Posts Tagged 'peace'

So this is Christmas (War is Not Over)

Today is one of the days in the church calendar that I most appreciate – the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents. During the 12 days of  Christmas, there is a day to remember that the birth of the Prince of Peace threatened the Roman Empire so much that it resorted immediately to the tool that marks every empire – violence. With a lust for power and control, King Herod ushered a decree that baby boys under the age of two be massacred, in hopes of killing the one who was deemed to be the true King. It was a state-sponsored infanticide, thousands were murdered, and the Holy Family fled as refugees.

As I’m writing this my nieces and nephews are squealing with delight as they run around and play with each other. The two youngest are under two years of age, and I cannot imagine the horror of an army coming around and murdering them in cold blood. (Later,  at the dinner table, I was discussing this article, and my dad asked why the “Holy Innocents” are so “Holy”. My 9 year old nephew wondered if it was because being holy is being set apart for God, and these infants died instead of Jesus, so they were set apart in heaven. Genius.)

My appreciation of this awful day might seem a little masochistic, but after the peace and beauty and joy that we’re all supposed to feel at Christmas (and I do often feel and love these things), I like being thrown back into the reality that for most people in the world, life is completely cruel and marked mostly by suffering. Because it’s authentic.

As I speak, violence is rising in the South Sudan and the newly formed country is quickly deteriorating – with hundreds of innocents slaughtered in the past two weeks and a friend of mine having to evacuate the country.

Sudan People's Liberation Army soldiers drive in a truck in Juba, Wouth Sudan, December 21, 2013.

Sudan People’s Liberation Army soldiers drive in a truck in Juba, Wouth Sudan, December 21, 2013.

The number of Syrian refugees continues to rise well over the million-mark.

Syrian refugees cross into Iraq at the Peshkhabour border.

Syrian refugees cross into Iraq at the Peshkhabour border.

Disaster is still wide-spread in the Philippines after the horrendous typhoon.

Children hold signs asking for help and food along the highway, after Typhoon Haiyan hit Tabogon town in The Philippines

Children hold signs asking for help and food along the highway, after Typhoon Haiyan hit Tabogon town in The Philippines

The empire of globalized capitalism consumes its slave-labour victims year by year.

Clothing garment factory in Bangladesh deemed "slave labour" "Against God" by Pope Francis

Clothing garment factory in Bangladesh deemed “slave labour” “Against God” by Pope Francis

In my own country of Canada, First Nations people were ruthlessly slaughtered and are still being perpetually thrown aside on their own land, their “reserves” more like majority-world countries, and their commitment to stewarding their land well by resisting the oil pipeline pushed by the settler state is ignored.

Charles Heit, a Gitxsan First Nation member opposed to the $5.5-billion Enbridge oil pipeline from Alberta to the British Columbia port of Kitimat warms himself beside a fire at a camp outside the Gitxsan Treaty Office in Hazelton, B.C., on Thursday January 12, 2012.

Charles Heit, a Gitxsan First Nation member opposed to the $5.5-billion Enbridge oil pipeline from Alberta to the British Columbia port of Kitimat warms himself beside a fire at a camp outside the Gitxsan Treaty Office in Hazelton, B.C., on Thursday January 12, 2012.

This day provides the opportunity to cut out all of the bullshit that sometimes comes with Christmas – the other-worldly angelic joy, the commercialism of it all, the pretending that Christmas has saved us all – because it hasn’t…yet.

The Massacre was the introduction of what Christ was up against in his lifetime, and it is what we are up against in ours. For Christ there was a violent empire that when challenged, would not hesitate to kill and destroy all in its path, and the same is true for us. The penalty for following this Prince of Peace into the darkness and the suffering will ultimately threaten the empires that rule today (if we are doing it right), and hell hath no fury like a threatened empire.

So what to do?

As Anne Lamott says in her new book Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair, “we are not served by getting away from the grubbiness of suffering.” She continues,  “we have to stand in the middle of the horror, at the foot of the cross [like Mary], and wait out another’s suffering where that person can see us….To be honest, that sucks. It’s the worst, even if you are the mother of God.”

Presence and solidarity with those who are suffering, without any cute platitudes like “God’s plan is perfect” — which only makes things worse — is hard, but it’s so essential and a good place to start.

But then what? Lamott continues

Most of us have figured out that we have to do what’s in front of us and keep doing it. We clean up beaches after oil spills. We rebuild towns after hurricanes and tornados. We return calls and library books. We get people water. Some of us even pray. Every time we choose the good action or response, the decent, the valuable, it builds, incrementally, to renewal, resurrection, the place of newness, freedom, justice. The equation is: life, death, resurrection, hope. The horror is real, and so you make casseroles for your neighbour, organize an overseas clothing drive, and do your laundry…we live stitch by stitch, when we’re lucky.

Or, we can do something equally dramatic, and go be present with those most suffering in our world, and work with and for them in whatever way you are gifted and able.

For as my seminary professor of Ethics of Wealth and Poverty once said, every act of social justice (or simple kindness, in my opinion) is a foretaste and foreshadowing of the coming Kingdom of justice, peace, and flourishing for all.

So today, we remember. We educate ourselves, and others. We lament. We are present with the suffering. We get stitchin’.

But first, we let go of all of our sadness and meager attempts to God. From the Anglican Book of Common Prayer:

We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Amen.

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The Empire is Among Us (and Jesus is Luke Skywalker?)


“What the hell is ‘The Empire’?” I kept asking myself and my friends, bewildered after every Theology of Culture class with Brian Walsh this past September. He mentioned it in nearly every class, saying it had “captivated the West’s imaginations” and we all needed to “subvert” it. I was incredibly confused. After making the same “Like does he think it will strike back??”  lame attempt at a joke with each friend, we’d then get into a passionate discussion, trying to decipher what he meant. It’s “the Man” that is begging to be damned, it’s “the Machine” that is to be raged against, it’s “the Matrix” that is to be decoded and exposed. Or as my roommate Rob (who has worked with B. Walsh for years) would say with a half smirk, “hehehe, good question. I don’t even think he knows anymore.” While I knew intrinsically that I would be inspired if I could sort out in my brain all that I was learning about this new (to me) approach to interpreting the Scriptures, I was too afraid to ask such a simple question to my professor. He seemed to assume we all knew just what he meant when referring to this culturally packed word. After sheepishly gathering up the tiniest amount of courage, I asked him what it was, and received a rather brilliant, enlightening explanation. All which made perfect sense for a whole 3 hours, until I fell asleep, thinking giddily to myself “Jen, you should totally write this down! You get it!” The next morning, when I tried to explain to my counselor that I’d had a breakdown-turned-breakthrough, all I could enthusiastically spurt out was some mumble jumble about “the powers that be” and “not flying away to heaven.” Feeling somewhat defeated, yet utterly resolved to sort this out for my own personal sanity, I spent several hours on the website Empire Remixed, which, for the purpose of this assignment [for B. Walsh], I’ve decided to review as a cultural product.  Hopefully, by the end of this paper, and yet another frantic phone call to my classmate Dave Krause (who has been claiming repeatedly than B. Walsh is his best friend), I will have this all figured out.

According to Andy Crouch in his book Culture Making, a good way to learn about a culture (like ours, circa 2009) is to ask five questions of a cultural product it creates (such as Empire Remixed). The first question is, “What does this cultural product assume about the way the world is?” First, the website Empire Remixed assumes by its very medium that there’s a certain demographic of people, largely located in the West, that seek information through a networking of computers called the “internet.” People pay for access to this pool of information and are able thereafter freely post and respond to ideas. By the content of the ideas on Empire Remixed, one would assume that its creators believe that there’s an empire that is currently in power, that it’s distorting reality and controlling the masses, and that it needs to be rethought, reverted, and ultimately redeemed. The creators of the website are thus warning others who are reading their ideas about the dangers of this empire and are posing an alternative to being subject to it. However, freedom of speech is very present in this culture, even though it is supposedly under the rule of some evil empire! So what exactly is the nature of “The Empire”?

Well, an empire is, according to Wikipedia (another internet-based information source – obviously revealing the fact that I’m currently writing within the same culture), “a strong, centrally-controlled nation-state” but it can also refer to “a large-scale business enterprise (i.e. a transnational corporation) and a political organization of either national-, regional-, or city scale, controlled either by a person (a political boss) or a group authority (political bosses).” So, “The Empire” is essentially made up of several power systems and structures (political, economic, cultural and/or social) that are dominant in our world today. This would include (but is not be limited to), Western-style capitalism that creates all sorts of global injustice, the ideology of consumerism, the politics of greed, corruption and power, the destruction of the environment, and the media that portrays these systems as natural, woman as objects, and sex as merely a commodity.

According to the creators of Empire Remixed, the nature and ways of The Empire are diametrically opposed to the nature and ways of God, the Creator of the World. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Israelites, God’s chosen people, are taken captive several times, and live in exile under the rule of either the Babylonian, Syrian, or Roman Empires (or others). The Israelites, commanded by God to live a distinct life that would separate them from the surrounding peoples, lived in exile under the control of the Babylonians, Syrians, or Romans (plus others). All empires not only had political and economic control over the Israelites, but they influenced their way of thinking, worshiping, and essentially their very identity. They became idolatrous, greedy, and conformed to the destructive mindsets and practices of their captors. They became people of the empire. The prophets, over and over throughout the centuries, came to call the Israelites to repent for taking on the idols and practices of the empires, and to remind them of their true identity, that they are the people of God.  According to Brian Walsh, when Jesus came, his entire life was lived in subversion to the Roman Empire, pointing the Israelites to reclaim their true identity and place in the Kingdom of God. This Kingdom turns the power structure of the empire on its head, by proclaiming that those who want to be first must be a servant of all, and that love, mercy, and justice should take the place of idolatry, greed, and oppression. By dying on a cross, the execution style used to maintain pax Romana, Jesus humbly surrendered his life to the violence of the Empire. But through his resurrection, he ultimately defeated the power of the Empire, ushering in a new era of everlasting peace and rule of a new empire – the Kingdom of God. He thus opened up possibilities for all to out their true identities, as the reconciled people of God, devoted to Kingdom principles.

According to Empire Remixed, there are many parallels that can be made between the Israelites who lived in exile, struggling to live as the People of God while under the powerful influence of the Empire, and modern Christians who currently live in a society that is controlled by the unjust practices and destructive, identity-distorting messages of globalized capitalism. During an interview with Empire Remixed in May 2006, N.T. Wright said that, “the Western economic structures, mostly located in, or based in, or at least in cahoots with the United States, have actually achieved without territorial conquest the same kind of hegemony over the rest of the world that in past days people achieved through precisely territorial conquest.” This is a rule that depends on greed, cut-throat competition, and oppression of the poor in order to maintain power that is held by a miniscule minority. Its rule depends on its subjects to buy into consumerism, the myth of progress, and selfish individualism in order to preserve pax Americana. It’s a rule pervades every area of people’s lives, threatening to steal their loyalties away from the one true Lord of the World, Jesus, and the one rightful empire – The Kingdom of God. As Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Matthew 6:24)

Thus, The Empire needs to be “remixed.” Andy Crouch’s second question to ask of a cultural product is, “What does it assume about the way the world should be?” First, the website assumes that Christ-followers should have an alternative to blindly following the ways of The Empire. There is a better way, and it starts by “remixing” the elements of the old way. In choosing the word “remixed”, the creators of the website also assume that it’s readers will understand the reference to the widely practiced technique of remixing music. To remix music is to change up the different elements of a song – to hear it again with a totally different perspective, a sought after “new and improved” version of the old. So, “remixing” the Empire is taking its elements, its distorted and dehumanizing mindsets and practices, and turning them on their heads. How does this look, practically speaking? A litany written by creators of Empire Remixed called “Amidst the Powers – A Benediction,” beautifully suggests that we should “dethrone the powers by redeeming them.” What does this look like in everyday life? The litany goes on:

If the powers render you homeless, build homes.
If the powers reduce sexuality to a commodity, enter into faithful covenant.
If the powers rob you of your children, then take them back.
If the powers create domination, then embrace sacrifice.
If the powers despoil creation, then plant a garden.
If the powers take away your wealth, then give away freely.
All of this is ‘kicking at the darkness until it bleeds daylight.’

Thus, Christians should be continually subverting the Empire by starting with an element it throws at them, “remixing it,” and redeeming it by living out it’s intended Kingdom purpose. To remix the element of homelessness, therefore, is to build homes. To remix the destruction of creation is to plant a garden. To remix greed is to be generous, to remix consumerism is to live simply, to remix selfish individualism is to love and serve your neighbor. All of this is, “kicking at the darkness until it bleeds daylight,” a reference to the lyrics of Bruce Cockburn. In referring to the musician, the website also assumes that prophetic voices can be heard through modern musicians. Thus, God is still speaking today – giving the same old message, granted – but using contemporary artists as a medium to reach a new generation.

The third question to ask of a cultural product is, “What does it make possible?” Empire Remixed makes it possible for thousands of people, in 94 countries across the world (as of Oct. 11, 2009), to have access to (what it’s creators believe) is an alternative, prophetic vision of the world as it should be, as lived under the authority of Jesus. The subtitle of the website is “rethinking everything,” and that it attempts to do. The website contains articles written by several different contributors that journal their struggle to understand how to think about and live out the Kingdom of God in their current cultural context. There are many personal entries about the writers’ thoughts on conducting relevant ministry, Christianity and homosexuality, speaking the truth, the gender of God, depression and suicide, the economy, simple living, social justice, current issues in the news, and the modern prophetic voices of various musicians, authors, and artists, just to name a few topics. But there aren’t only articles. The creators of Empire Remixed have hosted events that have given flesh to their ideas and conversations. Author and theologian N.T. Wright was invited to speak, play music, and dance with (maybe?) all who were willing to crowd into a Toronto nightclub for the opportunity to be inspired by his ideas and engage him in conversation. Activist and author Shane Claiborne, founder of the Simple Way, was also invited to speak about what it means to radically live out the Kingdom of God among the least of these in our society. Other musicians and, including Martyn Joseph and Marva Dawn, have all been invited to play and speak, all contributing to the ongoing discussion about how exactly to “remix the Empire.”

The fourth question to be asked of a cultural product is, “What does it make impossible (or difficult)?” First, Empire Remixed makes it difficult for the uneducated in the ways of “empire talk” to understand what they mean by “The Empire!” No where on the site is there a clear and concise definition or explanation, and any reference to empire is extremely, extremely vague. While writing this paper, I asked several people who know of the site what they thought the definition of “empire” was, and I got very different answers (see the first paragraph again). Even Dave Krause, one of the contributors to the site, couldn’t explain it without going on for an hour! (I finally gave him a pen and told him to write it down in 5 minutes or less, and he still took 15!) For a group of people that are concerned about the majority of political and economic power being held by the top 1%, it is ironic that one must have access to a certain small number of books and theories (mostly written in English and published in academic circles) in order to be enlightened enough to be able to understand the true nature of the world’s invisible exile.

Granted, essentially the idea of empire is as old as the scriptures, but in the circles I grew up in, we were talking about it using different language. I’ve been hearing all my life to “love not the world, nor the things in the world. For if any man loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” (1 John 2:15). “The world” was always explained to me as the mindsets, practices, and ideologies that set itself up against the Kingdom of God. I was taught to thus not be selfish, jealous, or unkind, but instead to have the “love of the Father in me” which would mean being selfless, content with what I had, and caring to my neighbors. However, the language of “the world” has lost its meaning to me in the last few years, and to a culture that is also sick of clichéd religious jargon, a new spin (a remix, if you will) on an old concept might not be a bad idea. Thus, Empire Remixed makes it difficult for religious folk to use the same old language without become irrelevant to the culture around them.

The last question to be asked of a cultural product is, “What new forms of culture are created in response to it?” Empire Remixed has sparked many discussions, both on and off the Internet, about how exactly a Christian is to think, live, and follow Jesus in our current cultural context. There have been discussions surrounding the nature of The Empire (like this paper, for instance), negative impacts it has had on the world, and how exactly we are to go on, worshiping the Redeemer and actively participating in the redemption of all creation. The events hosted by Empire Remixed that has included lectures, discussions, music, art, and food, all in the context of a community, have also been created in response to it, all as attempts to “kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight.”

Empire Remixed is definitely a product of our times. In a prophetic voice and through the accessible medium of the internet, the contributors describe reality as they see it (we are living in an age where the complex web of power structures have captured our imaginations and distorted our very identity), warn all of the dangers and distortions of this reality (consumerism, individualism, injustice and the commodification of sex, etc., will destroy you and the world) and offer a hopeful alternatives as followers of Jesus (Remix the Empire! Live redemptively. Know that your identity rests in being people of God). The website opens up possibilities of “rethinking everything” and allowing thousands of people from across the globe access to the discussion. Although its precise explanations of empire are vague, the ideas it publishes are refreshing, enlightening, and just plain inspiring. Which is a heck of a lot more than I can say for the fifth episode of Star Wars.

(This was my first assignment for my *Theology of Culture* class, written last September. It’s funny to look back now, I’ve learned so much and have taken two more classes with the same prof, Brian Walsh. Hands down the man is brilliant, and continues to inspire, confuse, and challenge me to this day. Oh – and I got an A!)

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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