from what we typically do in the other six days will not irrevocably harm us. Deceptively, a coercive system entices its subscribers to place trust in the score, so as long as you are getting points, you tend to forget about The Lord. Of course, the obsession with the score leads to anxiety and animates nonstop dreams of counting bricks. Surely it is human nature that abundance sows the seeds of forgetfulness, which is why God on multiple occasions warns the Israelites not to forget[6] before they enter into the land of abundance, the Promised Land.

On a practical level, many readers may think that dominant culture isn’t coercive at all, but in response, I dare propose a few challenges: (1) Don’t use your cellphone, check your email, or use social media on the Sabbath. Would you feel as if you’re “missing out”? (2) Don’t catch up on errands on the Sabbath. Would you feel as if you’re “losing time”? (3) Don’t think about all the stuff you have to do in the upcoming week. Would you feel as if you’re “out of touch” with your responsibilities?

Additionally, with the weekly intermission comes a revitalized imagination of an alternative consciousness of what truly matters:

“Sabbath is not simply a pause. It is an occasion for reimagining all of social life away from coercion and competition to compassionate solidarity. Such solidarity is imaginable and capable of performance only when the drivenness of acquisitiveness is broken. Sabbath is not simply the pause that refreshes. It is the pause that transforms.”[7]

Resistance to Exclusivism.[8] In a society ruled by exclusivism, certain people do not “qualify” and are unfit for entry. So, whether we’re taking about an exclusive church, an exclusive country, an exclusive race, an exclusive school, or exclusive access, the Sabbath lends our attention to the fact that the day has been made holy as a creation ordinance. This means it is a day that pertains to all of creation, so no longer are there divisions and fences that keep people isolated, but rather the communal remembrance that everything is because of God. Our neighbor and our world are therefore not commodities to be used but gifts that compel reverence and proper stewardship. In other words, everything gets a break. The Sabbath draws our attention to those fruits of the Spirit that require interpersonal cooperation (Galatians 5:22-23), while the works of the flesh result from interpersonal competition (Galatians 5:19-21).

Resistance to Multitasking.[9] The Sabbath resists the enticement to do other things while honoring and worshiping God. The point here is that behaviors may appear to be restful, but the genuine intent is consumed by uneasiness. In modernity, multitasking equates to going through the motions of the Sabbath (acts), all the while consumed by the restlessness and the longing to return to the world of commodities (mindset). Multitasking allows you to sit down with your family or community members for a meal, but your attention is on your latest notification. Multitasking equips you to go to church service but check scores while the preacher is preaching. Multitasking empowers you to raise your hands and praise God with a thunderous shout with the awareness that the car you intend to sell someone is a lemon. Unitasking on God compels you to reconcile with God, and reconciliation with God compels you to reconcile with neighbors.

Conclusion

The Sabbath invites Christians to embrace their natural identity, not their assigned identity. A natural identity—that we are formed in the image of God—educates us and tells us that we are adequate, and, therefore, we are content. An assigned identity works in reverse and informs us that because we lack certain things, we as people are incomplete. Of course, there is always more to be had, so our identities are always deficient and fragile.

The Sabbath is never meant to be celebrated in isolation. It invites couples, families, neighbors, church members, and communities to participate together. Time is perfectly egalitarian, and thus the holiness of time influences all individuals equally. The communal participation therefore gives like-minded people a refreshing new cultural identity as fellow Sabbath participants. This culture is nurtured weekly and animates common meals, common meeting places, common stories, common histories, and common language.

On a personal note, where my wife and I live, there is a very large Jewish population, and if you threw a rock in any direction, chances are it would hit a synagogue. Starting each and every Friday evening and continuing for 24 hours, our neighborhood shuts down. Commercial streets go black. It is common on Saturday morning to see groups of families walking together to the synagogue. Then, after sundown on Saturday, the commercial areas come alive again. Into the wee hours of the night, Jewish families now crowd once-desolate commercial streets. Restaurants are now overflowing with people who often tend to sit 10 or more at a table. The point is that communal celebration of the Sabbath brings people together under a common identity with a common purpose. It still boggles my mind that this tradition that began in the Middle East thousands of years ago in a small, seemingly insignificant sect still survives today amongst Jews all over the world. Things can survive for a long time, but for tradition to survive that long, it must be well-grounded in a purposeful community with an unshakable distinctiveness. That is the power of the Sabbath.

On the Sabbath, time is measured in depth (quality), not in minutes (quantity). After all, the Sabbath contains the same 24 hours as any other day of the week, but it is how we spend those minutes that counts for something. Dominant culture measures performance by how fast we can do something or how convenient something is by how much time it saves. In the urgent care office that I work in, we pride ourselves by pointing to the time the patient saves by not going to the emergency room. Yet, in measuring the minutes saved, no one ever counts the lack of quality time the doctor spends with the patient. In fact, a physician who pursues quality but spends too many minutes in that pursuit is regarded as inefficient.

So, the Sabbath is a period of holiness that is not only separated in time but is also an unconventional construction of time. That is, when it comes to Sabbath observance, the authors of An Other Kingdom note:

“[People] have time on their hands. Like observing the Sabbath, their interpretation of time is an act of defiance against the dominant culture and its restless productivity. The Sabbath gave form to the fact that no matter how busy I am, there is always time. The lesson from the margins is that there is enough time. In the consumer society, time is scarcity.”

In the sacred texts, there is that famous idea in Ecclesiastes: a time to laugh and a time to cry, a time to live and a time to die. In other words, in the season there are rhythms that belong to the very structure of creation that cannot be viewed with impunity. And they do not necessarily occur by the clock.[10]

Imagine what a world without the Sabbath would look like. It would be a world without rest, where all would toil without ceasing, nor would there be a reason to cease. It would be a world where identity would come from toil, and everything would be a commodity. We would all dwell in cities that “never sleep,” not realizing that sleep is absolutely crucial because it restores us. There would be no clear separation among days and no sacred time hallowed by God. Hence, it would be a world that knew only itself, where creation lacked consecrated time to pursue holiness. Without this sacred time, week by week, we would be compelled to forget about God and what He has done for us through Christ. Just as neglect of the ritual ceremony of communion compels us to forget the broken body and shed blood of Christ, a lack of the Sabbath compels us to forget that God holds time in His hands. We then fall prey to restless anxiety and chase after the wind in pursuit of elusive time. Indeed, the Sabbath was made for us, because without it, we may actually begin to believe the delusion that we hold time in the palm of our hands.

This will conclude What Christians Should Know Volume II. In the interest of rest, I will pause for a time and come back with Volume III: The Ten Commandments in the fall. Volume Zero will continue to be produced in the interim.

Until then, and God bless.

Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal

 

[1] See Exodus 1:8-16

[2] See Exodus 20:12-17

[3] Walter Brueggemann, et al., Sabbath as Resistance (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Know Press, 2014), 21.

[4] Brueggemann, Sabbath, 28.

[5] See Deuteronomy 5:12-14

[6] See Deuteronomy 6:12, 7:18, 8:14, 18, 16:3, 12, 24:18, 22

[7] Brueggemann, Sabbath, 45.

[8] See Isaiah 56:3-8

[9] See Amos 8:4-8

[10] Walter Brueggemann, et al., An Other Kingdom (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2016), 64.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *