Shopping and the Erosion of Sabbath

I’ve grown accustomed each Thanksgiving to shaking my head in disbelief at how early stores open up the day after and how many people are willing to get up in the middle of the night to get the best deals. We also read at least a few stories every year about violence and people getting trampled as crazed shoppers rush to get the latest greatest item. It should disturb us that natural disaster victims receiving food and water have been known to exhibit more restraint than American shoppers with disposable income. All of this occurs the day after we’re supposed to be thankful for what we already have.

“But,” I used to say to myself, “at least the stores wait until it’s Friday to open.” Not anymore. More and more stores, at least 14 large retailers this year, are opening at various times on Thanksgiving Day and staying open through the night into Black Friday. It’s been encouraging to see that some Americans think this is going too far. I’ve seen a lot of banners and tweets with slogans like, “Hands off our holiday!”

But a focus on this narrow issue may ultimately miss the point. After all, I’d prefer to keep folks like the police on duty, and other establishments like restaurants have served on Thanksgiving for a while. I tend to think the issue runs far deeper than how long our shopping spree should be postponed. Where are the followers of Christ who are willing to stand up and challenge the whole system and its values? Contrary to what some think, the encroachment of store hours into the holiday of Thanksgiving is not the first time we’ve blatantly devalued family and rest.

Our culture never rests. In many ways, it is a 24/7 culture, and we wonder what’s wrong with us. We were created to live an entirely different way. The biblical story tells of God establishing a pattern of Sabbath rest into the very fabric of creation. Whenever we don’t honor this pattern, we get out of whack. It’s a simple pattern: work for 6 days, and use the 7th for rest, renewal, and worship. It’s how God created us to live. The Old Testament even prescribes extended festivals and celebrations in Sabbath patterns, like every 7th and 49th year (see Leviticus 25, for example). There are many scapegoats out there that take the blame for the breakdown of family relationships and commitment, but one of the real issues is the erosion of a pattern of Sabbath. How can families be healthy if they never see each other or worship together?

Be careful about looking to the bygone days and saying, “We used to keep the Sabbath.” It seems to me that the culture of the early- and mid-20th century missed the point in many ways as well. In those days some parents and Christian leaders taught Sabbath in prohibitive ways. It was all about what you weren’t allowed to do, making it a whip instead of a balm. Jesus himself had to clarify that “the Sabbath was made for people”—for our benefit, not for appeasing God (Mark 2:27).

I won’t be shopping with any of the companies that are opening on Thanksgiving because of the way they are further encouraging a culture of relentless consumerism and unnecessarily taking the holiday away from their employees. But we need not get caught up in that one issue. I want to challenge us to have a serious conversation with our families about how we can better employ the concept of Sabbath into our lives. What would my family have to give up or how would we have to reprioritize in order to live into God’s design for our lives: work for 6 days, and, together, take time to rest, renew, and worship on the 7th.

If we’re not going to set the example, who will?

Corey Fields

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Corey is a husband, daddy, American Baptist pastor, and recent Doctor of Ministry graduate from Central Baptist Theological Seminary where his work centered around developing a congregational vision for incarnational ministry. Corey writes on theology, society, church life, family, music, technology, and the intersection of all such things.

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