The jubilee theology behind Sunday rest is antithetical to modern capitalism. No wonder the Conservatives prefer us to worship in shopping centres, not churches
Friday 10 July 2015 11.21 EDT
The Keep Sunday Special campaign can be easily dismissed as a random collection of eccentric backwoodsmen: Christians, trade unions and 1950s nostalgics, all hankering back to a time when the boring Sunday sermon was followed by a roast, a snooze with the papers and a family walk.
How quaint, sniggers the Tory business minster, Anna Soubry, on the Today programme. Before we were liberated to spend our Sundays down at the shopping mall, “Sunday was the most miserable day of the week,” she says. And there you have the Tory business philosophy in one. In fact, it’s not a philosophy, it’s a dogmatic theology. For nothing, absolutely nothing, must get in the way of shopping and our ever increasing productivity. Instead of all those tedious family gatherings, we should be out there buying more things we don’t need with money we don’t have. A day of rest? God, no! We must be turning those wheels of finance, building those pyramids, getting into more debt.
A strict monotheist, Soubry wants us to worship the god of finance on a Sunday. All other gods must be smashed, smeared, ridiculed. Only the god of money deserves our true and unquestioning obedience. Well, I do wish she’d stop ramming her religion down our throats. I don’t want to be more productive. I want to lie about on the sofa watching rubbish TV. Or chat aimlessly to the people I love. Or just sit under a tree and do nothing. These are perfectly respectable things to do.
Unfortunately, most Christians and Jews have conveniently forgotten about the political valence of sabbath
So why is Sunday special? The Christian answer is more complicated than expected. Early Christians moved their “day of rest” from the seventh day of the week to the first day, from Saturday to Sunday. Despite the fourth commandment mandating Saturday, ie seventh day, sabbath observance, this move was partly a way of honouring the resurrection, which happened “on the first day of the week”; partly about distinguishing Christianity from Judaism; and partly a way of colonising the posh Roman sun-worshipping day.
But it also conveniently distanced Christianity, and its new imperial friends, from all that dangerously redistributive stuff about the jubilee, to which the sabbath is fundamentally connected. For the seventh day of the week corresponded to the seventh day of creation, when God rested – and from this derives: 1) rest on the seventh day; 2) rest for the land on the seventh year (which on the Jewish calender is this year); and 3) the forgiveness of all debts – the jubilee – on the seventh times seventh year.
This last is the big one, the so-called “year of the Lord’s favour”. It’s what the Jubilee Debt Campaign referred back to when it called for the eradication of developing-world debt. It’s also what Jesus refers to in his very first sermon: “I come to bring good news to the poor, freedom to the captive … and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” This is not some niche bit of scripture. It’s the key that unlocks the whole meaning of the Jesus movement. And it is fundamentally and unavoidably antithetical to modern capitalism. The jubilee is not debt-restructuring. It’s out-and-out, full-on debt forgiveness. No wonder the business minister isn’t so keen.
Unfortunately, most Christians and Jews have conveniently developed a remarkable degree of forgetfulness about the political valence of sabbath. Early Christians, in sucking up to the Romans, sidelined jubilee theology implicit in the sabbath just as they sidelined all that stuff about peace and forgiving enemies. But there have been times when the radical spirit of the pre-Constantinian church has bubbled up. And it’s no coincidence that, as the English civil war was raging, and radical theology was being reclaimed, some Christians began to call for seventh-day sabbatarianism and a return to the political theology of the jubilee.
There are perfectly good non-religious reasons for keeping Sunday special. Boredom is the mother of creative invention, and often a blessing. But it’s special to me because it’s a day when we are not forced to worship the market. And that’s why the Tories hate it.