Posts Tagged 'Jubilee'

Sabbath Economics: Becoming Human in a Progress-Driven Age, Part III – Jesus, Jubilee (Debt Cancellation and Redistribution) and Everyday Practices

Jesus and Jubilee

(See Part II for an expanded definition of “Jubilee”)

It was the late Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, in his classic work The Politics of Jesus who pointed out that Jesus was at his core a Jubilee practitioner.(1)  Luke’s gospel is organized around Jesus’ proclamation of “good news for the poor” (Luke 7:22, see 14:13, 21). What could be better news for real poor people than debt cancellation and land restoration? Likewise, a Jubilee gospel is usually bad news for the wealthy (as the Magnificat’s proclamation that God “has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:53, see Mark 10:22). Though the evidence goes far beyond these texts. Sabbath economic principles lay at the heart of his call to discipleship and his ministry, and was at the centre of his conflict with the religious leaders.(2)

At the heart of Jesus call to discipleship was the command, “leave and follow” (Mark 1:18-20, Luke 5:28). Both Levi and Zaccheaus were expected to leave behind their oppressive economic ways in order to embrace Jubilee liberation through redistribution. Jesus promises that whoever leaves “house or family or fields” (the symbols of the basic agrarian economy: site of consumption, labor force, site of production) will receive the same back “hundredfold” (Mark 10:29-30). Discipleship meant leaving behind the seduction and oppression of the debt system for an economy of enough for everyone. In this new economy, which Jesus calls the “Kingdom,” there are no rich and no poor, as the rich by definition “cannot enter” it (Mark 10:23-25). His radical restructuring was based on a downward mobility, where the “first shall be last, and the last shall be first” (Mark 10:31) which was at it’s heart a Jubilee ultimatum.(3)

Jesus also displayed this new Jubilee-centered economy of grace as the one who had authority to forgive sins, or debts. Although “sin” (hamartia) and “debt” (opheileema) are different words in the Greek, there are several indications of their semantic and social equivalence. The Lord’s Prayer according to Luke says “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us” (Luke 11:4). Also, throughout the New Testament the same verb (aphiemi) is used to “forgive” sin and “release” from debt. We see this correlation in Luke’s version of the story of the woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her hair (Luke 7:36-50). Jesus prefaces his forgiveness of the woman’s sins with an object lesson about a creditor that forgave debt (Luke 7:41-43). Matthew makes the same connection with Jesus’ exhortation to forgive sins “seventy times seven” – a clear illusion to the Jubilee “seven times seven” of Leviticus 25:8.  (4)

Jesus also asserted his authority to interpret the true Sabbath practice as one that humanizes us in a world where so much of our socioeconomic practices are dehumanizing. When Jesus instructed his disciples to help themselves to field produce, the religious leaders were angry because they were working on the Sabbath. But their legalistic view of the Sabbath was a perverted one. They thought that humanity was created to observe the Sabbath, But Jesus justified it with a story about the right of hungry Israelites to food regardless of social conventions (Mark 2:23-26). Then comes his punchline: “The Sabbath was created for humanity” (2:27). This reinforces the Sabbath as part of the order of God’s good creation (Genesis 2:2-3), and it’s purpose to restore us to our originally intended just, peaceful, and equitable ways.

Jesus also proclaimed that poverty is not natural but is the result of human sin, specifically the Israelites’ failing to obey God’s commands of Sabbath keeping and Jubilee. When Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus with oil in Mark 14, the disciples protested, saying that they could have sold the oil and given the money to give the poor. Jesus responded with “the poor you will always have with you,” (v. 7) which was a mirroring of the statement in Deut. 15: 4-5 that “there will be no poor among you…if only you will strictly obey the voice of the Lord, being careful to do all that I have commanded you” – as long as they were faithful to God’s commands to keep Sabbath and Jubilee practices of debt-release, freeing of slaves, letting the land rest, and redistribution. They of course failed to do these things, and so Jesus is saying to the disciples that there would always be poor among them, because they will always be unfaithful. However, to say that we must forget this concept because we have always failed to live up to it, as many in the church say today, is to say that we should also forget about trying to love our enemies or sexual fidelity, as hardly anyone in the church practices these commands either!  (5)

It was these subversive economic teachings that got Jesus in trouble with the religious authorities, who were the ones benefiting from the current economic structure. Jesus undermined the dominant socio-economic structure by declaring good news to the poor, warnings to the rich, expectations of redistribution by those who had oppressed, demonstrations of debt forgiveness to all, and a true interpretation of Sabbath – that in its practice we become more human -who we were created to be. Jesus declaration of the Kingdom as a place where the “last will be first, and first shall be last” was enough to convince the religious and political authorities that if they didn’t have this man crucified, they would all lose their positions of power and wealth if the people were intent to make him the King of the Jews.


From Biblical Principles to Everyday Practice

For those who insist that the principles of Sabbath Economics must remain relevant today, we have a lot of hard work to do. We must diligently use our creativity to come up with ways of working, living, spending and consuming that proclaim to those around us that we believe another world is possible.

According to Matthew Colwell, author of Practicing Sabbath Economics and Julie Clawson, author of Everyday Justice, there are a number of things that individuals, households, and entire communities can do to take small steps towards a more faithful counter-formational response to God’s call to be a Sabbath people. The following seven steps are based on the “Sabbath Economic Covenant” developed by Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries, an ecumenical organization focused on economic and spiritual discipleship. The covenant is a simple tool for applying the biblical theme of Sabbath economics to daily practice, inviting people to commit to changes in seven economic areas. Some steps to consider: (6)

1. We must invest our money responsibly. We must make sure it is held in Socially Responsible Investments (SRI) that screen out predatory lending, war profiteering, and other unjust economic practices. Better yet is to invest in Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) that make capital available to the poor and to undeserved communities.

2. We must look at our credit cards and how we use them. Many banks practice predatory lending practices, we can learn about our banks at www.responsiblewealth.org. More eco-friendly credit card options are available today such as the Salmon Nation card from Shorebank Pacific, a bank committed to environmentally sustainable community development (www.salmonnation.com). Since owning a credit card comes with it the temptation to overspend, it might be a good idea to construct a “credit card condom,” a paper sleeve placed over the card that says “Do I really need this?” or “Can I afford this?”

3. We must get organized in our giving. We must evaluate the organizations that we donate to, and ask which ones most reflect our values and priorities. Sabbath Economics begs the specific question: “Are we giving to organizations that locally and globally promote an economy of sufficiency, ensuring that the poor and hungry have enough?”

4. We must take steps towards a greener lifestyle. Evaluations of our ecological footprints can be done at www.myfootprint.org. Transportation choices can have a huge impact, so if possible bicycling, walking, taking public transportation or limiting / avoiding unnecessary travel can help. As for food, local and organic is always best – purchasing food from a local farmer’s market through a community supported agriculture program, or through a community or self-tended garden. Avoid foods that contain excessive packaging, and following the old mantra, “reduce, reuse, recycle” remains helpful. Composting food scraps as well cuts down on garbage and will break down easier and not clog landfills.

5. We must practice simplicity and ethical consumption. In Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things, John C. Ryan and Alan Thein Durning note, “Though they see only a fraction of it, Americans consume 120 pounds – nearly their average body weight – every day in natural resources extracted from farms, forests, rangelands, and mines.”(7)  They also note that if the whole world were to consume at the level of North Americans, we would need at least three additional planets to support it. We must therefore consider ways to limit our consumption to more sustainable levels, and when we do consume, to do so ethically. Julie Clawson in her book Everyday Justice defines ethical consumption as “the application of our moral values and ethical standards to our consumer habits.”(8)

We will still need to be consumers, but instead of being implicit about the unjust practices that are happening to get stuff made for us, we can attempt to redeem the process by living by a more consistent ethic. William Cavanaugh talks about how a symptom of consumerism is not attachment to things, but rather detachment – we use and discard at an every-increasing rate, and we are detached from the means of production and the people who are doing the producing and manual labor.(9)  If it is out of our sight, it is out of our minds. It is important then, for us to inform ourselves about where and how our coffee, chocolate, oil, and clothes are coming from, under what conditions they are being produced (or grown or extracted) and choose to purchase fair trade, used, or locally produced items, or else engage in the making of things we need ourselves. The two books I’ve mentioned in this section are a great start for informing yourself about these things.

6. We must take steps toward greater solidarity with the poor and the marginalized. There are many kinds of trips of exposure or “reverse mission” trips designed to help groups of people connect with and learn from people who are living in poverty. Organizations such as Witness for Peace, Christian Peacemaker Teams, and the Center for Global Education all provide such opportunities. For more local solidarity options, consider moving into a low-income neighborhood, or into an intentional community (such as the one I live in now) that seeks to build relationships through soup kitchens, refugee or homeless shelter work.

7. We must observe a Sabbath discipline in our daily, weekly, monthly and/or yearly rhythm. Taking time out of our busy schedules to stop working, reflect on our lives, rediscover peace, contentment, and gratitude, and to simply enjoy and delight in the goodness of God’s creation can be an extremely counter-formational discipline that point to our desire to serve the God of Creation instead of seductive and destructive god of Mammon.

Individual and household economic actions such as these are no substitute for the necessary work of public action and political advocacy. We must all make our voices heard, in the public square, that we will not support unjust government policies that favour the rich and make life unbearable for the poor. We must make it known to our government that economic growth at all costs should not be our number one priority, but rather we support an economy that factors in ‘pre-care’ policies, as Goudzwaard describes. But these practices are a vital complement to the larger political work, reinforcing and amplifying our public witness. They are simple, everyday expression of faith that will be a light to others that we believe in a better way. They are ways to “say to the darkness, we beg to differ,” as Mary Jo Leddy says.(10)

Conclusion

The church must no longer ignore the theological implications of our economic practices. For those of us in the West, we must own up to the fact that we have and do still contribute to the idolatrous ideology of progress through our desire for constant improvement, for more and better stuff, and through our need to prove ourselves through our overly-productive and chaotic work practices. We must recognize that we have ignored the practice of Sabbath for too long – we have neglected to cultivate postures of peace, gratitude, and delight in creation, we have neglected to remember our liberation from slavery so that we could practice non-oppresive self-restraint and equity, and we have neglected to practice Jubilee debt forgiveness and redistribution that were so central to the covenant relationship between God and the Hebrews and also to the teachings and subversive practices of Jesus. We must continue to educate ourselves and others about Sabbath Economic practices and take the steps necessary to proclaim with our lives that our allegiance is not with the idol of Mammon but with the God who is restoring all of Creation, and in doing so, we become more human in the process.

Me canoeing near Peterborough, Ontario

Peace all, and thanks for reading.

-Jen

___

Endnotes

1 John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, (Grand Rapids, Eerdman’s, 1972).
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 All steps are from Matthew Colwell, “Practicing Sabbath Economics,” Sojourners, May 2008.
7 John C. Ryan and Alan Thein, Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things, (Northwest Environmental Watch, 1997),p. 5.
8 Julie Clawson, Everyday Justice, (Downer’s Grove, Illinois: IVP, 2009), p.26.
9 William Cavanaugh, Being Consumed, (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 2008), p. 50-51.
10 Mary Jo Leddy, Say to the Darkness ‘We Beg to Differ’, (Lester and Orpen Denny’s, 1990), cover.


Bibliography

William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.

Julie Clawson, Everyday Justice, Downer’s Grove: IVP, 2009.

Matthew Colwell, “Practicing Sabbath Economics.” Sojourners, May 2008.

Marva J. Dawn, Living the Sabbath Wholly, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989.

Bob Goudzwaard, et. al., Hope in Troubled Times, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007.

__________, Aid for the Overdeveloped West, Toronto: Wedge, 1975.

__________, Beyond Poverty and Affluence,Toronto: U of T Press, 1995.

Mary Jo Leddy, Radical Gratitude, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002.

__________, Say to the Darkness ‘We Beg to Differ’, Lester & Orpen Denny’s, 1990.

Bill McKibben, Enough, New York: Owl, 2003.

Ched Myers, “Jesus’ New Economy of Grace,” Sojourners, July-August 1998.

__________, The Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics, Washington, DC: Tell the World, Church of the Savior, 2001.

__________, “Sabbath Economics: The gift must always move.” http://www.chedmyers.org

John C. Ryan and Alan Thein, Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things, Northwest     Environment, 1997.

James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009.

Norman Wirzba, Living the Sabbath, Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006.

John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, Grand Rapids, Eerdman’s, 1972.

Jean Vanier, Becoming Human, Toronto: Anansi, 1998.

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Sabbath Economics: Becoming Human in a Progress-Driven Age, Part II

II. Sabbath Freedom and Self-Restraint

For the Hebrews, Sabbath observance was also to serve as a way to remember that they were once an enslaved people that were freed in order to serve God.(1)  The commandment to “keep the Sabbath day holy” (Ex. 20:8) came to the Hebrews while they were in the wilderness, after they had been liberated from slavery and oppression in Egypt. Thus they were to be set apart from the surrounding nations, and one of the ways they would do this was by practicing Sabbath. But this was not merely a spiritual practice designed to foster a sense of peace, gratitude and delight, although those postures are incredibly foundational. Sabbath practice was also at its core an alternate economic ethic – one that was not based on violence, power, and oppression – like Egypt’s – but on peace, trust, equity, and self-restraint. For in the wilderness, manna fell from the sky for six days, and would not fall on the seventh (Ex. 16). The Hebrews were told not to take too much, but only enough for their daily need. Any sort of private hoarding, which could transformed into a way to make a profit by selling off the surplus, or used as a safety net in case the manna didn’t come the next day, was condemned and punished by God – the manna would rot.

Here we see two principals being taught – dependence on God as the source of that which nurtures us and the practice of setting limits on both our work, consumption, and economic growth to ensure all have equal access to the resources they need to live. First, we must recognize that all our determined efforts to bring about our own security through our compulsive work habits, production and distribution of goods, and the exploitation of resources is all in vain. The manna from God serves as a reminder that that our food is not a product that we create, but a gift that we must nurture. We must abandon the false notion that we are in control, that we bring about our own security, and that we are kept alive through our own efforts, and dispel the illusion that the goods that we enjoy are ours because we have earned and deserve them. This brings us back to the concept of gratitude, but also teaches us to radically trust in the provision of God – the Source of all things.

God’s command that the Hebrews must take only enough for their daily need is also a lesson in setting limits on our work, consumption, and economic growth to ensure that everyone has equal access to the resources they need to live. We must not toil endlessly because we can, we must not eat and buy endlessly simply because we can, we must not endlessly extract resources and grow our economy to the heights because we can, but there must be a point where we say “enough is enough.” Goudzwaard also discusses this principle with the concept of a ‘tree economy.’ (2) A tree, he says, has built-in creational wisdom, for it knows when to stop growing and then redirects its energy towards producing and bearing fruit.  Knowing when to restrain ourselves is vitality important for the benefit of all.

Both of these principles – dependence on God and setting limits – were to be lived out because the Hebrews were liberated from Egypt for the purpose of practicing freedom in of all their activities. They were not to mirror the Egyptians by a practice of oppressing others through working and consuming endlessly and by an unequal distribution of resources, property and goods. This was a lesson in limiting and transforming their desires – limiting their selfish desires to compete for the most and the best, hoard, and thereby oppress, and then transforming them into freedom-inducing desires of generosity, sharing, equity, and justice.

William Cavanaugh talks about this concept in his book: Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. He writes about how to become free of our addiction to working, consuming, and hoarding (or anything for that matter – alcohol, etc.). He summarizes St. Augustine’s concept of freedom by saying that, “The key to true freedom is not just following whatever desires we happen to have, but cultivating the right desires.” (3) Using an alcoholic as an example, he explains that an alcoholic with plenty of money and access to an open liquor store may, in a purely negative sense, be free from anything interfering with getting what he or she wants; but in reality he or she is profoundly unfree, he or she cannot free himself. This can only happen through the interference of another, God being the ultimate Other, who liberates the alcoholic from his or her own wanton desires and helps him or her cultivate new ones. (4)

This is precisely what God was doing with the Hebrews when he liberated them from captivity in Egypt. He did not free them so that they could organize themselves by whatever social or economic ethic they desired, instead he freed them so that they learn true freedom, by cultivating a desire for a new set of social and economic ethics that would set them apart from the surrounding nations. Their practice of peace, self-restraint, and economic equity would be a light to all the peoples of the world that they belonged to the Creator, who Himself embodies these life-bringing attributes.

III. Sabbath of Sabbaths: Jubilee Liberation, Equity, and Redistribution

No concept exhibits the core principles of Sabbath Economics – liberation, equity, and redistribution of resources – like Jubilee. God’s command was that in the fiftieth year, after seven cycles of Sabbatical years (where every seven years debt would be forgiven and slaves would be set free), the ‘Sabbath of Sabbaths’, the Hebrews “shall return, everyone of you, to your own property and everyone of you to your family” (Lev. 25:10). Those who had to sell land or household members (slaves or servants) because of dire economic circumstances should not remain in a destitute or vulnerable position forever. On the fiftieth year those who had lost their land or had been sold to another household were to be returned to their ancestral lands and families so that they could have a fresh start at living a decent life. The Jubilee proclaims liberty and release (shemittah) because it directly reflects God’s generosity with us and God’s desire that we live well on the land. As the owner of all, God could simply keep it for himself. But God does not do this. God opens his hand so that others can enjoy what God has to give. In a similar manner, we are not to be tightfisted in our economic dealings, trying to secure as much for ourselves as possible. Rather, we should extend hands of mercy and compassion to those who have suffered hardship. One of the most direct ways that we can do this is to release people – and countries, especially those in the global south – of their debt and bondage, so that they can have a fresh start and fair and equal access to the resources necessary for life. (5)

According to Ched Myers, the church has a difficult time hearing Jubilee as good news because “our theological imaginations have long been taken captive by the market-driven orthodoxies of modern capitalism.”(6)  One of the major fear-based objections to this practice of Jubilee is that it is viewed, “at best utopian and at worst communisitic.” (7) Yet people find it awkward to dismiss the biblical witness, so another objection arises: “Israel never really practiced the Jubilee!” Myers suggests that this challenge is best met when confronting both the “negative” and “positive” evidence for Jubilee.

By “negative” evidence, Myers means that Israel’s prophets were consistently complaining that Israel had abandoned the poor and vulnerable members of the community, thus they were using the Sabbath principles of freedom, self-restraint, and equity as a “measuring stick” to which they could hold the nation accountable.(8)   Indeed it was true that Israel failed regularly to abide by the principles of seventh-year debt release and Jubilee restructuring, and this was most likely due to the economic stratification that took place once the tribal confederacy was replaced with the centralized political power under the Davidic dynasty. The prophet Samuel warned that the adoption of a monarchy system like the surrounding nations would inevitably lead to economic oppression of the poor for the advantage of few elites at the top, through ruthless policies of surplus extraction and militarism (1 Sam. 8:11-18).  (9)

Israel’s abandonment of Sabbath principles was a central complaint of the prophets. Isaiah accused the nation with robbery (Isaiah 3:14-15), which was an illusion to the manna tradition’s prohibition of stored wealth in the face of community need. Amos accused the commercial classes of viewing Sabbath as an hindrance to making more and more profits, and of exploiting the poor rather than ensuring their gleaning rights (Amos 8:5-6, Exodus 23:1011, Leviticus 19:9010, Micah 7:1). (10)  Hosea laments that Israel’s fidelity to international markets has replaced their faithfulness to God’s economy of liberation and equity (Hosea 2:5). Most telling of all, is the statement that Israel’s rejection of Sabbath keeping was the prime reason that they were captured by the Babylonians: “God took into exile in Babylon those who had escaped the sword…to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had made up for its Sabbaths. All the days it lay desolate it kept Sabbath, to fulfill seventy years” (2 Chronicles 36:20-21; see Leviticus 26:34-35).(11)  Israel’s ignoring of the Sabbath command to let the land rest every seven years led to God ensuring the land would rest by removing the Israelites from it altogether!

There is also positive evidence that the Sabbath was practiced. Jeremiah is angered with King Zedekiah when he reneges of his declaration of Jubilee liberation (Jeremiah 34:13-16). Naboth claims Sabbath ancestral rights to the land when resisting King Ahab’s desire to take the land for his convenient purposes (1 Kings 21). (12)

There are also eschatological visions of Jubilee, the most well known is found in Isaiah 61:1-2:

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor,
he has sent me to bind up the broken hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the year of vengeance of our God.

The references to the “good news to the poor,” the “liberty to the captives” and the proclamation of the “year of the Lord’s favor” are not merely spiritual promises, but economic and social ones. They are references to the compassionate debt-relief and radical restructuring of Jubilee, and of all the passages in scripture that Jesus could have chosen from to define and inaugurate his earthly mission with, it was this one that he chose. (13)  In the next section we’ll explore Jesus as a Jubilee practitioner, as well as practical ways we can live out Sabbath economics in our daily lives.

Part 3 of 3 here!

____

1 Wirzba, Ibid., p.34-35.
2 Goudzwaard, Beyond Poverty and Affluence, (Toronto: U of T Press, 1995), p. 129.
3 William Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2008), p.11.
4 Ibid., pg. 9.
5 Ibid.
6 Ched Myers, “Jesus’ New Economy of Grace,” Sojourners, July-August 1998, p. 1.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid.
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid., p. 1-2.
12 Ibid., p. 2.
13 Ibid.

Sabbath Economics: Becoming Human in a Progress-Driven Age

In the same week in January 2010 that I decided not to buy clothes for one year, I signed up for the course Towards a Christian Political Economy: The Writings of Bob Goudzwaard taught by Brian J. Walsh (co-author of Colossians Remixed and my favourite-because-he-is-radical-and-creative prof at Wycliffe College). I was just sick of my constant need for retail-therapy and nauseous at how many clothes I was accumulating, especially in light of the destitute poverty in the Majority World (2/3rds of the world lives on less than $2 /day). And the more I read the Scriptures, the more I realized that they speak more about wealth accumulation, work,  possessions, and poverty way more than it talks about anything else. And if the Scriptures think that our economics reveal the core of our humanity, who we are, what we truly care about, and where our allegiances lie, than so must I.

Which is why I was so relieved to discover, through this course, the writings of Bob Goudzwaard. A Dutch, Christian political-economist, Goudzwaard has been a Member of Parliament in Holland and teaches economics at the Free University of Amsterdam. And while he holds rather critical views of the majority of the West’s current political and economic policies, he has a lot of hope for how we can live out alternative economic practices that are more faithful to the ways of God and will restore us to our lost sense of humanity – and will restore all of creation to it’s original goodness.

Sabbath Economics are part of those beliefs and practices, and it was the topic of my term paper for the course (which I got an A on, hurray!). Part I is below, and it’s about a 10-15 minute read. Parts II and III will be posted later in the week. If you are at all curious about how a different sort of economics can recover who you – and all of creation – were always meant to be, read on.

Sabbath Economics: Becoming Human in a Progress-Driven Age

by Jen Galicinski

Introduction

Goudzwaard’s diagnosis of Western society – that it is held captive to the idolatrous ideology of progress – is one that the Church can no longer ignore. Far from being a mere political opinion of those on the ‘left’, it is at its core a spiritual problem.
Our perpetual dissatisfaction, addiction to ‘improving’ the created order, hoarding both natural resources and material possessions, constant consumption and disposal of products for consumption’s sake, and ignorance and apathy about the unjust processes of production that are being conducted for our ‘benefit’ are all signs of broken shalom, the deep peace and harmony of God that is meant to infuse all of creation. The creational order itself is broken; it is not what God intended for it to be and neither are we. If it is true that we are transformed into the image of that which we worship, humanity itself has become less-than-human, a disturbing look-alike of Mammon, the evil personification of riches that Jesus warned his followers against in the Sermon of the Mount.

Where have we gone wrong, and is there any hope for restoration and redemption? Ched Myers and others believe that we have forsaken the biblical principles of Sabbath Economics: that we are to live with radical gratitude, deep peace, and delight in God’s creation, that we are to practice the communal discipline of setting limits and restraint, and we should be involved in the Jubilee practice of debt release and redistribution, so that everyone has access to the sources of life that they need to flourish. It is by practicing these principles of an ‘Economy of Enough’ on an individual, household, and community level, as a faithful and covenantal act of worship of the Creator, that we will be erecting signposts that point towards the Kingdom of God and the restoration of all creation, and as well, to our fully recovered humanity.

‘Progress’ and Its Ails

Goudzwaard argues that Western society, at its core, is operating out of an idolatrous ideology of progress. Like the inhabitants of Easter Island, who sacrificed their resources to the human-made gigantic stone idols, we have become “seduced by a kind of progress that [has become] a mania, an ‘ideological pathology.’”(1) Human achievements such as market forces, technological development, scientific progress, the state, and power unleashed reign supreme as our sole vision for human flourishing, as the way to achieve the ‘good life.’(2) The “goal is in the going” says Goudzwaard, and the idea that we must stop going, stop wasting, and stop consuming more and more and quicker and quicker would spell immediate doom for our economy (not to mention impeachment of our nations’ leaders).(3)

But stop we must, for there are a plethora of distress signals crying out from the creation itself. We live on a finite planet, and geological experts report that raw materials and energy reserves are being depleted at a rapid rate.(4)  The number of species of plants and animals is decreasing rapidly and the fundamental chain of life in the oceans is being threatened, biologists warn us.(5)  The pollution of the environment and the crisis of global warming is accelerating, the environmental experts say.(6)  With the scarcity of resources, Western nations have become the ‘have-nots,’ for they need the most raw materials and energy to continue their current way of life, and so they must rely on massive imports, which only heightens military tensions that can lead to the use of force to secure their ‘economic interests’.(7)  Almost everything is being packaged to sell, from sports to sex, and this commodification is stripping these good things that God created for our enjoyment of their intended purpose.(8)

At the heart of this current economic system is that which consistently propels it forward with an ever-increasing velocity: consumerism. Our desire for more and more and better and better stuff literally drives our entire economic system. Perpetual dissatisfaction and artificially induced cravings are created by marketers who attempt to tell us with their advertisements that we are not good enough, not sexy enough, comfortable enough, or not ‘cool’ enough, but not to worry – that will all change when you buy whatever it is that they are selling. Entire mythologies are created around labels – “visions of human flourishing,” as Jamie Smith says – that depict for consumers “the good life” that could be yours at the moment of purchase.(9)  The average person is bombarded with over 3,000 advertisements a day, whether it be on TV, the radio, billboards, buses, subways, store fronts, or even on people who are walking advertisements whenever they wear clothing with a logo on it.(10)  These ads are telling us that our value lies in what we have and in how we appear, and based on the West’s patterns of over-consumption, we are buying into it this idolatrous fable with full force.

As Annie Leonard explains in the incredibly eye-opening 20-minute film The Story of Stuff, consumerism as a totalizing lifestyle did not happen by accident, it was planned. After WWII, when the American economy was weak, American retail analyst Victor LeBeau said:

Our enormously productive economy…demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction in consumption…we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-excelerating rate.(11)

Strategies such as planned obsolescence, where items such as computers and radios are made to need replacing in a few years so that you’ll buy another one, and perceived obsolescence, where perfectly useful items such as clothing are considered ‘out-dated’ by the fashion community, are used by producers and marketers of goods to convince people that they need to continually buy more and more stuff. People’s whole lives are centered around the ‘spiritual ritual’ of consumption, as they work all day, come home exhausted and sit in front of the television set, where they are bombarded with advertisements that tell them, “you suck!” so that they feel the need to go out again and shop to feel better about themselves, and the vicious cycle continues.

We in the West have been raised in a society that is so saturated with the rituals of consumption and discarding (the average person discards 4 ½ pounds of garbage per day, over twice as much as 30 years ago!) that many believe that this is natural, just the way things are.(12)  But as we become aware that it was planned as a strategic economic method to increase the economic growth of America, we can look upon it with sober judgment, and choose not to be held captive by it’s idolatrous and distorted perception of reality.

Another symptom of the West’s idolatrous ideology of progress is described in Bill McKibben’s book Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age. McKibben speaks of the dangers of scientific ‘progress’ in the field of ‘germline’ genetic engineering. Embryonic DNA is manipulated for the purpose of ‘improving’ human beings in order to go “for perfection” in the words of the DNA pioneer James Watson, for, “Who wants an ugly baby?”(13) Instead of making babies by making love, if this scientific ‘progress’ continues, we will make ‘designer babies’ in the laboratory – modifying genes affecting everything from obesity to intelligence, eye color to gray matter.(14)  All this is attempting to make our children happier, like a kind of “targeted, permanent Prozac.”(15)  Parenting will be turned into mere ‘product development’ as everyone seeks to make their children smarter, faster, and more attractive than the children down the street.(16)

But at what cost? For what purpose? Jean Vanier, in his book Becoming Human, argues that a human being is more than the power or capacity to think and to perform. Rather, we are most human when we connect to others in a spirit of love and solidarity.(17)  With this in mind, McKibben says that at some point,

We need to do an unlikely thing: we need to survey the world we now inhabit and proclaim that it is good. Good enough. Not in every detail, there are a thousand improvements, technological and cultural, that we can and should still make. But good enough in it’s outlines, in its essentials. We need to decide that we live, most of us in the West, live long enough. We need to declare that, in the West, where few of us work ourselves to the bone, we have ease enough. In societies where most of us need storage lockers more than we need nano-tech miracle boxes, we need to declare that we have enough stuff. Enough intelligence. Enough capability. Enough.(18)

It is only when we recognize that our insatiable desire for more and more is not only destroying the planet, creating greater gaps between the rich and the poor, and creating global instabilities through war for natural resources, but is also making us less-than-human in the process, that we can begin on a path that is more faithful to our calling to image the Creator in his care for the planet and for all the people on it, including ourselves.

Sabbath Economics

Thankfully, we have in the Scriptures principles to help us jump off this treadmill of wastefulness and consumerism in the name of ‘progress’ and onto a more faithful path of radical gratitude, deep peace, delight in God’s creation, simplicity, restraint, and economic justice for all. Here is where the biblical concept of Sabbath Economics can give us great wisdom and insight. Ched Myers argues that our economic system and practices must be re-interpreted in light of the central biblical teaching of Sabbath. There are three major aspects of this teaching that I will discuss below: first, that we must be rooted in the peace, radical gratitude, and delight in creation that Sabbath intends, second, that we must root ourselves in the memory of our release from captivity and thus practice self-restraint, and third, that we must practice the Jubilee principles of liberation, equity, and redistribution.

I. Sabbath Peace, Gratitude, and Delight

When many Christians hear the word ‘Sabbath’, including myself just a short time ago, they tend to think of merely a ‘day off’ where one chooses to stop with the hectic pace of a busy, chaotic, over-productive lifestyle and just rest. At least that is what they think it is supposed to be, though many of us have too much to do to muster up even that. Most people work five days a week, burning themselves out to make money, and then spend the weekend working around the house – doing yard work, cleaning, or doing repairs. There is not enough time in the week, it seems, to get everything done that we need to – and any time that is left over for rest is spent in exhaustion. Yet in all of our toil, for all we have achieved, and for all we have acquired we do not appear measurably happier, satisfied, or at peace.(19) We are constantly hounded by the worry, as mentioned in our discussion of consumerism above, that we do not have enough, or what we have is not the latest, fastest, or most fashionable best, and we have the fear that we will be perceived as slackers.(20)  We are suffering from a lack of shalom, of a lack of the deep peace and harmony of God that is infiltrating into all of our activities, all of our working, buying, and organizing. The root cause of our striving for ‘progress’ is deeply spiritual, and in this regard, we are bankrupt.

While the principal of ceasing from work is a part of Sabbath, it only scratches the surface of this biblical principal. To have a Sabbath bearing is not just a break, but a discipline that will lead us into a complete, joyous life.(21)  Norman Wirzma says in his book Living the Sabbath that “Sabbath life is a truly human life – abundant life, at it’s best – because it is founded in God’s overarching design for all places and all times.”(22)  In the Genesis account of creation – the first mention of Sabbath, or shabbat – God worked for six days and then rested on the seventh. While it is tempting to think that creation was then finished on the sixth day, it was not yet complete. The one thing it lacked, and the thing that was yet to be created, was God’s menuha– the rest, tranquility, serenity, and peace of God.(23)  This was then infused into the entire creation – all the work that God had done on the previous six days – as a sort of stamp that would seal his delight in it all. In the biblically informed mind, menuha suggests the sort of happiness and harmony that come from things as they ought to be; we hear in menuha resonances with the deep word shalom, meaning wholeness, or the fullness of peace between all created things and harmony with God.(24)

It is this capacity for joy and delight that is the crowning achievement of God’s work, and thus, Sabbath is not simply a cessation from activity but rather the lifting up and celebration of everything.(25)  Ched Myers says that the original vocation of people was to simply enjoy this ‘Cosmic Sabbath’ by entering into intimate relationship with an abundant and wonderful creation (Gen 2:1ff).(26)  However, humans succumbed to the temptation to try to “improve” upon the work of God and were cast out of the garden.(27)  Life on the outside meant alienation from God, from each other, and from creation.(28)  It meant hard work and a creation that wasn’t so abundant.(29)  Sabbath keeping reminds us of the original mutually beneficially relationship between ourselves and God, each other, and the land, and that we were created for delight and enjoyment of these relationships.(30)  We are thus most human, mirror images of our Creator, when we practice Sabbath and allow its discipline to infuse the whole of our lives.

What does this have to do with our economics? Well, if our economic system is driven by consumerism and the desire for more and more, better and better, by an idolatrous faith in “progress” as the gateway to greater human flourishing, and this is creating all kinds of global, environmental and psychological crises and ailments, what would happen if we all were to take the practice of Sabbath discipline seriously? What would happen if we were to take one day a week to rest and remember the “point of our being,” as Mary Jo Leddy says – to delight in God, people, and all of creation? What would happen if we developed a posture of peace, radical gratitude, and delight that we would then carry with us throughout the entire week, infusing everything that we do with vibrant energy? Mary Jo Leddy suggests that only in gratitude, “the vicious cycle of dissatisfaction with life is broken and we begin anew in the recognition of what we have rather than what we don’t, in the acknowledgement of who we are rather than in the awareness of who we aren’t.”(31)  A spirit of incredible thanksgiving, an appreciation for the simple pleasures of life – family, friends, laughter, listening to a rockin’ song, reading a good book– can be revolutionary and subversive in the midst of a society that is continuously unsatisfied, that is driven by this gnawing need that they will only be happy when they have more stuff. If the idolatrous ideology of progress is transforming us into the destructive and relentless image of Mammon, only the worship of the Creator by imaging his Sabbath keeping – his rest, peace, gratitude and delight – will transform us into beings who are content with enough, grateful for all that we have been freely given, and able to fully enjoy the creation with child-like wonder as we were intended to, from the very first sunrise of that first Sabbath day.

Part 2 of 3 here!

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Endnotes

1 Bob Goudzwaard et. al., Hope in Troubled Times, (Grand Rapids, Baker, 2007), p.15.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid., Aid for the Overdeveloped West, (Toronto, Wedge, 1975), p. 2.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid.
9 James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom,(Grand Rapids, Baker, 2009), pg. 73.
10 Annie Leonard, The Story of Stuff, film, http://www.thestoryofstuff.org
11 Ibid.
12 Ibid.
13 Bill McKibben, Enough, (New York, Owl, 2003), p. 10.
14 Ibid.
15 Ibid.
16 Ibid.
17 Jean Vanier, Becoming Human, (Toronto, Anansi, 1998), p. 86.
18 McKibben, Ibid.  p. 109.
19 Norman Wirzba, Living the Sabbath, (Grand Rapids, Brazos Press, 2006), p. 19.
20 Ibid.
21 Ibid.
22 Ibid, p. 21.
23 Ibid.
24 Ibid.
25 Ibid, p. 33.
26 Ched Myers, “Sabbath Economics: The Gift Must Always Move.” http://www.chedmyers.org
27 Ibid.
28 Ibid.
29 Ibid.
30 Ibid.
31 Mary Jo Leddy, Radical Gratitude, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002), p. 6-7.


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