Reimagining American Community
The illustration "Community at Work," by Megan Lloyd-Thompson of Carlisle, is on display at Murray Library on the Messiah College campus.

The illustration “Community at Work,” by Megan Lloyd-Thompson of Carlisle, is on display at Murray Library on the Messiah College campus.

The idea of a Sabbath economy will sound strange to many of us, particularly if we remember that Sabbath observance, from ancient Jewish practice to contemporary blue laws, usually entails some degree of work stoppage. If economy is the sphere of work and production, and Sabbath is our “resting” from labor, then it would appear that these twohave little to do with one another. Indeed, Sabbath economy might be perceived as the interruption of economy, or, more drastically, its dissimulation for the sake of indolent inactivity.

But what if Sabbath teaching held the key that unlocked for us what all economic life is about, not only what it is ultimately for, but also how economic practice should proceed? Clearly, if we are to think this way we need to move beyond all notions of Sabbath as simply the cessation of work. We need to understand that Sabbath teaching, while it certainly entails the invitation to rest and cease from our striving, is finally about providing a comprehensive context in which work and play, production and consumption, find their true bearing. The Sabbath, in other words, is the prism through which all of life’s activities are to be viewed, understood, evaluated, and redirected.

This is a lot to pin on a teaching that increasingly seems out of step with the times. But there is powerful theological precedent for this view. Consider the claim of Jürgen Moltmann that “the whole work of creation was performed for the sake of the Sabbath,” or the pronouncement of Abraham Joshua Heschel that “The world would not be complete if the six days did not culminate in the Sabbath.”1 The logic behind statements like this is clear: the Sabbath is not simply an add-on to God’s creative work, a bonus, perhaps, for our wearisome, worrisome toil. It is rather the heart of creation’s movement, its inner meaning, and the vital power within creation making life good and a delight to God. On this view, if there were no Sabbath, the creation as a whole would be compromised, bereft of its full potential and purpose. Sabbath observance completes creation because in it we reflect the divine intention at work in creation. We offer to God our work and our leisure so they might match up with God’s own creative work and rest.

Sabbath observance, in other words, is misunderstood if we equate it with inactivity. We do better if we reformulate it as the intentionality that leads us into the happiness, delight, and stillness of God. To be sure, this intentionality will require of us that we regularly cease from our frenetic striving, especially because it is precisely our striving that often gets in the way of our appreciating and enjoying God’s creative work. We need to step back from our frantic pacing so as to recover a divine perspective on it. We will then see that there is no reason why our day-to-day living, as when we eat, teach our children, make bank withdrawals, design a built environment, etc., should not be permeated with a Sabbath focus.

And what is the Creator’s intention and purpose in creating life? If the Priestly account in Genesis 1 and 2 is to be believed, it is to enjoy, even delight in, the goodness of a creation well made. The purpose and goal of all that we do is to participate in the lifegiving spirit of God, and find in that participation our supreme happiness and joy. It is to enter into the rest of God, and from that perspective engage the creation of which we are a part.2 As we approximate this divine rest and delight, we catch a glimpse of heaven, for as the rabbis once said, “If we ever properly observe the Sabbath, the Messiah will come.”

Given that the Jewish understanding of Sabbath developed in the context of political oppression, we can well understand why rest and delight would have assumed such importance. The question of paramount significance then (as now) was whether or not anyone is in control of the political, economic, and cosmic histories of which we are a part. Is human life, indeed all life, at the mercy of uncontrollable and random forces that care little for our well-being? The Israelite response was clear: God is in control of history and creation, and God will keep at bay the forces of chaos that threaten to undermine creation’s health and wholeness. The goal of creation is not its oppression by forces with hostile intent, but rather its liberation into the fullness of life. Creation truly becomes itself as it is freed from the contentious and violent struggle for mastery that otherwise governs cultural development. Outside the Garden of Eden, all of our attempts to participate in the rest and delight of God will require that we first face and overcome the forces that oppress and limit creation. Sabbath space and time represent those pockets in our lives when God’s peace and serenity are victorious over the oppressive and contentious forces that vie for control in our world.

If the Sabbath is viewed this way, we can plainly see that Sabbath teaching and observance is of tremendous significance for ordering our political and economic lives.

In fact, the structure of our economic systems should be seen as the clearest, most honest indicator of religious authenticity, because it is in our economic practices that we can see most directly whether or not we have ordered our lives to be in harmony with the Creator’s intention. Do the products of our hands and the goals of our practical striving promote the freedom of all creation to maximally be itself? Does our economy give entry to the original peace of creation? Does our work, which the spiritual masters have always understood as a form of prayer, bring delight and joy to God? Insofar as we can answer “Yes” to any of these questions, we will at the same time be exemplifying a Sabbath economy, enjoying a “taste of eternity.”3

What, practically speaking, and given our current political and economic contexts, might a Sabbath economy look like? Obviously, this is a very large question, involving issues of universal scope and extraordinary complexity, and so will require the combined efforts of many dedicated economists, social scientists, activists, theologians, philosophers, and others to address it.

To get the conversation going, I will suggest that a Sabbath economy must start as a local economy, an economy attuned to the limits, possibilities, needs, and desires of local communities and habitats. And to keep the conversation somewhat focused I will draw on the suggestions of Wendell Berry, who is unique in combining his advocacy for local economies with a well developed sense of Sabbath significance.4

A uniquely Sabbath economy will always have the following question clearly in focus:

“How, and to what degree, does this particular economic practice or goal contribute to the convivial celebration of God’s creation?” A cursory glance at our cultural situation will show that despite unprecedented prosperity for some, many of our habitats and communities are in decline or are being actively destroyed. The “growth” of our economy is based on the exhaustion or ruin of the sources of all life—water, soil, and air—and the disrespect, even contempt, for indigenous and localized ways of doing things.

Moreover, our continuing prosperity is premised on an abiding dissatisfaction with what we have, a dissatisfaction turned into ingratitude by advertisers who regularly tell us that what we have is not good enough and needs to be improved upon. The message is clear: we cannot have enough, even if it means that we will destroy communities and natural habitats along the way. The march of global free-market mechanisms, now institutionalized and legalized in the provisions of the WTO and GATT, demands that we sacrifice watersheds, topsoil, air quality, farming communities, worker benefits and safety, community control, state sovereignty, and even leisure, to a hypothetical future in which all will finally be content and comfortably wealthy.

The ideology of free-market expansion presupposes that unfettered competition is an unqualified good, since this will lead to the cheapest and most equitable and efficient distribution of products. The fatal flaw of this reasoning is that competition, when raised to the status of an economic law, leads to its own dissolution, i.e., competition rigorously applied eliminates competitors, and in so doing reduces people to the level of being either the big (and few) winners or the insignificant (and many) losers. My point is not to say that there should be no competition whatsoever. Rather, the question is whether or not competition can be brought within certain limits or constraints, since unlimited competition is finally indistinguishable from a state of war.

Advocating limits to free-market competition is hardly a new idea. My contention, however, is that Sabbath teaching can be a great help in defining the proper nature of these limits. If the Sabbath is about enjoying the freedom of creation to be itself, to be as God intended it to be from the beginning, then we need to clarify the practical conditions necessary for the liberation, care, and celebration of creation’s members.

Are unfettered free markets up to the task? Clearly not, since a competitive economic model forgets that first and foremost we are members of a greater whole that flourishes as much through cooperation as it does through competition. All of creation, Berry likes to say, participates in the Great Economy of God. In this divine economy there are individual members but there are no isolatable parts that can be dispensed with or despised without seriously compromising the health and well-being of the whole. An economy, in other words, that is prepared to sacrifice some of its members (e.g., forests, topsoil, or fisheries) for short-term gain, or that “succeeds” by pitting one member against another. Using the strength of the one to exploit the weakness of the other violates the integrity of God’s Great Economy.

For instance, when cheap labor costs or lax environmental or safety regulations are used to enrich powerful corporate interests, or when the “interests/needs” of future generations are compromised by the “desires/wants” of current society. These things violate the integrity of God’s Great Economy because they assume that economic victory can be achieved at another’s expense or degradation, and thus forget that to God even the life of the sparrow is of significance.

If all human economies derive their value and sustenance from the gifts of the Great Economy, and if the Great Economy comprises one vast, interconnected membership that we call creation, then it is clear that an authentic economy must promote the integrity and well-being of the membership in its parts and as a whole. In this work local economies are to be recommended because they are better able to facilitate the practical conditions necessary for the care and celebration of creation. How so?

To practice care and celebration, certain virtues or character traits will need to be promoted. Moreover, the practical conditions for their beneficial cultivation will need to be assured, since we know that proper growth in inhospitable conditions is highly unlikely. What virtues are we seeking to develop, and why might the context of a local economy be advantageous for their full flowering? Among the virtues we need to delight in the goodness of creation are: reverence, respect, gratitude, sustained attention, understanding, technical skill, affection, generosity, solidarity, forgiveness, and commitment. Admittedly, this is a lengthy list.

But what holds it together is the profound sense of responsibility for the gifts of creation. If we are to be responsible for these gifts, and thus practice care and experience delight, we must do the following: respect creation as a gift given to us (it is not an absolute possession); express gratitude for its sheer, unmerited givenness; understand the integrity of creation (its complexity, beauty, and inherent value) through sustained attention, inquiry, and work; develop the technical know-how for its optimum use and care; love creation as the expression of God’s own love; continue the divine work of hospitality that “makes room” for us through the generous passing on of gifts; be prepared to be merciful with each other when we viciously or ignorantly abuse God’s gifts; and commit our future to the wellbeing of others, recognizing that our own well-being and joy cannot be maintained at the expense of another’s needless suffering.

The reason local economies are far better situated to encourage the development of these virtues has to do with scale. Smaller scale, besides encouraging and enabling greater democratic participation, promotes face-to-face contact, which means that we might learn to see more clearly and more honestly.

In other words, local economies make it more likely that we will see the effects of our desires and actions, live with those effects, and, where they are damaging, have the incentive and the affection to correct them.5

The significance of scale becomes clear if we compare the land management practices of the small landholder and the big absentee investor. Small landholders will most likely live on the land they work, will draw life’s sustenance—in the forms of food, work, aesthetic enjoyment, recreation, etc.—from it, whereas big investors see the land primarily through the lens of a profit opportunity. Landholders will think twice before compromising the integrity of the land through abusive management techniques because in doing so they will at the same time compromise their own future and the future of their families.

Moreover, landholders will know specifically which management practices are destructive and which are conserving and strengthening since they will have acquired this insight through working on and with it. Investors, on the other hand, will not know if the land is well-cared for because, first of all, they are not there to witness it. Investors do not draw their lives’ sustenance from the land. They ask only that the land provide maximum return on investment, which means that there will a heavy inducement to abuse the land to maximize profits. As the land’s profitability decreases or vanishes, this particular property can be sold or left behind so the pattern can be repeated elsewhere. What we see in this contrast between landholders and the investors, a contrast that has been played out in our histories innumerable times, is how difficult it is to practice responsible care when we are not intimately or practically connected to the economic sources of life. It isn’t so much that we set out to be vicious, but that we haven’t got the sense that comes with sustained attention and work.

One of the glaring deficiencies of the rush toward global competitiveness is its evasion of responsibility. Though consumption and production levels are at an all-time high, we have never consumed more ignorantly and more destructively than we do now. Much of what we purchase is produced far away under conditions we cannot see or are prevented from seeing. The result is that we cannot know, among other things, if the product was made in a responsible manner: if workers were given a fair wage and compensation, if working conditions were safe, if natural habitats were compromised, and if the community was weakened or strengthened by this economic practice. And because we do not know any of this information, we cannot realistically take the steps necessary to right injustice or repair damage. We have (blindly) given our proxies to the companies we buy from, thinking (naively) that they will do what is right by God.

In a local economy, while justice is hardly guaranteed, the blindness, ignorance, and evasiveness displayed in global economies is less likely because the chances are greater that we will directly see the costs and effects of what we are doing. The goal of a local economy is to keep the loop between production and consumption as small as possible, because the greater the loop the greater the potential for irresponsible desire and action.

As we keep the loop small we also make it more likely that we will become attentive to the complexity of production and consumption, come to see the many intertwined layers of cause and effect that exist in even the simplest of acts like eating. As we eat responsibly we will move beyond the limited concerns of cost and superstore availability to consider such issues as the integrity of watersheds, the health of topsoil, the unnecessary use of pesticides and antibiotics, and the strength of farming communities, all vital components in the production of safe, nutritious food.

Another way to put this is to say that a local economy makes possible a more thorough accounting of the costs and benefits of our economic life. In a global economy many of the costs of consumption and production are hidden, externalized, even denied. We see this in standard textbooks that regularly speak of exchange value, and the value-added goods that result from capital investment and applied labor, but not the ecological throughput (i.e., the gifts of creation) on which our value additions depend.

As Herman Daly once put it, economists give us wonderful recipes without the ingredients list, as though we could have wonderful, big cakes by using many cooks and employing many exciting baking gadgets but without using the gifts of flour, eggs, milk, etc.6

If we are to give a more complete and honest reckoning of the costs of our economic activity we must learn to see more clearly and more deeply into the many factors that make economic life possible at all, factors that go beyond human ingenuity, skill, and capital investment to include the finite gifts of communal support, natural sources and sinks, and traditional wisdom. And so, besides providing the conditions in which the virtues of responsible care and celebration can flourish, local economies have the further benefit of recasting our micro-economic aims in terms of the macro-economic limits and possibilities of God’s creation.

It should by now be clear that a Sabbath context for thinking about economic practices and aims goes against many of the assumptions of our day. In fact, to many the proposal that we move in the direction of local economies grounded in communal affection and attention will seem hopelessly unrealistic. There are, after all, many boosters of the contemporary economic paradigm who proclaim the inevitability and necessity of where we now are. But given the many signs of social and ecological fatigue, destruction, boredom, and stress, as well as the growing and deep yearning for a more restive, proportioned, and celebrative life, the time is right for a discussion of the merits of a Sabbath economy.


1. Jürgen Moltmann God in Creation: A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), and Abraham Joshua Heschel The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951).

2. These themes are developed at length in my book The Paradise of God: The Renewal of Religion in an Ecological Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

3. Heschel, op. cit.

4. The key texts of Wendell Berry in this regard are “Two Economies,” “Economy and Pleasure,” and “The Idea of a Local Economy,” all of which are now readily available in The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry (ed. Norman Wirzba, Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2002).

5. In this regard the theses put forth by E.F. Schumacher several decades ago still deserve serious consideration. See his Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (25th Anniversary Edition with commentaries, Vancouver: Hartley & Marks, 1999).

6. Several works by Herman Daly make this point, including Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996), and For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989), the latter co-authored with John B. Cobb.

(Originally published in The New Pantagruel and republished with permission.)


About the Author
Norman Wirzba is a Research Professor of Theology, Ecology and Rural Life at Duke University. He is the author of The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age and more recently Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating and (with Fred Bahnson) Making Peace with the Land: God’s Call to Reconcile with Creation.