Radical Rest: Marx and the Political Implications of the Sabbath

“Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages” — Jeremiah 22:13 (NRSV)

“Capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.” — Karl Marx

There is perhaps no other doctrine as central to Adventist religious identity as the Sabbath. It is a doctrine that does not exist in a vacuum. The Sabbath doctrine is discursive; it permeates the rest of Adventist theology from the denomination’s perspectives on biblical inspiration to Adventism's distinctive eschatology. In reference to both the creation narrative found in Genesis 1-3 and the Ten Commandments first mentioned in Exodus 20, the Sabbath doctrine asserts that Saturday is the God-ordained day of rest and, Adventists contend, the ultimate seal of God that marks salvation (as opposed to Sunday).

However, despite this doctrinal position, the concept of rest from labor on the Sabbath has significant political implications and offers a radical vision that extends beyond, while certainly not abandoning, Adventist religious identity. In calling the believer to a weekly rest from labor, it disrupts the unjust economic and political systems that continually dominate and marginalize humans based on their class, race, gender, sexuality, and religion. If extended even further, a radical Sabbath rest targets these same oppressive systems and makes the liberation of creaturely life from them a priority. However, in order to fully appreciate the social and political implications a radical Sabbath rest might have, Adventist theology must turn to and consider Karl Marx’s analysis of capitalism and its effects on both the human individual and society as a whole.

It might appear counterintuitive to bring theology into dialogue with the man who compared religion to an opiate. However, the invaluable contributions of liberation theologians in the last century have demonstrated that a Marxist approach can be adopted without succumbing to the late philosopher’s pessimistic perspective on religion. Writing centuries after the biblical account, Marx aimed his intellectual crosshairs at the economic and political ideologies that grew out of the industrial revolution in Europe—ideologies that proved increasingly harmful to humans by alienating them from both the products they manufactured for others' consumption and from each other. “External labor,” Marx writes, “labor in which man alienates himself, is a labor of self-sacrifice, of mortification...it belongs to another; it is the loss of his [man’s] self” (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844: Estranged Labour). Marx’s philosophical project favored a proletariat revolution that would supplant the power wielded by the upper class and overturn the social and political alienation ignited and perpetuated by capitalist systems. By clearly identifying these systems and their effects on human life and society, Marx’s analysis beckons a deeper look into the political implications rest from labor might have on our hyper-capitalist culture.

Although Marx’s work has influenced and sparked countless revolutions throughout the globe—with the positive and negative effects, depending upon location—the dream of an egalitarian society entirely free of capitalist ideology has never been realized. Today, neoliberal capitalism is the new law of the land, and under the guise of globalization and development it exploits laborers throughout the world while ravaging the environment in order to maintain the comfort of a wealthy few. Still, the effects of capitalism are also felt within the boundaries of wealthier and supposedly privileged nations. In the United States, development projects divide citizens by race and class and it is these same marginalized communities that are the most likely to be affected by environmental racism—a jarring side effect of the waste emitted from factories and cities throughout the globe. If, as numerous theologians have argued, sin extends far beyond personal piety and is indicative of the powerful and unjust political systems that dominate creaturely life on Earth, Seventh-day Adventists, along with a large percentage of the population, remain complicit in this exploitation.

A radical Sabbath rest aims to move beyond the a-political mirage weaved by Adventist doctrine that inadvertently makes the church an accessory to the crimes of the capitalist machine. As Jesus’ ministry demonstrates, rest and inaction are not analogous to one another. In Mark 3, Jesus heals a man with a shriveled hand on the Sabbath, and in Luke 13 he extends healing words to a crippled woman on a day designated for rest. Jesus’ acknowledgment and attention to the marginal was a direct challenge to the unjust status quo of his time that unfairly equated disease and illness with divine punishment. Jesus’ rest was disruptive and radical. Therefore, to rest on the Sabbath is not a command of withdrawal from the world or ecclesial reclusion. The move towards a radical Sabbath rest subverts our hyper-capitalist culture by beckoning us to cease from labor and consumption and to turn our attention to the “least of these.” It’s a powerful proclamation to both break from our participation in sinful systems of domination and to transform them.

As Marx observes, “The emancipation of the oppressed class thus implies necessarily the creation of a new society. For the oppressed class to be able to emancipate itself it is necessary that the productive powers already acquired and the existing social relations should no longer be capable of existing side by side” (The Poverty of Philosophy, Chapt 2.5). What Marx deemed as revolution, Christianity may identify as discipleship—to hear the suffering speak their truth in order to challenge power and foster redemption from sinful systems of oppression. Therefore, a radical Sabbath rest rescues the believer from their complicity and brings them into a space where healing and transformation are the imperative. This radical rest implores us to ask deeper questions about what exactly we are resting from and the wider political effects of that rest. Marx’s prophetic voice rings vibrantly alongside that of Amos, Isaiah, and Micah by reminding us that our concerns should always bend toward justice for the oppressed and the marginalized. The Sabbath presents Adventists with an unique opportunity to do just that.

Joshua A. Méndez is an M.A. Candidate in Religion: Interdisciplinary and Comparative Studies at the Claremont School of Theology.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7518
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What are the sources for the Marx quotes?

Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844: Estranged Labour
The Poverty of Philosophy, Chapt 2.5

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Reading Exodus 20, I was startled to learn that the Fourth Commandment is not the only one. There are 9 others. (Why wasn’t I told?) The others include the 8th: “thou shall not steal” and the 10th: “thou shall not covet” anything that is thy neighbors, including his capital equipment, examples of which, oxen and donkeys, are given for illustrative purposes only, and not by way of limitation of the kinds of capital equipment we are to not covet.

So we are not even to covet our neighbor’s capital, much less base an entire economic and social system around expropriating it–stealing it, to use biblical language.

Today, neoliberal capitalism is the new law of the land, and under the guise of globalization and development it exploits laborers throughout the world while ravaging the environment in order to maintain the comfort of a wealthy few.

Capitalism isn’t the “new” law of the land, it is the old law of God. Private property, obviously including private ownership of capital (oxen and asses), is protected in the Ten Commandments not by just one but by two separate commandments, one against covetousness, and one against theft. The commandment against covetousness functions as an extra protection or buffer against theft. If you don’t even covet something, then you certainly will not steal it.

And it is passing strange to be complaining that globalization “maintains the comfort of a wealthy few” when it has, just within the last 25 years, lifted literally hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in China and India, as manufacturing has been outsourced to China and call service centers to India. Donald Trump can reasonably complain that this has not been as good for Americans (whose median income has been flat or even declining for 15 years), but no one can rationally assert that it has been only for the benefit of the wealthy few when hundreds of millions of really, truly poor people in third world countries have been lifted out of dire poverty.

I seriously doubt that Spectrum would have run an article extolling Hitler’s crackpot racial theories, and yet they feel at liberty to run an article extolling Marx’s crackpot economic theories. Both Nazism and communism were totalitarian systems that caused millions of deaths, but communism has a higher body count by many millions. Why is it acceptable to toy with Marx’s nonsense theories when it would not be acceptable to flirt with Hitler’s overt racism?

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I remember once (before the collapse of communism) someone knocked on our door (in Melbourne, Australia) trying to raise money to support something socialist in eastern Europe. My mother promptly told him that if he thinks it’s so wonderful, he should go and live there, because she grew up there and knew what it was like, and it’s not as nice as it may seem on paper or from 20000km away.

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“A radical Sabbath rest aims to move beyond the a-political mirage weaved by Adventist doctrine that inadvertently makes the church an accessory to the crimes of the capitalist machine”.

The Adventist church never has been an accessory to the crimes of the capitalist machine. Despite the best efforts of some in Adventism who try to draw a moral equivalence between Jesus’ message and marxism/socialism/communism, the truth is God’s mission is about saving the individual.

Also sabbath rest is itself not radical in nature. Its more common sense.

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Has Spectrum finally tipped their hand, and admitted their political leanings openly?

Marx’s alleged concern for the “oppressed class” was never incorporated into the regimes which followed his leading. Every country which bought into his philosophies created more oppression than before. One only needs to look at the histories of the USSR, eastern Europe, North Korea, and Cuba, to see how well his system works (or doesn’t work).

Name one country where this has happened. Every communist country has suppressed true religious expression. Freedom of thought or religion, or any kind of independent thinking is dangerous to those who subscribe to Marxist doctrine.

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‘It might appear counterintuitive to bring theology into dialogue with the man who compared religion to an opiate.’

I don’t think it counterintuitive at all. In his tome on the history of Christianity, Oxford Professor of History Dairmaid MacCulloch makes the point that Marx’s communism was very much influenced by early centuries of Christian communal living - especially within monasticism.

‘Therefore, to rest on the Sabbath is not a command of withdrawal from the world or ecclesial reclusion.’

Continue on the theme of communism’s origins in monasticism, that too became a key question for monastics. Even today, there is a division between those who seek to cloister themselves away from the world (like the Carmelites) and those who instead seek to engage with the world (like the Jesuits).

Of course Protestantism in turn mixed things up again, introducing the notion of “vocation” to everyday life. Yet, Protestantism in turn gave rise to the problems of capitalism, seen in the world known phrase of Weber, “the Protestant Work Ethic”.

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I would have expected that the essay’s author would have marshaled as evidence for his thesis the rationale for keeping the Sabbath set forth in Deuteronomy, i.e., that the Sabbath is a memorial of redemption from slavery in Egypt. The problem with viewing the Sabbath as a polemic against unjust economic and political systems is that the theocracy of ancient Israel that codified the fourth commandment was arguably unjust. The Israelites owned slaves. The fourth commandment expressly countenances slavery, in that the Israelites are commanded to compel slaves in the household to observe the Sabbath. Indeed, the Sabbath’s political implication, if there is one, is that injustice is tolerable, so long as the oppressed are given a weekly day of rest.

None of the provocations of Jesus with respect to the Sabbath did anything to right political and economic conditions for the working man or woman. Again, the polemic goes in the opposite direction. We are instructed to do good on our rest day but must resigned ourselves to dreary labor, perhaps even slave labor, during the rest of the week. That the NT Christians owned slaves did not seem to bother any NT writer.

Most Seventh-day Adventists perceive the law of God as a Platonic and ethereal phenomenon that is timeless and perfect, that purely reflects His character, that exists in the heavens separate and apart from what is happening in our world. None of this is true. The law of God is a historically-situated reality. The Ten Commandments is a historical document as is Scripture as a whole. The law of God as a historically-situated reality is necessarily historically conditioned. The law of God is messy, in that it does not solely reflect God but also those to whom the law has been given. But most Seventh-day Adventists are not interested in the God of history but prefer to worship an idealized, binary opposition shaped, Platonic God. It is as if their preferred sacred writings were a collection of proverbs that are unshaped and uninformed by historical context.

The horrific aftermath of the historicism of Hegel and Marx underscores the need for us to be rooted in reality. Rather than superimpose an ideology upon Scripture, we can begin where Leopold von Ranke begins: wie es eigentlich gewesen. In our interpretation of Scripture, we can endeavor to simply tell how it was.

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Experiments with Utopia have a long history - all of them having failed. The problem with such an experiment has always been that someone must ultimately be in charge - and being in charge qualifies for more perks. Thus we had Lenin cruising around in a Rolls Royce, clutching a copy of Marx’s Communist Manifesto. The communal soup pot hasn’t worked because of the old adage - what’s yours is mine; and what’s mine—is mine - B.F. Skinner comes to mind; as does Animal Farm. What all that has to do with the freedom to follow God’s will escapes me.

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If one looks at the writings of Moses in the civil and religious laws of the OT one sees an interesting approach to economic and interpersonal relationships.

While the 10C s forbade theft and coveting other laws went further.One was not supposed to harvest every last corner of ones fields etc.

The principle being society was supposed to enable the poorer classes to earn a living .And the year of Jubliee when debts were forgiven and property restored in effect gave someone a second chance.

I doubt that many of these rules were ever enforced but it would be interesting to have a society were the letter and spirit of these laws were enforced.

Yes, let’s have a bigger view of Sabbath. Hyper emphasis on work/money in relation to Sabbath keeping, which is a sort of commoditization of it, gives a person a false sense of accomplishment and superiority. While easy to quantify and embrace, it minimizes the essence of Sabbath—which is that God from the beginning chose to set aside a day for interaction with and betterment of humankind, and that, in turn, makes us more fully the human’s He created us to be. By beholding we are changed…

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The Sabbath , in my opinion, can be looked at in two aspects-INTENT and TIME. Regarding INTENT, even Marx can be pictured as agreeing with Labour being given regular time-off from the workday, though certainly not for the biblically expressed reasons. Regarding TIME , SDA’s/Jews are on less firm , if emotionally -bonding grounds. There is no “seventh” day which is immutable throughout our system. The moon is itself a captured foreign body captured by the gravitational pull of earth , so its cycles cannot be relied od to ID a seven day week. In fact once we leave the Middle East there are endless variation of literal time systems as even 5, or 6-year olds are aware of now-a-days. Not to mention on our next door , and farther away planetary neighbors. In fact the structure of Genesis Chapter 1, may well be violating the command of the 4th commandment. The returning priests who penned this chapter could be said to have copied the Babylonian LUNAR tradition to which they were accustomed celebrated while in exile.The Babylonians had regular creation celebrations each New Year. These always began with an EVE so that their astronomers could , allegedly ID and point the constellations from which their “Gods” came , hence "evening and morning prefaces. The Exodus Sabbath said nothing about Eve, or evening, but referenced “the Sabbath DAY”, a SOLAR concept, strictly taken to mean sunrise to sunrise. The main thing , to which Marx .would have very strongly objected is the SUPERNATURAL aspect of a 144-hour creation time-span ; the Bible does open with a paen of praise to the CREATOR of “heaven and earth” . But this must be read ion context as well. Where else in the Holy Writ do we find “evidence” of GOD (YAHWEH , or even the Elohim in general) claiming or exhibiting “supernatural powers”? Even the son of God was born after the usual 9 months as far as is known. I believe, that the Elohim are SUPER scientists and that they expect Homo Sapiens will take its place in due course, if not destroyed by their own selves, in a paradisaical alliance with our blessed creators. By the way I still support Sabbath-keeping emotionally strongly.

David,

How American to believe that capitalism is practically divine! This is both comical and tragic!

First of all, capitalism is much more than just private property (and Marx’s criticism of capitalism is much more than just a simple discourse against private property) and it is erroneous to believe that it is protected by the Ten Commandments.

When we consider the Jewish economic system in the Bible, it is very easy to see that it is far from being capitalistic.

Judging the doctrine of communism by its application is like judging the Christian doctrine by its application by the Catholic church during the Dark Ages.

Was the Catholic church totalitarian and oppressive? Yes!

Did the Catholic church persecute and cause the death of many people? Yes!

Did the Catholic church has the same intolerant behavior in every country she was implanted? Yes!

Was the Catholic application of Christianity a good representation of the Christian doctrine as found in the Bible? Not at all!!!

The same can be said about communism, that is, the application of Communism has often deviated from the doctrine.

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Vocation is Catholic. Calling is Protestant. Marriage and Holy Orders are catholic sacraments; they are also called by Roman Catholics, vocations.

The Protestant Work Ethic arises out of the secular component of a calling. The bricklayer or the shoemaker has a ‘calling’ every bit as much as the ‘professions’ of medicine, teaching, law. With a calling, religious duty is incorporated into the humblest work. Catholics talk about vocations, meaning religious vocation.

Communism is NOT originating in monasticism, even though it is/was a gigantic failed experiment in the abolition of private property. In this sense, the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property. Chapter Two - Communist Manifesto