Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Sabbath Economics

On Saturday, November 5th Robyn Smith offered a presentation on "Sabbath Economics" -- and we are grateful to Robyn for sharing the content for us to share here.
Where have we heard this story before?

 Wealth extracted from the land and our labor, and hoarded by a small group of people.
 The devaluation of work and workers, with shrinking salaries, increasing unemployment, and increasing amounts of debt owed to that same small group of people.

Sabbath economics started with these same questions in Egypt.

 Pharaoh believed that there wasn’t enough to go around, so he wanted it all for himself.
 When the crops failed and the peasants ran out of food, Pharaoh asked, “What’s your collateral?”
 So the Israelites gave up their land for food. The next year, they still didn’t have food, so Pharaoh asked again, “what’s your collateral?”
 And they gave up their cattle.
 By the third year of famine they had no collateral but themselves.
 And, in the words of Walter Brueggeman, that’s how the children of Israel became slaves – through an economic transaction. (Walter Brueggemann, “The Liturgy of Abundance, the Myth of Scarcity,” Christian Century (March 24, 1999).)

Fortunately, we all know that that is not where the story ends. Once the Israelites were sprung from slavery, just like us they had a hard time imagining a different kind of economic system.
But in the desert, God presented them with a radical alternative economy that put LIFE, people, community, and the earth at its center.

When the manna rains down from heaven, the people are given three instructions (see Ched Myers, The Biblical Vision of Sabath Economics, Chapter One (2001)):
[A] To gather just enough bread for their needs – so everyone has enough, but no one has too much or too little.

[B] Not to hoard or store the bread – so Israel is enjoined to keep wealth circulating through sharing, rather than concentrating wealth through accumulation. This instruction to redistribute wealth is echoed later on, in instructions to:
  1. Cancel all debts and allow the land to rest every seven years;
  2. And every 50 years to return foreclosed land to its original owners, and to free all slaves.
These commands seek to limit human appetite, and prevent the emergence of a permanent underclass. Finally, the Israelites are instructed to observe the Sabbath every seventh day.

The Sabbath is not about resting so that we can be more productive. Rather, it was supposed to be a radical day of rest for everyone and everything – the slaves, the immigrants, the land, even the animals. It’s purpose is to disrupt human attempts to control nature and maximize the forces of production.

On the Sabbath, we are reminded that:
 We don’t own or create any of the wealth around us – the land and its resources are gifts from God that are meant to be shared equitably, they are not possessions to hoard and exploit; and

 our value does not come from our ability to earn or spend money. We are more than just workers, more than just consumers. We are loved by God unconditionally, and are created in Her image.
All of these practices served to remind the Israelites that they were an Exodus people who must never return to a economic system of slavery.

This radical vision of a life-supporting, community-centered equitable and just economy is echoed over and over, by the Prophets and by Jesus. For example, the prayer that Jesus teaches his disciples reminds us of the manna story and Sabbath debt-forgiveness: “Give us enough bread for today, and forgive us our debts as we forgive the debts others.”

The Israelites experience of liberation from slavery can help us think about the process we are engaging in today as All Saints, but also as individuals and as members of our larger communities.

Walter Brueggeman describes the Exodus transformation as happening in three steps (from Hope Within History):

Step 1: Questioning of the dominant economic ideology.
Step 2: The public processing of pain.

The Israelites groaned under their slavery and cried out – they voiced and named their suffering communally and publicly. Walter Brueggemann calls this “an irreversible act of disobedience. The cry of pain begins the formation of a counter-community around an alternative perception of reality.”

Step 3: Because God heard their cries, there is a release of new social imagination.

Israel elaborated a new way to live responsibly in social and economic relationships that are liberating and just.

So, as we hear about the G20 economic summit, and the constant refrain that we must grow our economy, when doing so imperils the survival of life on earth, we have to ask ourselves whether we can imagine and create a different kind of economy, based on our own Biblical values that:
 “the world as created by God is abundant, with enough for everyone, provided that human communities restrain their appetites and live within limits;
 disparities in wealth and power are not natural, but the result of human sin, and must be mitigated through the regular practice of redistribution and justice.” (Ched Myers, The Biblical Vision of Sabath Economics, Chapter One (2001))
Surely the God who liberated the Israelites can guide us also into radical action for personal, social and economic transformation.

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