Through this COVID-19 pandemic my thoughts frequently have turned to the concept of Sabbath. According to the passage in Exodus, three months after the Israelites were delivered from Egypt and the oppression of Pharaoh’s system of extraction and exploitation, Moses ascended Mount Sinai to see God and was given what we have come to know as the Ten Commandments.
In periods of contemplation, I’ve inserted myself into this story: as an observer, as Moses, and even as God. I often try to imagine the tone in which God spoke to Moses. This is difficult because we have been conditioned by expressions from the imaginations of film producers, actors, artists, pastors, etc. who have depicted the scene with great solemnity and gravitas. We are encouraged to hear the booming, basso profundo voice of a distant God and to see Moses cowering in fear. To be fair, the texts speak of booming thunder, loud trumpet blasts, and a fearful prophet trembling in the presence of God’s glory, but these also may have been produced from the imaginations of the authors, or editors, of Exodus and Deuteronomy.
Sometimes I imagine another side to this deep, reverberating reverence. I imagine God speaking softly to Moses in a gentle tone. After all, God loved Moses, and it is written in Deuteronomy and Exodus that God spoke to Moses “face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend.”
In this version of the conversation, the phrases “thou shall” and “thou shall not” can take on a very different perspective. Perhaps we can imagine a loving mother instructing a young child not to touch the burners on the stove, an instruction given firmly, but lovingly, for the safety and well being of the child. In this imagining, the commandments that are written as “thou shall” and “thou shall not” may be taken as firm instructions given to ensure the safety and well being of God’s chosen people. They come across as instructions rather than commandments, designed to strengthen the sense of community for a group of wandering nomads who are learning to deal with newfound freedom and to maintain solidarity and a tight knit social fabric.
We find a unique quality in the language of the so-called fourth commandment. It doesn’t read, “Thou shall remember the Sabbath.” The people are instructed to simply, “Remember the Sabbath.” The tone is softer, more like a reminder than a commandment or even an instruction.
It begs the question, what does the use of the word “remember” signify? The most basic interpretation is to always observe Sabbath, every week, without fail, without interruption. As Walter Brueggemann writes in Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now, “Moses knows that prosperity breeds amnesia.” Observing Sabbath is a culturally defining practice for this group of people as they are establishing specific faith identifiers. It is a cultural marker within a hostile environment.
As we read further in the text, Moses is reminded that God created everything in six days and rested on the seventh. Observance of Sabbath, therefore, aligns us with the rhythms of God’s activities. It is a form of worshipping a God who rests, one who sets aside a specific time to rest, and one who blesses this time.
This, too, is a defining characteristic of God’s covenant with Israel. It is a commemoration, solemn as well celebratory, of deliverance from slavery and from Pharaoh’s oppressive system of endless production and acquisition, a system in which the slaves did all the hard work and Pharaoh reaped all the rewards. Sabbath is an observance of resistance to this oppressive system. It proclaims life is not defined by the production and consumption of material goods. It is an alternative to the system that ultimately reduces everything to commodity goods.
Twenty first century America also operates within a system that reduces everything to a commodity. For example, time has been commodified, and the culture has produced many adages that bear witness. “Time is precious,” so we better accumulate it. “Time marches on,” so we better keep up. “Time waits for no one,” so we better not be complacent. “Time is on my side,” not yours. “We’re in a race against time,” so time is an adversary. And my personal favorite, “Time is money,” needs no further exposition.
READ: Don’t Just Wash Your Hands: Scripture, COVID-19, and Mass Incarceration
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused tremendous pain and suffering on so many levels. We suffered the deaths of our loved ones and debilitating sickness within our families and among our friends. We have endured long stretches of isolation and limited social interaction. As a result, we have experienced heightened levels of anxiety, depression, loneliness, and uncertainty.
Leaders in the health community devised guidelines to slow the spread of the virus and we relied on our government officials to enact policies to that end. Data indicates that stay at home and shelter in place policies produced the desired effect. However, they wreaked havoc on the economy and working class families. Many people lost their jobs, and their health insurance along with them, as larger companies conducted widespread layoffs, and small businesses dissolved.
Another outcome of the shelter in place policies was that people found they had more time for leisure activities. Our neighborhoods were filled with people jogging, walking, cycling, playing with their dogs, or exploring with their children. It felt like Sabbath observance. True Sabbath: not the go-through-the-motions Sabbath of spending an hour at church on a Sunday morning and then reengaging with the hyperactive busyness of our everyday lives. True Sabbath: when the wheels of commerce and commodification are forced to slow down, even come to a halt.
But it was a Sabbath of forced compliance. We engaged because we had to, not because we wanted to. We weren’t observing Sabbath in the spirit with which it was intended. Before long we began to push back. We needed to get our hair cut. We needed to shop and spend money, so we needed to go back to work to make money. We needed to “reopen the economy.” We needed to “get things back to normal.” We rejected the idea that true Sabbath stands in resistance to the production, acquisition, and consumption cycles that we consider normal. We rejected the idea that true Sabbath offers God’s normal as an alternative to Pharaoh’s normal.
We enjoy many freedoms in America, but we don’t have the freedom to resist the wheels of commerce. Either we engage or we suffer. We aren’t an enslaved people, as the Israelites were in Egypt, but we are wage slaves to the overlords of business and commerce. And, as such, we are slaves to a life of busyness, seeing any form of inactivity as unproductive. As Rob Bell so eloquently said, “Sabbath reminds us that we are human beings, not human doings.” But we choose doing over being.
The gears of greed must be greased, so life itself has become a commodity to be traded for the good of the economy. Many of our leaders were more than willing to make this trade. Dan Patrick, Lt. Governor of my home state of Texas, went so far as to suggest the elderly population would be willing to sacrifice their lives “in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren.” Restrictions were lifted, people began going about business as usual, and now we are seeing new spikes in diagnosed cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.
Because we fail to recognize Sabbath as resistance, we are resistant to Sabbath. We are like the Israelites who grumbled in the wilderness, preferring to have remained as slaves in Egypt where they at least had meat, fish, and cucumbers to eat instead of perfectly good and abundant manna. They were willing to choose enslavement over freedom for a morsel of lamb.
And we are willing to choose sickness and loss of life for the good of the economy. We are willing to sacrifice sacred human life at the altar of commerce in the Church of the Free Market.
We worship a God who loves unconditionally. We follow a teacher who said the greatest commandment is to love God and the second is to love our neighbor. A teacher who instructed us to care for the sick. But sadly, we resonate with the adage, “Time is money” while rejecting the truth that “God is love.”