Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying NO to the CULTURE OF NOW. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.
Whenever Walter Brueggemann picks up a pen he sounds like an Old Testament prophet. This concise little study on keeping the Sabbath is no exception. Brueggemann situates the fourth commandment – “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8) – within the story of God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery and highlights it as the interpretive key to understanding and obeying the other nine commandments. Sabbath as Resistance (2014) calls on us to abandon our slavery to modern capitalism and consumerism, embracing instead a trusting attitude towards a God who takes care of our daily needs. Brueggemann writes, “I have found this study to be an important existential one for me. I know about the restless anxiety of not yet having done enough.” To put that in context, Sabbath as Resistance is one of six books this retired theology professor has published this year alone. Even if I am skeptical how much this insatiable writer has taken his own message to heart, his exegesis of the Old Testament is invigorating.
Brueggemann begins by reminding us exactly what slavery looked like for the Israelites. The Egyptian gods, he says, were “confiscatory gods who demand endless produce and who authorize endless systems of production that are, in principle, insatiable.” Drawing on Exodus 5, he shows that “what the slaves are to produce is more bricks that are to be used for the building of more “supply cities” in which Pharaoh can stores his endless supply of material wealth in the form of grain (see Exod. 1:11). Because the system was designed to produce more and more surplus (see Gen. 47:13-26), there is always the need for storage units that in turn generated more need for bricks with which to construct them. … Pharaoh is a hard-nosed production manager for whom production schedules are inexhaustible.” It is no accident that the Pharaohs chose pyramids as symbols of their power, for they represent a rigidly hierarchical society with a single man at the top celebrating his ability to force others to construct towering edifices that served no purpose but to glorify his egomania.
The ten commandments begin by reminding Israel that “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exod. 20:2) God brought them out of slavery to rest, not to go crazy trying to write more books or meet more deadlines. The first three commandments remind us that we are to worship Him alone, not the multitude of other gods who would work us into the ground. Then comes the command to keep the Sabbath, which flows out of God’s character as a God who rests and is by far the longest and most clearly elaborated commandment. The next six are about how we should treat our neighbors, which is only possible once we have been freed from “the profound anxiety of the Egyptian system.” Brueggemann tells us to “rest as did the creator God! And while you rest, be sure that your neighbors rest alongside you. indeed, sponsor a system of rest that contradicts the system of anxiety of Pharaoh, because you are no longer subject to Pharaoh’s anxiety system. Create restfulness with theological rootage, political viability, and economic significance for all in the domain of covenant … all sons and daughters, all slaves, all cattle, all immigrants, all who depart the death system of Pharaoh who engage the offer of life given in covenant.”
It is one thing to keep the Sabbath in the desert, where it wasn’t even possible to collect manna on Saturdays, but quite another when you live in a land flowing with milk and honey. Ironically, abundance tempts us to work harder, as if what we have comes from our labors in the first place. This is why remembering plays so central a place in Deuteronomy. “Remember that the pattern of coercion has been broken,” Brueggemann writes. “Do you, when you wake up in the night, remember what you were supposed to have done, vexed that you did not meet expectations? Do you fall asleep counting bricks? Do you dream of more bricks you have to make yet, or of bricks you have made that were flawed? We dream so because we have forgotten the exodus!”
Remembering that we were freed that we might rest should embolden us to give rest to others too. This means separating ourselves from a society of consumption. Not shopping on Sundays allows others to rest as well. It means finding other ways to enjoy ourselves that involve valuing people, not things. Reflecting on the fruits of the Spirit in Galations 5, Brueggemann says, “I dare to think that the ‘good fruits’ arise from the ‘peaceableness’ of Sabbath. The ‘destructive fruits’ of the flesh are generated by rat-race living. … those who refuse Sabbath produce only sour grapes, the grapes of wrath and violence and envy and, finally, death. Sabbath is a refusal of the grapes of wrath, an embrace of good fruits of life and joy, of praise and shalom.”
Keeping Sabbath is about learning to live as God’s people. It is, Brueggemann writes, “a school for our desires, an expose and critique of the false desires that focus on idolatry and greed and have immense power for us. When we do not pause for Sabbath, these false desires take power over us. But Sabbath is the change for self-embrace of our true identity.”
The LEGO illustrations for this blog were taken from www.bricktestament.com.