Change the culture? Keep the Sabbath

Let me start with two caveats. Firstly, I’m called to be a minister of Christ’s eternal kingdom, not the United Kingdom. I’m not a politician, or qualified to talk politics and economics. I’m no expert in these areas. Secondly, I don’t believe the United Kingdom, or the British Isles, or London, will be around forever, but I believe that you, reader, will be. That means I have stronger feelings about your salvation than I do about your politics. So, my comments about changing the culture of Britain and London should be read in that light. In this post I simply want to identify a Scriptural principle, and push a certain train of thought. 

It was the Dutch Prime Minister, Abraham Kuyper, who famously said: “There is not one square inch in all of creation over which Jesus does not say ‘Mine!’”. It’s an inspiring quote and it’s designed to encourage Christians to live for Christ in all walks of life. The minister who started the International Presbyterian Church, called Francis Schaeffer, was keen on changing culture. He’s helped many artists, musicians, politicians, and academics break out of the Christian box they were often put in, that separated “spiritual” things from “material” things. He helped us to see how Christ’s Lordship affects all our callings, not just those involved in explicitly “Christian” activity. In the late 20th Century and start of the 21st Century, Christians have woken up to the political implications of Christ’s Lordship, so are quicker to speak up about racism and poverty, and speak into British culture. 

But we haven’t got to look too hard at British life to see that the church isn’t exactly changing the culture. “The salt has lost its saltiness…” (Matt 5:13). I’m sure historians could come up with all kinds of explanations for this, but one very significant factor that underlies a lot of it is… shopping. Andrew Marr says that the end of the 20th century witnessed “the defeat of politics by shopping”. His point is that economics has re-structured the way we live. Consumerism is a profound, powerful force in all our lives, affecting our outlook in ways that we struggle to see. Economic liberalisation has coincided with sexual liberalisation; in both the boardroom and the bedroom, the rights of the individual have trumped everything else. The economy is designed around making our convenience king. We can now part with our money more easily than ever thanks to contactless payments and Apple Pay. Amazon delivers to our doorstep in a very short space of time. But this is built on the back of the gig economy, where workers are treated like dirt (as people at our church can tell you). Our economy is training us in the values of “ease” and “convenience”, which are not the watchword of Christ’s kingdom the last time I checked (“let a man deny himself and take up his cross and follow me”). 

In this particular cultural moment, I’m convinced that keeping the Sabbath day holy is one of the key strategies God has given the church to fight against the forces of shopping. The Sabbath commandment is part of God’s good law written into creation (Gen 2:3) and is profoundly economic. Deut 5:12-15 specifically says the value of the Sabbath is that “your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you”. Harold Macmillan in a 1986 House of Lords debate on the Shops Bill said: 

“Let us remember that the great commandment that was handed down to God’s chosen people was perhaps the greatest social reform in the history of civilisation; the concept that every man and woman, however humble, should have at least some period of rest”. 

It’s very hard to reconcile the Sabbath Day with a commitment to an absolutely free market. When I decide to keep the Sabbath day holy I am deciding to shut up shop. When I decide that my family are going to keep the Sabbath day holy, we are deciding that God, not mammon, will be our King. The Sabbath day creates an alternative economy, with firm limits on the market. At this point, it’s worth pointing out that English word “economy” is from the Greek word oikonomia, which means “household management” or “stewardship”. That’s why our decisions about how to spend our Sabbaths are profoundly economic. The Sabbath offers us an alternative way to order our households to the arrangement we’re being trained in by the forces of early 21stcentury capitalism. 

To start taking the Sabbath seriously might start to affect who you shop with, and what services you use. Keeping the Sabbath will mean not always buying the cheapest thing, because you care about the labour that’s gone into it. For example, if you use Amazon, I’d encourage you to make sure you tick the box so that delivery drivers don’t need to deliver your packages on Sundays. It will get you thinking beyond the confines of yourself to how my economic decisions affect others – will eating out on Sundays mean those restaurant workers couldn’t come to the church service that you just went to? It will impact your relationship to professional sports on Sunday. If Christians started to get serious and deliberately decided to keep the Sabbath day holy, with all the resulting inconveniences, I think it would have profound implications for our church life. We’d stop struggling to get Christians out twice on Sunday. We’d stop treating the church like a place of consumption, which needs to fit into our pre-existing agenda, and start to see it as a place of formation. 

It seems very strange to me that at the very moment when mammon is exerting such a strong force on British life, Christians have just capitulated on the Sabbath. Just when we’re seeking to influence the culture, we’re losing one of the key instruments God has given us to shape culture. One of the most culturally significant acts Christians in Britain could perform is to get our 2020 diaries out and mark out every Sabbath day of the year, and resolve to keep them “holy”. I’m convinced that would have far bigger cultural implications than tweeting about injustice, and “taking stands” on Facebook. Like the slogan: “Think global, act local”, it’s in the nitty-gritty of the Sabbath commandment that the biggest cultural battles in Britain will be won. Change the culture? Keep the Sabbath.