Sabbath Economics

Ched Myers first introduced me to the concept of Sabbath Economics in a formative piece he wrote for Sojourners Magazine in May June, 1998 – ‘ God Speed the year of Jubilee’.

It began with these words:

“We read the gospel as if we had no money,” laments Jesuit theologian John Haughey, “and we spend our money as if we know nothing of the gospel.” Indeed, in most North American churches today, it is exceedingly difficult to talk about economics. This topic is more taboo than politics, more even than sex—a subject with which our churches have recently become all too preoccupied. Yet no aspect of our individual and corporate lives is more determinative than the economy. And few subjects are more frequently addressed in our scriptures.

Myers writes: ” We Christians must talk about economics, and talk about it in light of the gospel. “Churches,” asserts Cornel West, “may be the last places left in our culture that can engage the public conversation with non-market values.”…..

“The Biblical standard of social and economic justice is grounded in God’s call to “keep the Sabbath.” The word “Sabbath” comes from the Hebrew verb shabat, which means “to rest or stop working.” It first appears in the Bible as the culmination of the story of creation: “God rested on the seventh day from all the work God did” (Genesis 2:2). Here a primal pattern is set: “Good” work (Genesis 1:31; Hebrew tob, better translated as “delightful”) is followed by Shabat. This Shabat is “blessed” (2:3), just like the creation itself (1:22, 28). Richard Lowery points out that “in a delightful twist, ‘rest’ is signified as a verb in this passage and ‘work’ as a noun.” Sabbath, he contends, captures the double theme of this creation story: abundance and limits…………

” We Christians therefore trivialize (and even “profane”) the Sabbath if we regard it merely as a day when Jews do as little as possible, or as a code of nit-picking prohibitions. Torah’s Sabbath regulations represent God’s strategy for teaching Israel about its dependence upon the land as a gift to share equitably, not as a possession to exploit (see for example the rituals enjoined in harvest festivals, Leviticus 23:9-25). The prescribed periodic rest for the land and for human labor means to disrupt human attempts to “control” nature and “maximize” the forces of production. Because the earth belongs to God and its fruits are a gift, the people should justly distribute those fruits, instead of seeking to own and hoard them……

“The ecological and social wisdom of the Sabbath year goes beyond the agricultural good sense of letting land lie fallow. Kentucky philosopher-farmer Wendell Berry articulates Sabbath economics in his notion of the “two economies.” He believes the all-encompassing and integrated system of nature should be understood as the “Great Economy,” upon which human systems (“little economies”) by necessity depend. The problem, Berry writes, is that our modern industrial economy, with its managerial penchant for control and its lack of limits, “does not see itself as a little economy; it sees itself as the only economy. It makes itself thus exclusive by the simple expedient of valuing only what it can use—that is, only what it can regard as ‘raw material’ to be transformed mechanically into something else…. The industrial economy is based on invasion and pillage of the Great Economy.”

“The Sabbath rest commanded for the land and the laborer restores the primacy of the Great Economy, and forces humans to re-adapt to its limits. As Rabbi Arthur Waskow puts it, “This shabat betokens the peace agreement ending the primordial war between ourselves and earth which began as we left Eden—which came from a misdeed of eating and brought us painful toil and turmoil in our eating.”

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2 comments to Sabbath Economics

  • Peter Bruce

    Hi. The emperor has no clothes!
    It’s not just churches – it’s lack of debate in all walks of life. Noone wants to question the

    basis behind economic growth being the objective of society, laissez-faire market economics being the foundation belief system and

    business/political planning horizons of only 5-10years.
    This is crazy when we see the mess free market growth driven credit/debt and short

    termism has got us into.

    My particular campaign is a case in point, on scarcity pricing of natural resources, particularly fossil fuels

    which have the shortest lifespan of 40-150yrs based on current rates. A prime case for protecting supply for future generations which needs much

    higher prices. Recent academic papers say there is no scarcity as prices haven’t increased – a circular head in the sand argument until its too

    late to do anything! Many green economists seem to delve into detail trying to justify values to environmental gains to restrict use and convince

    noone.

    Public debate is taboo about conservation of resources by pricing. Using an escalator tax on fossil fuels – our energy slaves (cf

    difficulty of slavery abolition)seems win-win for all. An energy tax would be great to fund credit crunch debt repayment, renewables investment

    AND green jobs as well as to change lifestyles.

    Otherwise we’ll wake up one morning finding our fossil fuels gone and reflecting perhaps

    the oil years were just a dream as we adapt back to a medieval economy.

  • Surely the most significant point here is ‘God’s strategy for teaching Israel about its dependence upon the

    land as a gift to share equitably, not as a possession to exploit’. Yet the only aspect of land which is commented on is ‘the fallow year’.

    There is a way of sharing land equitably: an annual tax on all land values. This recognises the economic truth that all we have is labour and

    land. Everyone is entitled to the fruits of their own labour and a share in the bounty of nature. That’s natural justice.

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