The Sabbath, Jubilee, and Reflections on Work

The Sabbath, Jubilee, and Reflections on Work
Steve Clemens, March 2004

A recent call from my father shocked me. I shouldn’t have been shocked as I realized for a long time that while we share some similar values in our lives and faith, there are many ways we have chosen to part company, hopefully without judging the other’s values. Clearly the latter includes our politics yet more significantly it has also increasingly included our theology. The recent conversation centered on my “lack of a job” and my seeming acceptance of that status while Christine stepped forward to serve as the “breadwinner” for the household. I suspect that some of the discomfort my dad felt about the situation was the practical issue of how he was to respond to the questions of friends and relatives when they asked him “what is Steve doing nowadays?” In the past the answer could be given the “he is building houses with Habitat for Humanity” or “he is working with poor black families in South Georgia”.

So much of who I am has often been (for me as well) wrapped up in what “work” I did. Too often the “work” was only reflected in who signed the paycheck rather than what I thought my life was really about. Even during my 12 years working for Habitat, I frequently took time off from the workweek to participate in peace vigils or demonstrations, other activities related to my faith community or acts of justice, and even framed some of the work I was doing for Habitat so that I could include protecting the environment as a rationale for some of the donations I accepted and passed on to others. “What do you do?” was always easier to answer by saying “Habitat” as a short, polite response. Even the years at Koinonia Partners allowed the shortcut response to be “I live in an intentional Christian community in southwest Georgia.” When one doesn’t have a “job”, it is harder to come up with a shortcut answer beyond “I’m taking a Sabbatical Year”.

The decision to leave my employment took several years to make as I grew increasingly disenchanted with the direction the local affiliate took. As the emphasis grew on increasing the production number of houses, I had less and less opportunity to get to know the homebuying families or the myriad of volunteers. More and more the need was stressed to produce reports showing the increase in the value of inkind donations with large corporate donations clearly supplanting the “widow’s mite”-type of donations from individuals. It became harder to reconcile spending my time seeking donations from some of the same corporate entities that my faith and values called me to demonstrate against. My trip to Iraq plus the looming of a war gave me the impetus to take the leap and quit my job. The Biblical concept of a “sabbatical” neatly fit into the newly-created void.

Was this just another case of midlife crisis? If by midlife crisis one means re-examining what one does with who one hopes to be and trying other jobs to see if there is a better fit with ones values, it certainly could be that. I never have felt a call to a specific “vocation” other than to be a responsible “citizen” in both my politics and my faith: taking seriously what it means to be a citizen in the midst of one of the world’s great [sic] empires as well as a citizen of “the Kingdom (or reign) of God. For me, whatever “work” I do should be able to support and nurture the values I hold in both of these spheres.

It was a rabbi from Philadelphia, Arthur Waskow, who helped me remember what I’ve learned about the Sabbath. A workshop on “Free Time, Free People” at Sojourners 30th Anniversary Celebration in the summer of 2001 encouraged me to reassess my priorities and lifestyle. With much of my time and energy invested in my job at Habitat, I seemed to have less time for family, friends, and “enjoying life”. I have seldom lacked for money (due in part to a large inheritance passed on from my parents as well as a fairly frugal lifestyle also learned from my family of origin and reinforced by my 15 years at Koinonia.

When YHWH, the “breath of life” created our world, the scriptures said it was very good, creation reflected the abundance of God. In the midst of this work, the Biblical storyteller informs us that God “rested”, took a Sabbath- a time to rest, relax, reflect, and enjoy. This Sabbath principle is carried on in the Hebrew tradition as not only the 7th day but also the 7th year. After 7 sabbatical years, and addition year, a Jubilee Year follows. It is also a time to allow the land to remain fallow and “unproductive” as well as a time to restore the land to its original occupants as a mechanism of a radical economic redistribution which included forgiving debts and freeing slaves. 2003 served for me as a sabbatical year, 2004 is my time of Jubilee.

I must confess it is hard to lie fallow and remain unproductive in our society. How do you explain such to most people who have both engrained the “Protestant Work Ethic” and the spirit of Capitalism yet remain profoundly ignorant of the Biblical call to unproductiveness?