Saturday, September 2, 2017

Sabbath Keeping as “Social Justice”

Larger Catechism question 121, which asks, “Why is the word Remember set in the beginning of the fourth commandment?” The lengthy answer includes “. . . to continue a thankful remembrance of the two great benefits of creation and redemption, which contain a short abridgment of religion. . . .” Focusing on redemption, the second of these two great benefits of which the fourth commandment reminds us, leads one to consider how this principle is to be applied in human society. Is there a “social justice” component to be followed?

 

A recent article in The Aquila Report dealt with the weekly Sabbath, or Lord’s Day, and mentioned Deuteronomy 5 on the fourth commandment in addition to Exodus 20. The two passages offer different rationales for the commandment, a distinction not often addressed in our day. The Exodus 20 rationale for the weekly Sabbath is grounded in creation – God’s creating all things in six days and resting on the seventh, while the Deuteronomy 5 reason flows from deliverance, that “the LORD your God brought you out of there [Egypt] by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” The Deuteronomy passage commands rest from labor one day each week “so that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you.” To employ the language of our day, this is an example of true biblical “social justice.” More important, it is God’s moral precept for all mankind in all ages.

The Westminster divines drew attention to God’s works of creation and deliverance – or redemption – in the Larger Catechism question 121, which asks, “Why is the word Remember set in the beginning of the fourth commandment?” The lengthy answer includes “. . . to continue a thankful remembrance of the two great benefits of creation and redemption, which contain a short abridgment of religion. . . .” Focusing on redemption, the second of these two great benefits of which the fourth commandment reminds us, leads one to consider how this principle is to be applied in human society. Is there a “social justice” component to be followed?

Our nineteenth-century forefathers in the faith said there was such a component. In May 1828 in New York, at the first national gathering of citizens seeking to rectify Sabbath or Lord’s Day abuses that had reached alarming proportions in many parts of the country, the Rev. Lyman Beecher declared that the Sabbath “. . . is the government of God, made effectual by his Spirit, which produces that righteousness which exalteth a nation: and the Sabbath is the chief organ of its administration; the main spring of all moral movements; the great centre of attraction and fountain of illumination to the moral world.” He continued at length, including these words near the end, addressed to that part of his audience typically referred to today as working class Americans:

. . . particularly, we would say, it was for you, especially, that the Sabbath was made; and will you sell your birth right? In all countries where the Sabbath is not kept, the poor are pressed down beneath a hopeless bondage.—The Sabbath, duly observed, will raise your families to intelligence and competence, and all civil honors, as the wheel of Providence rolls; while the violation of it will raise up over you a monied aristocracy, thriving by your vices, and rising by your depression, and dooming you and your posterity to be hewers of wood and drawers of water for ever. If you continue to violate the Sabbath, you may wear the livery of freemen, but it will be in the house of bondage. You may go through the mockery of voting for your rulers, but it will be done under the powerful dictation of masters.[1]

While Beecher’s address emphasized in part the obligation of working men to lead their families in setting apart the week’s first day for worship and physical rest, and the advantages such practice accrued, other Sabbath advocates dealt with the other side of the same coin: the obligation of would-be patrons to refrain from conducting business or commercial activities on that day and thus requiring the labor of others on their behalf. In 1834, the Virginia Society for Promoting the Observance of the Christian Sabbath reported, “The truth is, the man, whose example is against the holy observance of the day, not only violates the law of God, by which he is to be judged, but does what he can to rob his neighbor of all the rich blessings which flow from the Sabbath,” including the security of personal property, liberty, and life – blessings ever endangered in a sabbathless society – and, most important, the prospect of eternal happiness graciously granted only to the believer in Jesus Christ.[2]

Even apart from the religious or spiritual aspects of observing the Sabbath, by the mid-1830s promoters of the weekly first day’s sanctification increasingly emphasized its temporal benefits. The Southern Churchman, the newspaper of Virginia Episcopalians, reported on the Virginia Sabbath society’s annual meeting, explaining the benefits that pertained “to the body, the intellect, the estate, and the social condition of man.” The society argued that experience proved one day of rest each week to promote health, productivity, and longevity; intellectual efficiency and elasticity, thereby minimizing poor business decisions; and the contemplation of subjects and the nurturing of those domestic affections “without which all other acquisitions are unworthy of a rational being.”[3]

Given an earlier generation’s highlighting of the blessings flowing from weekly Sabbath observance – or even a weekly day of rest from secular labor – perhaps many present-day Christians seeking to practice biblical “social justice” ought to consider more carefully the degree to which they require others to labor for them on the Christian Sabbath. Such simple decisions as whether or not to go to a restaurant after morning worship, to put the “no service” or “do not disturb” sign on one’s door on a Sunday when staying in a hotel, or to fill up the car or buy that gallon of milk on Saturday evening instead on the Sabbath provide small opportunities to practice love for one’s neighbor, or as Deuteronomy 5 expresses, to live increasingly “so that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you.”

Forrest L. Marion is a ruling elder in Eastwood Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Montgomery, Ala.

[1] “General Union, for Promoting the Observance of the Christian Sabbath,” The Western Luminary (Lexington, Ky.), Jun. 25, 1828, including quotes.

[2] “Virginia Society for Promoting the Observance of the Christian Sabbath,” The Southern Religious Telegraph (Richmond, Va.), Apr. 11, 1834.

[3] “Sabbath Society,” Southern Churchman (Richmond, Va.), Apr. 15, 1836.

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