'Give Me A Break!'
- Adventists and the Sabbath
“The clear promise is that those who rest like God find themselves free like God…Sabbath was not a burden for him [David – Jewish friend of the author], any more than it was a private day off that he could take or leave. Sabbath was who he was.”
- Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church, p. 137 (London: Canterbury, 2011)
“I have come to think that the fourth commandment on Sabbath is the most difficult and most urgent of the commandments in our society because it…defies the most elemental requirements of a commodity-propelled society that specializes in control and entertainment, bread and circuses…along with anxiety and violence…”.
“Sabbath is the day to dance and sing”.
- Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance, xiv & p. 42 (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox, 2014)
Sabbath-keeping and social conflict
In 1916 a number of Adventist young men arrived at the prison in Princetown in Devon. It is a grim place set in the middle of the extensive bleak moorland of Dartmoor. It is the sort of place where you would think twice about any escape attempt; the boggy land and erratic weather would probably thwart you and possibly even claim your life. These young men had been sent there because they were conscientious objectors. In 1916 the United Kingdom government had introduced conscription in the war against Germany which was not going well. The force of law now replaced a sense of moral and patriotic obligation as the means of boosting the ranks of the British military machine.
Most young British men had originally enlisted enthusiastically for this popular war. These young Adventists, however, had made the decision not to enlist mainly for two reasons. They had concluded that the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ extended to the present war currently ravaging Europe. They had decided that killing other young men from a different country would not solve these or any other political problems. Just as significantly they had concluded that being in the army would prevent them from observing the Sabbath day. Observance lasted from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday, according to their understanding of the Bible.
Of course, there was no way that a military operation could easily accommodate such personal religious sensibilities. The British military establishment could not allow conscientious objection to appear to be an easy alternative to the participation in the horrors taking place daily on the western front. They had to ensure that the life of a conscientious objector was at least as unpleasant as that of any Tommy fighting for king and country in France and Belgium. And so the conscientious objectors suffered under a very harsh regime. Indeed it would not be exaggerating to say that they were sometimes tortured by order of their commanding officers. This was not uniformly the case. Much depended on the attitudes of the sergeant or officer who had oversight of the Adventist soldiers. Some officers were more kindly disposed and allowed Sabbath privileges when they saw the sincerity of these soldiers and their impressive work rate over six days.
This is one example of endless stories which could be told of Adventists who have suffered because of their insistence on observing the seventh-day Sabbath. Numerous Adventists have been made redundant, denied promotion, denied the opportunity to take important examinations, subjected to bullying, and so on because of their unwillingness to do on the Sabbath the things which they would happily do on other days of the week. I have met many people who have shown remarkable faithfulness and courage in order to be true to their convictions.
Beyond these extreme examples it is undoubtedly the case that in gentler times the Sabbath exists as a boundary marker. Unfortunately it can easily produce a kind of social exclusion in situations where important community events take place on Friday evenings or Saturdays. For me it produced the dilemma of whether to represent my school in sports on Saturdays or whether to attend church, which seemed a very much less attractive proposition. For some years Saturdays often found me on the sports field.
At university in London, Friday nights and Saturdays were the times when all kinds of social events took place and not to attend was effectively to limit your social circle. I got through by making endless compromises trying to negotiate my way between these two worlds. I do not suppose that many people noticed or, if they did, were particularly impressed by any of my attempts to live somehow coherently in these two worlds. The Sabbath undoubtedly made my life as a student a little uncomfortable on occasion but that was largely a question of immaturity on my part.
Sabbath in my family
My skills for navigating these choppy waters were honed by the experience of growing up in a home where my father was more observant than my mother. In many Adventist families it is the other way round. My father found meaning and warmth in the local Adventist church community after having returned from nearly six years away fighting with the British army against the Nazi threat in the Mediterranean. He had roots in the Church of England and the Methodist Church when he left for war, and sought greater engagement when he returned. He found it in the Adventist Church which seemed to offer some sort of overarching account of all that he had experienced in those difficult years away.
A regularly practising and moderate Adventist, he was a very mild-mannered man who just wanted to make some sense of life, and found a small community of people he trusted. My mother was a reluctant Adventist who did whatever she needed to in order to hold the family together, and going to church was one of these things. She was not as religiously curious as he. It was clear to me that there was a difference in their practice. The result was that I grew up in a home which could be described neither as liberal nor zealous.
All of this added up to a home which produced a gentle but real commitment. This of course filtered through to our observance of Sabbath. I had the sense that we observed the Sabbath because God had commanded it but also because it was somehow ‘useful’ despite the inconveniences which it sometimes threw up. It seemed that the Sabbath, and this small Christian community which observed it, gave our family some sort of anchor in the aftermath of World War II, through the austerities of the 1950s and the social revolution of the 1960s.
Reasons for Sabbath-keeping
My own experience no doubt reflects a larger picture among Adventists. But for some, Sabbath observance is a mark, a test even, of faithfulness to God. The standard justification for Sabbath observance derives from the fourth commandment in Exodus 20. It enjoins keeping the seventh day holy because it marks the end of creation week as described in Genesis 1. Furthermore Adventists officially believe that the commandment commits them not only to believing in a Creator but also to affirming a literal six-day creation. And many members do.
However any group which values university education, as Adventists do, is going to spawn some who recognize the need to revisit traditional theology in the modern world. So from time to time the creation debate becomes highly charged in Adventist circles, and a belief in a literal six-day creation sometimes becomes the litmus test of orthodoxy. For others, rigid insistence on a literal, recent creation is the straw which breaks the camel’s back and they leave.
But in a way this whole debate misses the point. To believe in a Creator is first and foremost to stand open-mouthed at the extraordinary world in which we live, rather than to be bogged down in any technical theological arguments. It is to stand in awe of the fact that we are here at all, here in such a profoundly complex and extraordinary world, and that we make some sense of it.
Sabbath as royal visit
In his famous work, The Sabbath, Abraham Heschel, recounts a typically Jewish view of the Sabbath. He likens the coming of the Sabbath to the visit of a noble queen. It is important that all preparations be made promptly so that the short visit can be enjoyed to the full. The weekly celebration needs to be planned carefully to derive full benefit. The Sabbath is much less an obligation than it is a celebration. It is a royal visit. It is time to put the flags out, have a feast and celebrate citizenship.
Sabbath as resistance
Then there is another articulation of the Sabbath commandment in Deuteronomy 5. This view is presented in a more recent work by Walter Brueggemann, the American theologian of the United Church of Christ. The title of his book, Sabbath as Resistance: saying no to the culture of now, tells its own story. Israel is called to remember the Sabbath not because it marked the end of God’s creative work but because it recalls the fact that God delivered the Hebrew slaves out of Egyptian captivity (Deut 5.15). It is a memorial to freedom from enslavement, freedom from the relentless pressure to make bricks to build pyramids, palaces and the whole of Pharaoh’s great empire. This has a clear contemporary resonance.
Brueggemann sees the Sabbath as an act of resistance to the anxieties generated by a society bent on production and consumption. He sees the Sabbath as a huge resource for the development of the whole person and restoring a humane and balanced society. For him, the Sabbath offers an alternative way of life which defies the pressure to want more, own more, use more, achieve more. Furthermore, our comfort cannot come at the price of the exploitation of others in the labour force. It draws attention to the legitimate claims of all our neighbours to have access to the basics of human existence, including proper rest.
Brueggemann also extends his view to mindfulness. The Sabbath stands opposed to the spirit of multi-tasking. The Sabbath encourages the offering of real presence to each other. His book argues that the Sabbath offers a direct indictment of a materialistic, fast, impersonal and ambitious society. The book could very well have come from the pen of an Adventist scholar. It offers a clear and current vindication of the importance of Sabbath time even though of course Brueggemann has in mind a Sabbath celebrated on the first day of the week.
Rested people, resourceful people
The key to proper Sabbath observance is rest - for rested people are resourceful people. The key question then revolves around the issue of how this rest is to be enjoyed. Many Adventists, and certainly Adventist pastors, will tell you that Sabbath can easily be the busiest day of the week. If you happen to have Adventists as neighbours you will see them regularly leave the house, probably somewhere after 09.00 on a Saturday morning, to go to church for worship services and Bible study. Adventist churches are typically busy places during the Sabbath hours, with various kinds of activity going on for children and adults. The sharing of food, particularly at Saturday lunch- time, is an important part of the celebration. Parents will do their best to show their children that Sabbath time is enjoyable and has a different quality to it from the rest of the week.
When I was a child the Sabbath was a time when my father was around and available in a way which he was not during the rest of the week. We did not watch the television and my wish to know the scores in important football and cricket matches had to wait until the Sabbath passed. I did not do homework, which was no hardship after a busy week at school. I would read some devotional books. We sometimes would have a group of young Adventists round to our house to share faith in simple ways. It was a very simple togetherness and generally I have good memories of it. As parents, my wife and I tried to make the Sabbath about good food, interesting activities, a flow of visitors to the house, and some quiet time with just the four of us.
This is perhaps the ideal. All too often the ideal is not achieved and we did not always succeed by any means. It is not difficult to see that Sabbath-keeping could become an onerous burden as Sunday-Sabbath keeping sometimes did in the United Kingdom in the Victorian era. Children and adults may feel constrained by Sabbath taboos, for example about what exactly is to be viewed on their computers. Inevitably some forms of legalism develop. Some Orthodox Jews will not turn on their electrical appliances. That is not a taboo that Adventists have adopted but there are others. The ‘edges’ of the Sabbath do become frayed. Most Adventist homes will have in some corner a copy of a sunset calendar which will show the moment when the Sabbath begins and ends. But if I am eager to usher out the Sabbath so as to get on with the new week then I have missed the point entirely.
Sabbath as resource
In later adulthood I have come to value the Sabbath as a gift, a rich resource but there has been much experimentation, disagreement and weak will along the way. Some enterprising young members from my local church from time to time have taken out a white sofa into the local high street or the shopping centre on a Sabbath. They invite people to put down their bags for a few moments, to have a drink and get into conversation about rushing and resting. It is an activity designed simply to encourage people to think about their busy lifestyles, and it is not unusual for some to say something like ‘I wish I had a Sabbath’.
Sabbath-keeping at its best stands for the importance of maintaining a work-life balance. It stands for thinking about the ultimate point of all our many projects in life. It provides an opportunity to think about why we are here. In the rush of modern life it is difficult for us to give ourselves permission to rest. In the Sabbath God gives us that permission which we are so poor at giving ourselves. The Sabbath also points us beyond the narrow confines of our own community to become aware of the burdens under which many others labour, of the criminally long hours that some are obliged to work without rest. The Sabbath is also about social justice. And so it is incumbent on any Sabbath-keeper to carry the spirit of the Sabbath into the other days of the week.
Jesus said: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” Mk 2.27 NRSV. What is important is not so much that I keep the Sabbath but that the Sabbath keeps me – that it keeps me truly human.