Sabbath as Resistance (Walter Brueggemann) -- A Review

SABBATH AS RESISTANCE: Saying No to the Culture of Now. By Walter Brueggemann.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2013.  Xvii + 89 pages.

            I would venture to say that very few God-fearing Christians engage in Sabbath-keeping.  I expect this is true even of the most fervent proponent of putting stone monuments to the Ten Commandments on Court House Lawns.  We are simply too busy to really slow down long enough to observe a true Sabbath.  We may complain that the sports leagues have sprung up on Sundays, drawing young families away from church, but I expect a goodly number of us head to a restaurant for lunch and then maybe a trip to the grocery store or the mall.  We expect all of these entities to be open in service to our perceived needs – that is, even if we take a bit of Sabbath for ourselves, we’re not committed to that being extended to others.  Like James I, who issued his Book of Sports as a challenge to the Puritan demand for Sabbath-keeping, we want to have fun!   Sabbath-keeping is so yesterday.

We might not be faithfully keeping Sabbath, but the command remains front and center in the biblical story.  Jesus did say that the Sabbath was made for humanity, and not humanity for the Sabbath, but what does that mean?  We are fortunate that Walter Brueggemann, one of the most adept and thoughtful interpreters of Scripture has chosen to address this very subject.  He seeks to reclaim the Sabbath for today.  He does so by interpreting it as an act of resistance to our culture that has commoditized all aspects of life.  It is a sign of resistance to a culture that seeks instant gratification.   It is a call to slow down and recognize the presence of God in our midst. 

Brueggemann reminds us that the Fourth Commandment stands as the bridge between the first three that call us to worship the one God and to refrain from making idols and worshiping them.  And the remainder that speak of the human situation.  It is a command that is connected both to first commandment’s call to worship and the tenth commandment’s call to refrain from covetousness.   In between the opening chapter, linking Sabbath to the first commandment and the final chapter linking it to the ban on coveting (Tenth Commandment), he offers us chapters suggesting that Sabbath is an act of resistance to anxiety, coercion, exclusivism, and multi-tasking.    Somewhere in this list we will find ourselves.

In affirming the principle that Sabbath is resistance to anxiety, Brueggemann points us to the Exodus story – where YHWH liberates Israel from Pharaoh’s regime of constant work.  In the wilderness journey, there is no storing up, simply gathering enough for the day, and then resting on the seventh – trusting God to provide.  It is resistance to a system of acquisitiveness and busyness.

It is resistance to coercion, by rejecting Pharaoh’s system.  It is a willingness to let the land rest, the animals rest, the workers rest.  It is a day to remember Pharaoh and celebrate freedom from the old system.

It is resistance to exclusivism for it remembers that God took ones who were not a people and in Sinai made them a people.  Those who are counted among the people are those who keep Torah, and to keep Torah means keeping the Sabbath.  Consider the wording of Isaiah 56, where the foreigner is said to be joined to YHWH through keeping of the Sabbath. 

Finally Sabbath is resistance to multi-tasking.  This is an important word for our day, because we have made multi-tasking an art form.  We talk on our phones at the table.  We make grocery lists during sermons.  Brueggemann declares that “multitasking is the drive to be more than we are, to control more than we do, to extend our power and our effectiveness.  Such practice yields a divided self, with full attention given to nothing” (p. 67).  I am part of this multi-tasking cohort.  I find it difficult to remain focused, but Sabbath calls for us to let go of such things and turn our full focus to God. 

This leads us to the closing word – the link between the fourth word and the tenth word.  Sabbath is the act of resistance to our covetous nature.  He writes:  “The Sabbath rest in context means to protect the space and property of the neighbor from the restlessness that disrupts and skews social relationships by desisting from acquisitive practices” (p. 71).  Sabbath is, in this vision, liberation from the pursuit of commodity.  It is an act of trust in God that breaks the cycle of acquisitiveness that turns the neighbor into property and places us on the never-ending treadmill of productivity.

Brueggemann closes the book with a telling paragraph:
“'No-Sabbath' existence imagines getting through on our own, surrounded by commodities to accumulate and before which to bow down. But a commodity cannot hold one's hand. Only late does the psalmist [Psalm 73] come to know otherwise. Only late may we also come to know. We may come to know, but likely not without Sabbath, a rest rooted in God's own restfulness and extended to our neighbors who also must rest. We, with our hurts, fears, and exhaustion, are left restless until then" (P. 89).
It is not easy to rest, but God chose to rest, and God invites us to do the same so we can let go of this need to accumulate things and power over others. 

If you've had a chance to hear Brueggemann speak, you will hear his gravelly voice calling out to you as you read.  It is a small book, not even a hundred pages in length, but it is a powerful book.  It will challenge the American dream of upward mobility at the expense of the neighbor.   But, in the course of the book, Brueggemann invites us to reconsider and reclaim the call to Sabbath.   It is a radical vision, but it is also a deeply biblical one.  The question is – are we willing to embrace the call to keep Sabbath holy? 



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