Restless (part 2)

When I was first hired as a professor (lo, these many years ago), I was both elated and scared.  Elated: because I had a job right out of grad school and didn’t even have to move, because my own school was hiring me.  Scared: because I was only beginning to imagine the life of a junior faculty member–the scramble to develop new courses while learning to survive a “publish or perish” culture.

Sabbath rest was unknown to me then.  Not that I worked 24/7.  It was more like living with constant background anxiety about what I wasn’t accomplishing, and wondering when I would get kicked off the playground.

Over time, Sabbath has personally come to mean pulling back from the compulsion to be professionally productive.  But Andy Crouch’s insightful book on power (mentioned in the previous post) made me realize something: if I enjoy rest now, it’s partly because of the power I’ve accumulated over the years, power that buys me more freedom of choice over how I spend my time.

It reminds me of the different ways the sabbath commandment is given in Scripture.  The version in Exodus 20:8-11 exhorts us to follow God’s own example of ceasing work on the seventh day.  But the version in Deuteronomy, referring to the exodus event, makes freedom from slavery the reason for rest:

Keep the sabbath day and treat it as holy, exactly as the Lord your God commanded: Six days you may work and do all your tasks, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God.  Don’t do any work on it—not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your oxen or donkeys or any of your animals, or the immigrant who is living among you—so that your male and female servants can rest just like you.  Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, but the Lord your God brought you out of there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.  That’s why the Lord your God commands you to keep the sabbath day. (Deut 5:12-15, CEB)

This word was written to a people who had all been slaves in Egypt and freed by the mighty hand of God.  Since then, however, power had been redistributed; all worked, but some also had the institutional power to compel the work of others.

The question is: would everyone, regardless of social station, have heard the sabbath commandment the same way?

Hardly.

Consider the phrasing: keep the sabbath day, don’t work on it, so that your servants can rest just like you.  The command creates differential expectations.  For those with institutional power, the very possibility of rest can be an invisible privilege; the expectation is that the privilege will be shared, so that the entire community can remember the goodness of the Lord.  To those lower down the ladder, the commandment creates the hope of enjoying a gift that must be mediated to them by others.  Thus, as Crouch has written, “personal sabbath-keeping, as difficult and rarely practiced as it is, is one thing–what is more revealing is whether we make room for sabbath when others are under our power.”

Sabbath rest entails an act of imagination and memory: we reimagine what makes life significant because we remember who God is and what God has done.  And to those with the power to do so, sabbath therefore entails encouraging rest for others, using what power we have to help others enjoy the freedom that we ourselves might take for granted.

3 thoughts on “Restless (part 2)

  1. As the son of a preacher, I remember growing up under the directive from dad that we do no work (or play) on Sunday; except for mom who nearly every week had to entertain guests in our home. The only time mom got a rest was a rare occasion when the whole family went out for the main Sunday meal. Dad’s double standard on Sunday work always struck me as odd. Now that you’ve so eloquently articulated the power angle, it makes me wonder whether it’s even a good idea to be served in a restaurant on the Sabbath?

    1. That’s a difficult one to call on a policy level. Imagine what would happen to the American economy if every Christian decided to stop eating at restaurants on Sunday…and the biggest share of crisis would fall upon the very people we’d be trying to honor. Those waiting tables may feel they have little choice or control over when and how they work–but what could we do that is within our power to give them a taste of flourishing? We have a church group that meets regularly at the same restaurant, and we’re always served by the same person, a single mom. She enjoys having us in, because we know her by name and sometimes give her a chance to get off her feet, etc. There is at least that. Beyond that, there’s always the question of what we do to empower the powerless.

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