The recent back-to-back killings of two black men by police officers followed by the murder of five police officers during a Dallas protest has left many Americans hurting, angry, and searching for a resolution to the senseless killings, failings of the justice system, and societal unrest. As I’ve been reading through a number of articles, trying to make sense of these events, I was struck by the comments of one eyewitness, Kellon Nixon, who participated in the Dallas protest with his son and offered an assessment of how we could move forward as a nation:
I think that one of our biggest problems in America is that the economy is stronger than our moral fiber. Our desire for prosperity is so much greater than our desire to be moral, to be humane, to love, to care, that we’ll risk our children, we’ll risk the sanctity of marriage or anything just for money. Just to stay on top as a nation. What we don’t understand, I think, is that when we lose our heart, when we lose our souls, we’re really the bottom, we’re really the worst of people no matter how materially rich we are.
While it might seem obvious that human life is of greater value than economic success, a history of slavery and other human rights violations that were justified on their economic merits should teach us that individuals—and societies—must be intentional to value people and relationships, resisting the lure of the never-ending pursuit of material wealth. While this intentionality will take many forms, here I’d like to briefly sketch how I’ve discovered the ancient Sabbath command to speak to these concerns.
Sabbath: A Declaration of Human Worth
Sabbath first appears in Scripture in the Genesis creation account, where God, having completed the work of six days of creation, rests on the seventh day and blesses it. The Sabbath command given at Sinai cites this history and argues that we, too, should complete our work in six days to rest on the seventh, from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday (Exodus 20:8-11). Implicit in the logic of this commandment to imitate the rest of God is the Hebrew understanding that humanity is created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). In Sabbath rest, one acknowledges God as Creator and the accompanying God-given worth of every human. Notice the Sabbath commandment is universal in nature:
“On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates.” (Exodus 20:10, ESV)
Sabbath is not restricted to any gender, class, or ethnic group because the divine image is present in every person, thus Jesus could state “Sabbath was made for humanity” (Mark 2:27), not needing to qualify which group the rest was restricted to. Beyond calling for rest, recognizing others are made in God’s image, explains why one ought to seek justice for murder (Genesis 9:6) and treat others with respect (James 3:9).
Paul sees the Sabbath’s non-discriminatory declaration of human worth and rights achieving fulfillment in the work of Christ: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, ESV). This is arguably the oldest statement of egalitarianism in all of literature. Long before the American Declaration of Independence or the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Sabbath has stood as a weekly call to recognize that all people have common God-given dignity and the accompanying rights.
Sabbath: A Protest Against Oppression
When Moses recounted the Ten Commandments to the nation of Israel as they prepared to enter the Promised Land, he included a new component to the Sabbath commandment:
“You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” (Deuteronomy 5:15, ESV)
In recognizing the Creator and the dignity He has bestowed on every human, Sabbath also protests those systems that degrade that dignity–such as slavery. Egypt responded to the cries of the oppressed Israelites with further oppression, interested only in the number of bricks that they produced (Exodus 5:18). Now free from that oppression and a generation having passed since the enslavement, it was necessary for Moses to warn Israel. The oppressed, gaining power, often become the oppressors. The victim becomes the perpetrator. Sabbath is a weekly call to stop that cycle by looking back into one’s roots and remembering how God has liberated her and her ancestors. To those still facing oppression, this reminder doubles as a call to seek God’s outstretched arm of continuing deliverance rather than take up their own arms in violence.
In addition to looking back, Sabbath looks forward in anticipation of eternity. In Isaiah’s visions of the world to come he sees both a weekly celebration of Sabbath (Isaiah 58:13) and diverse peoples beating their swords of aggression into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, God having settled the disputes between them (Isaiah 2:4). This glimpse of a world laying down arms and finding reconciliation shines through the weekly remembrance of Sabbath offering hope for a better future and challenging individuals to commit themselves to becoming ministers of peace and reconciliation as they live in anticipation of a new heavens and new earth. This explains why Isaiah’s most poignant call to address societal injustice–”to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke”–culminates in a call to Sabbath observance (Isaiah 58).
Sabbath and the State
Having rediscovered the meaning of Sabbath and the ways in which it directly speaks to our nation’s societal unrest, one might wonder if we ought to lobby for a national observance of Sabbath; however, one cannot legislate Sabbath without neutering it of its meaning.
Jesus’ encounters with the religious leaders in the gospel accounts demonstrate how people intent on enforcing Sabbath observance forget its purpose. In one such encounter, Jesus revealed that those who sought to achieve forced national Sabbath observance had forgotten that a human had more value than a farm animal (Matthew 12:12). By its very nature, coercive attempts to enforce Sabbath keeping violate the basic human right of freedom of conscience. Moreover, legislating Sabbath reduces a divine mandate into a state mandate, diminishing the God-given rights testified by Sabbath into state-granted privileges. Scripture warns that when the State attempts such a thing, the influence of Sabbath is perverted, leading to economic oppression and death rather than liberty and life (Revelation 13:15-17).
Ultimately, when individuals freely choose to enter into Sabbath rest, they are preserving a perpetual reminder of the incredible worth of every human as a divine image bearer and they are protesting against any abuses of the State against that image. American Rabbi Abraham Heschel captures this in his work God in Search of Man:
What is the Sabbath? A reminder of every man’s royalty; an abolition of the distinction of master and slave, rich and poor, success and failure. To celebrate the Sabbath is to experience one’s ultimate independence of civilization and society, of achievement and anxiety. The Sabbath is an embodiment of the belief that all men are equal and that equality of men means the nobility of men. The greatest sin of man is to forget that he is a prince.
We live in a society constantly drawing dividing lines, where it becomes easy to forget the humanity–even nobility–of those on the other side. We’ve seen the results of this division in the form of oppression and retaliation, but the invitation of the Lord of the Sabbath remains, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
[image source: thegatewaypundit.com]