Sabbath and Justice from an Ethico-philosophical Perspective

Sabbath and Justice from an Ethico-philosophical Perspective

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Written by: 
November 27, 2020

This paper was originally presented at the Adventist Society for Religious Studies (ASRS) 2020 Virtual Conference, on November 21, 2020, as part of the “Sabbath and Justice” panel discussion. It is reprinted here with permission.

In this panel, I would like to speak to the relation between Sabbath and justice from an ethico-philosophical perspective. More specifically, I want to talk about justice as a moral virtue and how Sabbath-keeping can contribute to that virtue. For ancient and medieval philosophers who expounded on virtue ethics, justice is an exception among the moral virtues because it is both a virtue of the individual and of social institutions (or city-states, as these philosophers would call them). However, in this brief conversation, I am only interested in justice as a virtue that should be habituated in the individual who composes the social. I would like to propose that the Sabbath is a God-given weekly opportunity to habituate the moral virtue of justice. I will start by giving a brief overview of what the virtue of justice is in the virtue ethics tradition, and then go on to the implications of Sabbath-keeping for how we understand justice habituation.

Many ancient and medieval Western philosophers were deeply interested in justice.[1] In fact, from Plato onwards, justice is considered one of the perfections of the human soul and, therefore, a moral virtue. In the virtue ethics tradition, a virtue is a disposition to good acts and good thoughts, good being that which is in accordance with reason.[2] Virtues do not just exist in human beings from birth, they must be cultivated through a long period of time during which the person consistently practices good habits. These good habits become virtues.

Aristotle, who is basically the father of virtue ethics, lists 12 virtues in total, making a distinction between intellectual virtues such as wisdom and understanding, and moral virtues such as temperance and courage. The virtue of justice, interestingly, is the only virtue among the moral virtues that is fundamentally “other-regarding,” that is, the only one concerned with what we owe to other people, especially with regard to distributable goods. To have the virtue of  justice, for Aristotle, is to be the kind of person who, first, does not overreach — trying to attain the money, fame, or honor which is not his or hers by merit or by right — and, second, who distributes equally the goods among people who deserve it equally.[3] The just person gives to each their due in every opportunity that presents itself.

To become the kind of person who does this consistently, Aristotle thought that it wasn't sufficient to follow a series of rules that are universally understood as resulting in just actions. Instead, a just character could only be cultivated through practice. As with any virtue, he thought that “by doing just things, we become just.”[4] In order to achieve a just soul, then, the agent must create just habits with the consistent practice of just acts.  He thought it makes a big difference if you have been habituated in justice since childhood, but it is never too late to undertake the habituation process. As long as the acts of justice are done consistently, the virtue will, eventually, create firm roots in the person’s character.

What, then, does the Sabbath have to do with the individual virtue of justice? While the repetitive and consistent act of keeping the Sabbath day every week is frequently associated with the constant need for humans to remember God as creator of humanity, I would like to suggest a further motivation for the repetitiveness of this act, namely, the habituation of the virtue of justice. As many have pointed out in yesterday's presentations, passages in Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Isaiah portray the Sabbath as a day that points to the equality of all beings, all of whom were created in God's image and likeness, and equality of the right to rest. While Exodus contains the general command for all to rest, the Deutoronimistic Sabbath law includes the interesting addition of the idea that all members of the household are to rest, because even the servants have the right to rest "as you do" (Dt. 5:15). In Isaiah 56, God makes it clear that through the act of keeping the Sabbath, the ostracized group of immigrants and eunuchs could give evidence to the people of Israel of their equal high status in the eyes of God. By ceasing our work and precluding others from serving us on Sabbath, we are communicating that, first, every human being is equal before God, and second, every human being is due the gift of rest. It is clear to me, then, that the very act of resting on the Sabbath day is an act of justice. And, given Sabbath-keeping's repetitiveness and consistency, every week God extends to us the opportunity to habituate justice, and thus to develop the virtue of justice.

Aside from habituating justice simply by ceasing work and encouraging others to embrace the same gift of rest, which I would characterize as a passive act of justice, I think other biblical passages point to a stronger, more active form of justice during the Sabbath day. According to Isaiah 1, Isaiah 58, and Amos 8, the Sabbath was not to be kept idly or with the heart tainted by injustice, but should be used as a day of justice-making; of calling devalued communities to be a part of the large, greatly valued and greatly loved community of God-followers, of covenant-keepers; it is the day to seek the well-being of those less fortunate, who do not “receive what they are due” either because of other people or social institution's ignorance of what they are due or because of their very self-deprecation, which most times derives from the former; it is the day that we cease accumulating and commence distributing.

For me, no passages of the Bible speak louder of Sabbath as a day of justice habituation as those that showcase the example of Jesus. Jesus not only proclaimed that the Sabbath was separated for humankind (Mark 2:27), but also acted upon this insistence by feeding his disciples grains in the field, providing healing to the sick and company to the outcasts on the Sabbath. Though Jesus certainly performed these just acts on other days of the week, through his example of Sabbath activities, Jesus urged to make the Sabbath a day of just actions, which might eventually lead to the blossoming of a just person.[5] Again, this is not to say that acts of justice should not or cannot be performed on other days of the week. Rather, I want to argue that the Sabbath is a God-given opportunity, every week, to cultivate this virtue even when it was not cultivated on other days, when the pressures of life tend to distract us from what others are due and almost force us to focus on what we are due. Conversely, it is the virtue of justice that we develop through Sabbath-keeping that might bring us to, then, perform just actions during the week out of sheer habit. This habit can be cultivated on the Sabbath by participating in Church or Church-member initiatives to collect and distribute food to the poor, by praying with and for people who are confronted with injustice, by planning and executing ways to bring justice to outcast communities, both in and outside the Church. Many of these initiatives are nothing new. As Adventists, we are used to thinking of the Sabbath as a justice-making day. However, we may not be used to thinking of what we do in terms of virtue-habituation. Perhaps the mere effort of mindfully performing these acts with the intent of virtue-habituation might bring about more acute intentionality and stronger motivation.

Yesterday we learned of many beautiful lenses through which to understand the meaning and relevance of Sabbath, both in the analysis of biblical texts and in pastoral experiences. What I am suggesting here is merely one more lens. I believe Sabbath-keepers are those in the best vantage point to cultivate both the intellectual virtue of understanding that all humans are equal before God and deserve equal rights, and the moral virtue of justice by regularly and consistently being given the opportunity to perform just acts. As a mother or father who creates ripe opportunities for their children to be just people, God opens the window of 24-hours of the Sabbath to create just habits, and eventually the virtue of justice, in the human agents in order to serve as instruments of justice-making in a world of injustice.


Notes & References:

[1] To get a brief overview of justice in philosophy, see Michael J. Sandel's helpful anthology, Justice: A Reader (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

[2] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins (trans.) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 1106a.15.

[3] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1131a.20-25.

[4] Idem, 1103b.1.

[5] It is no wonder that Christian virtue theorists have called Jesus the virtue exemplar. See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I.II q. 46, a. 3.


Marina Garner has a BA in Theology from the Adventist University of São Paulo, a MA in Philosophy of Religion from Trinity International University, and is currently a PhD candidate in Philosophy of Religion at Boston University. She is married to Luiz Gustavo Assis, who is a PhD candidate in Hebrew Bible at Boston College. Together, they have a two-year-old son called Isaac.

Photo by Sebastien Gabriel on Unsplash


Further Reading:

"Sabbath and Justice: An Introduction" by Erik C. Carter


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