Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now (Westminster John Knox, 2014), 89 pp.
As a parish pastor, I find it more and more common for parents to inform me that their children will be unable to attend this Sunday’s worship service, confirmation class, or youth activity because of conflicts with soccer, lacrosse, football or some other extracurricular activity. These apologies put me in a difficult position. How should the shepherd respond? On one hand, the pastor wants to uphold the third commandment and its directive on keeping the Sabbath holy. But on the other hand, the pastor wants to be sympathetic to those faithful families who must live in a society which has abandoned the Sunday obligation altogether. In frustration, he asks in his Sunday sermon whether “setting aside one hour a week is too much for God to ask?”
But Walter Brueggemann, in his latest book, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now, argues that God’s primary goal in creating the Sabbath is to allow a respite to the never-ending daily demands of life. This Sabbath break also serves to curtail our own selfish cravings. Brueggemann writes, “Sabbath is an antidote to anxiety that both derives from our craving and in turn feeds those cravings for more.” Sabbath breaks the pattern of endless work, study, and organized sports. It allows us to resist society’s relentless economic pressures and live in an altogether different way. He suggests, “In our own contemporary context of the rat race of anxiety, the celebration of Sabbath is an act of both resistance and alternative.”
As a noted Old Testament scholar who taught for many years at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA, Brueggemann defends his premise with an insightful exegesis of the biblical texts. He starts with Exodus 5, likening Pharaoh to an unregulated corporate executive: “a hard-nosed production manager for whom production schedules [were] inexhaustible.” Pharaoh exploits his Israelite slave workers by forcing them to gather their own straw to make bricks. Yet despite the increased workload, the Israelites are still required to produce just as many bricks as before. To add insult to injury, their cries for relief are dismissed as symptoms of laziness. The workers are driven to despair by their inability to fulfill Pharaoh’s unreasonable demands, and they can see no relief for their troubles on the horizon. Brueggemann concludes that “in this system there can be no Sabbath rest.”
But the system plagues Pharaoh as well. Brueggemann notes that even though Pharaoh “was absolute in authority and he occupied the pinnacle of power, [he] was an endlessly anxious presence who caused the entire social environment to be permeated with a restless anxiety that had no limit or termination.” Indeed, no matter how much food was stockpiled against the threat of famine, Pharaoh continued to have nightmares about the starvation that might eventually plague the land. He too could find no rest.
Yet through the pronouncement of the third commandment in Exodus 20, God provides a antidote to this endless cycle of material production and the concurrent anxiety that accompanies it—a Sabbath. This Sabbath provides rest to the heads of households, but also to children, slaves, livestock, and resident aliens—as Brueggemann notes “all are equally at rest.” In mandating the Sabbath, God prevents the freed Israelites from being oppressed again, but He also prevents them from becoming unjust managers like their old Egyptian masters. Indeed, He protects them from becoming Pharaohs themselves. In verse 11, God likens this Sabbath rest to the one He himself enjoyed on the seventh day of creation (Genesis 2:2-3). This final day of rest avoids the current commoditization of American life: a system that Brueggemann believes is not even questioned anymore. God provides the alternative to this rat race. Brueggemann concludes, “God is not a workaholic. God is not a Pharaoh.”
Brueggemann also notes that the Sabbath exhortation in Exodus 20 mirrors the canceling of debts (every seven years) found in Deuteronomy 15. Such a practice eliminates the long-term possibility of exploiting others by reminding those in power of their obligation to treat all their brothers and sisters as “Sabbath neighbors.” This practice also has the added benefit of preventing the creation of a permanent underclass.
Perhaps even more impressive is Brueggemann’s insight into Sabbath as a preventative against forgetfulness. Moses was keenly aware that the fruitfulness of the Promised Land could lead to Israelites’ forgetfulness about their need for God. As Brueggemann suggests, “prosperity breeds amnesia.” But in both Deuteronomy 6:12 and 8:14, the people are warned against the kind of forgetfulness that will lead them away from God and toward a repetition of Pharaoh’s predatory economic practices.
After reading Brueggemann’s powerful little book, I am now inspired to respond to my church members’ announced absences in an altogether different way. I will now inform those frantic families that God wants them to take a respite from the endless work, study, and organized sport that imprisons them in a fruitless quest for more and more. Brueggemann astutely observes that “People who keep Sabbath live all seven days differently.” God wants to give these families a break, and that break might just change their lives forever. But will they let Him?
Dennis Di Mauro is Pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Warrenton, Virginia, and teaches at St. Paul Lutheran Seminary.