Posts Tagged 'rest'

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!

________

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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