A DIFFERENT SHADE OF GREEN LOWELL “RUSTY” PRITCHARD
Remember the Sabbath to Save the Planet According to many commentators, the climax of the creation account in Genesis is God’s formation of human beings on the sixth day. All else is but a prelude, a setting of the stage for the crowning of the first humans as rulers of the created order. In fact, the culmination of God’s creation is not his creation of mankind but God’s own enjoyment in everything that he had made. He sees his work and calls it “very good,” he blesses the special final day, and he rests. The conclusion to which the story moves is not the mere creation of humanity but the delight of the Creator. Missing the point of creation is a pretty big error. Taking our eyes off the Creator leads to all sorts of perverse ideas about its meaning. A related error says that God has “given” humans the planet as a “gift”— a concept alien to both Scripture and ancient Christian tradition, which acknowledge God’s continuing ownership of the planet. The fundamental rule of property, in the biblical tradition, is this: If you make something ex nihilo, it’s yours. In fact, ours is a delegated and limited dominion; Genesis 1:28-29 tells humans to take their living from the natural world, but ownership remains with the Creator (Leviticus 25:23). If the climax of creation is the Sabbath rest of God, we ought to see that idea reverberating through Scripture, and it should give us some ideas about a right relationship with creation (and with God, and with others). In fact, that’s just what happens. The idea of the Sabbath keeps popping up, to remind us that the Sabbath is meant not just to restore and delight
overworked humans, but their employees, their animals, and their land (see Exodus 20, Leviticus 25). Rest and restoration are prescribed in a set of nested cycles of Sabbath days, Sabbath years, and the Sabbath of Sabbath years (the Year of Jubilee), which restores justice in the fundamental relationships between people and their means of production and which teaches us that the idea of Sabbath is not just to resist selfish striving but also to resist selfish accumulation. Norman Wirzba has thought deeply about the idea of the Sabbath (and written about it, too—see Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight [Brazos Press, 2006]). As he put it in a recent interview, “Sabbath is not simply about stopping what we’re doing and saying ‘no’ to the world; the Sabbath really reveals a profound ‘yes’ to the world.” Why does God take a Sabbath rest in the creation story? “Not because God is tired!” insists Wirzba. “The Sabbath opens up a profound affirmation of life and community and a profound responsibility for preserving those things.”The fast-paced, round-the-clock consumption of modern life takes its toll on our bodies and on the environment, and we need an antidote. For Wirzba, the Sabbath becomes a “lens through which to look at all our activities.” Ask an environmentalist how to start caring for the planet and you’re likely to receive a list of 52 ways to save the earth. Such approaches give us some appealing, bite-sized initial steps in creation care, but transforming our minds is a much larger task. That’s why physician and creationcare advocate Matthew Sleeth chooses to recommend a different starting point. “I used to say change the lightbulbs, carpool, all that sort of thing, and that’s still really important,” says Sleeth. “But more and more, I say we ought to obey the Ten Commandments, especially the Fourth.” He lays most environmental ills PRISM 2008
at the feet of consumer culture. “We have a hole in our hearts because of our fallen nature, and we try to fill that hole with things and with work.” Sleeth suggests a test to find out what kind of spiritual beings we are. “Unplug for a day and find out. If you have a day without television, computers, cell phones, cars, and shopping, and you’re miserable, you need to work on that.” He reminds us that the command to remember the Sabbath was God’s gift to the people of Israel after their enslavement in Egypt. God brought them out into the Sabbath rest, which is what he still promises the people of God. While Sleeth isn’t proposing a legalistic approach, he does note that the historic demise of blue laws restricting Sunday commerce corresponded with a spike in consumerism. “Keeping the Sabbath is essential to being a good steward of the earth,” he says. “If everyone parked it for one day out of the week, we’d use 14 percent less energy.” Some critics suggest that consumption will just be displaced to other days. That’s not the point.When the discipline of keeping the Sabbath turns into the delight of viewing the created order, seeing its goodness, and anticipating its redemption, we may decide to see ourselves more fundamentally as community members than as consumers. There’ll be a spillover effect of satisfaction and peace, not a scramble to catch up on the things we didn’t do or didn’t buy on a Sunday. Can we devote one day a week to taking our eyes off ourselves and our stuff and to reminding ourselves about the point of creation? That’s what the Sabbath is for. Saving the planet will be a welcome side effect. ■ Lowell “Rusty” Pritchard is a natural resource economist, the national director for outreach for the Evangelical Environmental Network, editor of ESA’s Creation Care online community, and adjunct faculty in environmental studies at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga.