The Sabbath as the basis for an environmental theological ethic

By Michael Wood
Posted on 12 September 2011
Filed under Culture

A few months ago I attended the formal launch and information session, at UWA, for this blog site that you are reading. One of the speakers introduced a perspective on the whole conversation around energy use and climate change which I found challenging and helpful. The essential argument, if I understood correctly, is that introducing more renewable energy into the system is not, of itself, going to resolve climate and other sustainability challenges, unless there is, at the very least, a corresponding reduction in energy production from all sources.

What’s the reason for this? Firstly, simply adding renewables without a dramatic reduction in carbon based energy production does nothing for the climate problem. Secondly, adding renewable energy without reducing overall energy production simply speeds up the production/consumption cycle leading to a predicted loss of critically important scarce resources, some of which are due, on existing evidence, to run out this century. What’s the bottom line? By all means, shift to renewables instead of dirty energy but we also need to simultaneously consume less energy as a whole. This would mean, on the face of it, simpler life styles – less energy consumption.

How is it possible to move large populations who have become used to high energy consumption lifestyles to simpler less energy consuming lifestyles? This is an area that Carmen Lawrence addresses as a social psychologist. I heard Professor Lawrence give a talk last year in which she spoke about human beings as being imitative of each other and somewhat competitive. So a simple intervention that has worked in California, and I now notice is happening in my own suburb, is to give people information about their energy consumption in comparison to their neighbours. It turns out that if our energy consumption is higher than our neighbours then we tend to try to drop down to at least the level of our neighbours. A deeper challenge, of course, is how we reduce the energy consumption of a whole population to a lower median level. This is a compelling question for our times.

As an Anglican priest I’m interested in how the stories which underlie our lives may have a role to play in our use of energy. The stories (traditions) that we grow up with tend to shape our behaviour in very powerful ways. When clergy prepare couples for marriage we often find how different, and quite deep seated, family stories about the ‘way we do things around here’ intersect in the creation of a new social unit. These stories could include anything from how a couple makes financial decisions to the way in which they intend to celebrate their next Christmas Day.

If such stories are operating at the family level what about at the macro level of society and economy? Whether or not we live within a set of religious stories there are other implicit, largely unconscious, stories at work. Because we grow up within these stories we might not recognise their power and influence. My children have grown up in a story of privilege and an expectancy of a reasonably high standard of living. This story line has chapters about having a good education, probably going to university, probably ending up getting a good job, living in a reasonably comfortable house and, therefore, consuming the world’s resources at a particularly unsustainable level.

How do counter-narratives get introduced that act as circuit breakers on the story of economic privilege and environmental unsustainability?  I sometimes reflect on this from the perspective of my own Anglican traditions. The Church of England story continues to have close and complex interrelationships with the story of empire. Theology and politics get intertwined in interesting ways. If rulers can co-opt theology in the interests of the state then they tend to do so. For Christianity that has been the case  since the early fourth century when Constantine declared Christianity the state religion, at least in part, to try to bind together a vast empire. In this way the radical, even subversive, stories of the Bible get domesticated.

Within the Bible we find similar tensions lying alongside each other. There are stories of divinely appointed Kings (one Bible story points out that God thought this idea was a bad one at the outset) right next to stories of prophets declaring judgement on those same Kings for the unjust exploitation of land and people.

So what narratives in the Bible could provide counter narratives to the auto-pilot story of endless economic growth?  From a Christian perspective there are two potentially very useful anchor points in the Bible. The first, from the Hebrew Scriptures, is the practice of Sabbath. The second, from the New Testament, is the self-empyting (Kenosis) of Christ. I address each of these below.

The practice of the Sabbath is one that Christians share with their Jewish brothers and sisters. I am not equipped to do justice to the full riches of the Sabbath in the Jewish tradition and will therefore not try to do so. However, from a Christian perspective, since the first century, Sunday (the Day of the Resurrection) has become the ‘Christian Sabbath’. The Sabbath itself points to two other stories which have important environmental implications.

One meaning of the Sabbath comes from Exodus 20. The Sabbath is consecrated as a day of rest to mark the end of God’s creation of the heavens and the earth. On the Sabbath we rest because the creator God rests. Rather than 24/7 creation and consumption, we take the time to breathe – to rest – to observe the beauty of both creator and created. Falling in love with the ‘beauty of the earth’ (as an English Hymn puts it) is a good first step for ensuring we don’t destroy it. The Earth is not just a disposable commodity for the use of humans. In the Genesis story, God declares creation ‘very good’. The creation has inherent value even before humans come along.

In Genesis 2:15 the Hebrew word translated as ‘till” (‘the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it’) is most often translated in other places in the Old Testament as ‘serve’. Hence we could say that humanity’s responsibility to the earth is to ‘serve it and keep it’. If humanity has any ‘dominion’ (a word used, in the other creation tradition, in Genesis 1:28) then it is a dominion of service. We might imagine a gardener watching over the land they are planting, recognising that if we don’t serve the land, then the land will not serve us. There is an inbuilt reciprocity. This reciprocity is recognised in Exodus 23 where it specifies that the land, the vineyard and the olive orchid also must rest – in the 7th (Sabbath) year the land must lie fallow.

So a first question we might ask is – what would be the effect on the environment of a widespread adoption (even just by a couple of billion Christians) of entirely stopping consumption for one day a week? More importantly, this would not mean transferring one day of consumption across the other six. The idea of Sabbath is that it represents a pattern for the whole of life. The Sabbath invites us to a daily recollection of creator and creation so that we will preserve creation rather than destroy it. A Sabbath living would mean a simplified living. This brings us to a second meaning of the Sabbath.

In Deuteronomy Chapter 5 the underlying meaning of Sabbath is a reminder to the people that they were once slaves in Egypt and that God has liberated them. The story of the Hebrews is a story of a people ruthlessly pressed into service by Pharoah. Sound familiar? Try replacing the word “Pharaoh” with “the dominating system”. We only have to watch the evening news to know that almost the only game in town is the mythical “economy”. The economy is the whole rich fabric of exchange through which we receive food, housing, education and health care on one hand and an increasing servitude and environmental destruction on the other. No one is in control and yet we are all part of this collective system – we are complicit in a story of consumption because it’s convenient and familiar.

When God liberates a community of slaves from Egypt and calls them out into the relative austerity of the desert, many are not happy. The grumbling starts – people harken back to slavery in Egypt where at least they could get some food (Exodus 16:1-3). The Sabbath becomes a constant reminder (probably (re)forged in a new  temptation to slavery during the Jewish exile in Babylon) and a reminder that life is more than what we eat, drink and wear (Matthew 6:25). The Sabbath is a weekly invitation to a much bigger picture.

This question of true freedom is an important one. Is the freedom I have settled for, mortgaged to the hilt, and plugged in 24/7 to the internet really freedom? What if I were to stop consuming for one day in seven, not just to fall in love again with creator and creation, but also to break the addictive pattern of consumption? Addiction is, after all, a kind of slavery. How addicted am I to shopping, the internet and everything else? We may find out when we stop, unplug and disconnect one day a week. (Susan Maushard has written an entertaining exploration of her own family’s efforts to do this in ‘The Winter of our Disconnect’).

If a couple of billion Christians were to then carry that less addicted form of life into the other six days a week, what might be the effect on the environment?

The other major theological anchor point which I have suggested for an environmental theological ethics is the self-emptying (kenosis) of Christ. For Christians, Christ is the definitive reference point. Christ perfectly embodies (incarnates) the kind of ‘letting go’ to which the Sabbath invites people. For Christians, the death and resurrection of Christ represents a new Exodus for the whole world. Followers of Christ are invited by St. Paul in his Letter to the Philippians (2:6-8) to have the same ‘mind’ as Christ which involved a complete self-emptying (Kenosis). Self emptying is, for me, strongly suggestive of a general pattern of consuming less – to ‘live simply that all may simply live’ or, as suggested in a more recent articulation of an environmental theology (Sally McFauge), to reduce one’s environmental footprint.

Such changes in behaviour are really hard, particularly when we are addicted to consumption. However, for those who are willing to accept it, Paul reassures people ‘God who is at work in you, enables you both to will and to work for his good pleasure’ (Philippians 2:13). In other words, we are given the grace to do what might be quite difficult by our own will power (as any member of Alcoholics Anonymous will attest).

What would be the energy reduction implications of a couple of billion Christians deciding to live the Sabbath? What would we do on Sundays? Walk instead of drive? Turn off the computers? Take a break from shopping? That would get us started one day of the week. What if we then lived the Sabbath every day of the week as a way of life? Because at it’s heart that is what Sabbath is trying to do – the one day in seven is a symbolic reminder that God is at the heart of everything (Exodus 20) and God wants to free us from being slaves to anything (Deuteronomy 5), including the economic system.

We give ourselves, and the earth, a break one day in seven in order to allow space for God to set us free 24/7.

I’ve suggested, in this article, that the stories in which we live and move and have our being can have enormous implications for the way we consume and therefore our impact on the environment. If you believe that God is bunkum and that Christians, like other religious folks, are mentally deranged, then you may not have read this far. So I think my appeal here is firstly to people of my own Christian community as well as anyone who is sympathetic to our strange ways. We Christians like to think that we live within a biblical narrative but I often wonder if it’s really the Bible that shapes our consumption patterns or another story entirely. I regret that I am often as addicted to consumption as the next person. Hence the Sabbath is, for me, such an enormous gift and never a burden. As Jesus himself said, “the Sabbath was made for humans”. God knows we need it and perhaps, more importantly, the earth needs it.

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2 Comments


Comments 1 to 2:

  1. Encouraging reflection here Michael. Our addiction to consumption is very gripping. When I moved 160km distant from shops, I had withdrawal from shopping for three months. Now that I shop monthly, it has less hold over my desires. I think that the story we tell ourselves about how our forebears lived, 'when we were poor' is a major driver for our fearful urge to consume: I don't want to be deemed 'poor' by living in the primitive conditions that existed before we were connected to 'the grid' of water, power and communications. The way that grandma lived is said to be 'in poverty' when in fact it was a diversely rich way to live, and far more resilient than our dependance on ever increasing consumption. Anna Killigrew
  2. Michael, I don’t think anyone could disagree that following the traditions of a bronze age culture will no doubt lead to a reduction in energy consumption, after all their carbon footprint was so small (just the odd burning bush here and there).
    Your prescription for Christians to reduce CO2 emissions at first glance is attractive if rather quaint. I agree that we all should take individual responsibility for our consumption of the earth’s precious resources. But under your proposal the SUV just stays in the garage on this special day. We really need to get people to think twice before they even purchase the SUV, or any other thing that they don’t really need. There are many holes in your proposal, but I will not pick them out here as this comment would be far too long.
    What we really need is a wholesale change to people’s attitudes. This can be achieved through education, in particularly of our children and the correct political policies. It is the responsibility of every group, community and humanity as a whole to preserve this planet not only for our children but the generations to come.
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