All Who Labor: Is Sabbath Only for the Privileged Few-Or for All of Us?

Article excerpt

ONE OF THE persistent themes of my spiritual life over the last decade has been an effort to figure out what Sabbath-keeping might look like for a North American Christian in the early 21st century. I am not alone in longing for a Sabbath; in recent years a bumper crop of thoughtful books about Christian Sabbath-keeping have appeared, and almost every time I give a lecture or lead a workshop on something pertaining to Christian spirituality, someone in the audience asks me about Shabbat.


Over the years, a set of practices have begun to characterize my (admittedly inconsistent) attempt to keep Sabbath: not going shopping on the Sabbath, for example, and not using the Internet. I am always after my pastor not to hold committee meetings after worship on Sunday. Those practices are part of my attempt to step away from the rhythms of work and week, and, at God's invitation, enter into God's rest.

I was proceeding along happily--indeed, a little smugly--with my pursuit of Sabbath until one afternoon, after church, I had something of an epiphany while sitting at a restaurant with friends. (We might call it the Ehrenreich epiphany.) I was happily munching my arugula salad when, unbidden, a phrase from the nighttime prayer service of Compline flew into my head: "Watch over those ... who work while others sleep, and grant that we may never forget that our common life depends upon each other's toil." I looked up to see a waitress whose first language was not English and who, in addition to navigating work in a second language, probably worked a second job, and I began to understand just how deeply my Sabbath-keeping, my oh-so-spiritual rest, depends upon others' toil. That lunch, which was restful for me because I hadn't prepared it and I wouldn't clean up afterward, was made possible by the labor of workers who are quite likely to be underpaid, to lack health insurance or paid sick days, to work in unsafe conditions, and to experience sex discrimination on the job.


Beyond the labor of restaurant workers, my ability to rest one day a week--instead of devoting that day to vacuuming my house and scrubbing my toilets--relies on the labor of another woman, who cleans my house every other week. I like to tell myself I pay her well. But I'm pretty sure I'm not paying her enough to keep a Sabbath. My participation in the American service economy--my buying myself a few hours of rest by paying someone else to empty my trash cans and change my sheets--seems, among other things, to put me at odds with a principle clearly spelled out in Deuteronomy 5:14: "the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you ... nor your manservant or maidservant ... so that your manservant and maidservant may rest, as you do. …


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