Sabbath and Justice: An Introduction

Sabbath and Justice: An Introduction

Written by: 
Published:
November 27, 2020

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


In setting the stage for this panel, I would like to offer a few thoughts of my own on the theme of Sabbath and justice.[1] As a Sabbath scholar, I have conducted empirical and practical theological research on the Sabbath as a practice among religious professionals, namely pastors and rabbis. This has inevitably led me into the field of interreligious dialogue and practice, as well as considering the implications of what it means to live in a post-Shoah or post-Holocaust world. Thus, for me, any (Adventist) Christian discussion on the Sabbath and its relationship to justice must ultimately consider the Jewish-Christian relationship.

With that said, it is often argued that the Sabbath is universally applicable, and not primarily Jewish, because of its genesis in the creation account.[2] While this is certainly true and argued even by noted Jewish scholars,[3] it is crucial to recall that the Sabbath is also expressly embedded in the ancient Hebrew experience of the Exodus from Egypt and the covenant with God. “The point of such apparent hair-splitting,” writes Michael Lodahl, “is to assert that in the Jewish notion of Sabbath, even when its observance somehow recalls creation, that recollection itself is founded in God’s covenant with the Jewish people.”[4] In other words, if it were not for God’s covenant people, Israel, who also wrote and preserved the scriptures, the world would not even be aware of the Sabbath, the day God blessed and sanctified (Gen 2:3, NASB). 

Christians who observe the Sabbath, therefore, must acknowledge they do so as a sign of solidarity and celebration of Israel’s covenant election, still sustained by the faithful God of the Exodus. For this reason, Sabbath observance also serves as a witness to Christianity’s origin in Jewish faith and practice. This is a timely testimony for today considering the anti-Jewish sentiment the Church has harbored throughout its history, all of which culminated in the Church’s complicity in numerous pogroms and with the tragic events of the Holocaust. Fortunately, this is now slowly being undone through the work of post-Shoah theologians,[5] denominational statements,[6] and genuine interreligious dialogue.[7]

One result of rethinking Christianity’s relationship to Judaism has been a renaissance among Roman Catholics and Protestants who see Judaism as a rich resource for Christian practice, including the Sabbath. Walter Brueggemann’s more recent book on the Sabbath, Sabbath as Resistance, serves as a prime example of how, despite the numerous texts that have rolled off Christian presses in recent years, the Sabbath is not only still relevant but absolutely necessary for living a life of justice.[8] In this slender text, Brueggemann writes as a Christian to Christians, but roots his argument for Sabbath as a form of resistance in the narrative of the Exodus and the God who is not known apart from that narrative, thus supporting the Jewish soul of the Sabbath.

As Israel is subsumed in an endless system of insatiable productivity that knows no rest, YHWH collides with the gods of Egypt by interceding as a “Sabbath-keeping God, a Sabbath-giving God, and Sabbath-commanding God” (10). By gifting ancient Israel with the fourth commandment, Brueggemann asserts, God breaks the systemic cycle of coveting acquisitiveness. This forms the biblical platform on which Brueggemann then contemporizes the ancient Israelite reality by framing the Sabbath as similarly relevant to those shackled by the gods of Western culture. By speaking truth to power, he levels attacks against America’s insatiable scheme of production and endless desideratum for more, such as an expansive and aggressive military, abuse of the land, the coveted industry of professional and college sports, and even the controversial “teaching to test” policies of US public education. No criticism is left behind in rendering the Sabbath as a form of socio-economic resistance and an alternative to accomplishing, achieving, and possessing.

If that’s not a biblical case for connecting Sabbath with justice, then I don’t know what is. In what follows, we are fortunate to have several scholars who have given this serious thought. All those who have ears to hear, please listen to what these panelists have to say about Sabbath and justice.

 

Notes & References:

[1] These introductory remarks are drawn largely from my review of Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now, by Walter Brueggemann, Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality 15, no. 2 (2015): 262-264.

[2] Jacques B. Doukhan cautions that when Seventh-day Adventists overemphasize how the Sabbath came from God at the event of creation, to the exclusion of the Sinai account, “it may in fact disguise the old anti-Semitic prejudice: they do not want to have anything to do with the Jews, precisely the motivation which led the early Christians to reject the Sabbath,” in “What Can Adventism Learn from the Jews about the Sabbath?” Spectrum 39, no. 1 (Winter 2011): 15-20.

[3] For example, commenting on Genesis 2:2-3, Umberto Cassuto writes: “Scripture wishes to emphasize that the sanctity of the Sabbath is older than Israel, and rests upon all mankind,” in Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part I: From Adam to Noah, Genesis I-VI, trans. Israel Abrahams (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, The Hebrew University, 1972), 1:64. See also: Martin Buber, Moses: The Revelation and the Covenant (New York: Humanity, 2011); Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1985).

[4] Michael Lodahl, “Sabbath Observance as a Theological Issue in Jewish-Christian Conversation,” in The Sabbath in Jewish and Christian Traditions, ed. Tamara C. Eskenazi, Daniel J. Harrington, and William H. Shea (New York: Crossroad, 1991), 264.

[5] For a few examples, see: Johann Baptist Metz, “Christians and Jews After Auschwitz: Being a Meditation Also on the End of Bourgeois Religion,” in A Holocaust Reader: Responses to the Nazi Extermination, ed. Michael L. Morgan (New York: Oxford University, 2001), 238-250; Clark M. Williamson, A Guest in the House of Israel: Post-Holocaust Church Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1993). For an Adventist contribution, see: Jacques B. Doukhan, ed., Thinking in the Shadow of Hell: The Impact of the Holocaust on Theology and Jewish-Christian Relations (Berrien Springs: Andrews University, 2002).

[6] Vatican II was the watershed that set the standard for not only Roman Catholicism but also for statements issued thereafter by denominations across Protestantism. See Pope Paul VI, “Nostra Aetate: Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions” (Holy See, 1965), http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decl_19651028_nostra-aetate_en.html (accessed 27 November 2020); Austin Flannery, ed., Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, Inc., 1975). For the historical and theological reasons as to why and how the Roman Catholic Church radically reversed its adversarial position to the Jews, consider: John Connelly, From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews, 1933-1965 (Cambridge: Harvard University, 2012). For the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s involvement, see: Adventist-Jewish Friendship Conference, “Consensus Statement,” Shabbat Shalom 52, no. 3 (2005): 24-25; Biblical Research Institute Committee, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, “Official Statement on the Jewish-Adventist Connection,” Reflections: Biblical Research Institute Newsletter 3 (July 2003): 2.

[7] A couple of good introductory texts include: Mary C. Boys, ed., Seeing Judaism Anew: Christianity’s Sacred Obligation (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005); Tikva Frymer-Kensky, et al., Christianity in Jewish Terms (Boulder: Westview, 2000). Summarizing these developments within Adventism, Stefan Höeschele writes: “The last decade [2000-2010] has seen a number of publications that stress the continuity of the Jewish and Adventist faiths…and that counteract the theory that Israel has been rejected by God in the Christian dispensation,” “The Emerging Adventist Theology of Religions Discourse: Participants, Positions, Particularities,” in A Man of Passionate Reflection: Festschrift in Honour of Jerald Whitehouse, ed. Bruce Bauer, Andrews University Mission Studies 8 (Berrien Springs: Department of World Mission, Andrews University, 2011), 364. Another rich resource is a journal Doukhan edited for sixteen years: Shabbat Shalom: A Journal of Jewish-Christian Reconciliation.

[8] Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2014). See also Dorothy C. Bass, “Keeping the Sabbath,” in Practicing Our Faith, ed. Dorothy C. Bass (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1997), 75-89; Marva J. Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989); Wayne Muller, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives (New York: Bantam, 2000); Norman Wirzba, Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006).

 

Erik C. Carter, DMin, PhD, is associate professor of Religion at Loma Linda University and the 2021 president of ASRS.

Photo by Ian Stauffer on Unsplash

 

Further Reading:

Sabbath and Justice from an Ethico-philosophical Perspective” by Marina Garner

 

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