Sabbath Economics

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Sabbath economics offers an alternative approach to dominant paradigms of economic theory and practice. Theologian-educator Ched Myers coined the term “Sabbath economics” in the 1990s, drawing from the Torah standard of social and economic justice and based on God’s call to “keep the Sabbath” by alternating good work with periods of rest.

I took Ched’s work in a different direction, by integrating contemplation and spiritual practices into daily choices about spending and debt, having and sharing, neighboring, and belonging to Earth. I titled it Sabbath Economics: A Spiritual Guide to Linking Love with Money. In this book, my stories and queries provide accessible paths for readers who wish to embody faith and practice in matters of love and money, while living in a hard-hearted, market-dominated world.

For example, my personal story about debt reaches deep into my childhood, and touches the roots of divorce. As I relate in the book, the thought of being in debt terrifies me the way being smothered terrified me when I was young. My brothers thought it was funny to sneak up and press a pillow over my face while I was sleeping. They laughed as I squirmed in a panic to get free. Being in debt gives me the same panicky feeling, as if I am being held down and smothered against my will. My husband once played the same “trick” with a pillow. Later, when I discovered his secret expenditures and hidden debts, the seeds of divorce were planted.

At a time when most Americans owe money to multiple lenders, such fear might seem disproportionate. Many people think of money as a rational, concrete topic, but I find it highly emotional and primal: Food and Shelter, Health and Safety, Bondage and Freedom. Marital finances are not just about money, of course. Emotions are inflamed when partners hold competing values about how to use money, especially when disagreements are complicated by long-standing issues – such as my fear of being indebted.

My husband was dedicated to the fierce pursuit of wealth, while I was content with “just enough.” He kept negotiating bigger and bigger loans without my knowledge. When I learned how wildly he was mortgaging and leveraging our modest assets, I was outraged and demanded full disclosure. Once I learned the truth of his (our) indebtedness in the community-property state of California, the amount we owed to lenders exceeded my capacity to bear. Our bond of trust was fractured. We sought counseling, then divorced with the help of a skillful, restorative (no-fault) lawyer.

I was in mid-life by this time, and twin crises of indebtedness and divorce catapulted me into an urgent search for help. I needed a lot of support to embark upon – and stay true to – a fiscally sustainable way of life. I found great support in a non-profit social-change ministry in Portland, Oregon, called Journey Into Freedom (JIF). Founded and directed by Dale Stitt and Esther Elizabeth, the most trust-worthy dimension of JIF’s call to ministry was how skillfully they assisted people like me to seek, find, and maintain a life balanced between doing – the work each of us is called to in bringing about love and justice in the world – and the work of being, which involves continually and consciously deepening the Sabbath relationship with God, self, others, and creation.

I find contemplative stillness essential in letting go of longstanding money habits and attitudes, and vital in gaining financial freedom and integrity. As Dale Stitt put it, “Silence gives us the gift of freedom from the daily bombardment of noise. Silence gives us a break from the worldly trap of owning and owing.”

In worshipful silence, I came to see my allergy to debt as an actual lifesaver because, simply put, debt enslaves. Deficits keep debtors in bondage, and I could not bear a lifelong future of debt.

The Hebrew Bible is filled with agonizing accounts of debt, disrupted lives, and dislocated families. Jesus, too, lived in a time of devastating economic hardship. His people were doubly impoverished by taxes and tolls demanded by Roman occupiers, and temple tithes levied by their own priests. People lived in fear because the powers of domination, as always, profited a few and left the rest in debt. In those patriarchal societies, some men ruled, while most women and many men lamented.

At the same time, debt offers us a path toward humility and God. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann summed it up: “Debt asks us to depart from the closely managed world of public survival and to move into the open, frightening, healing world of the Holy One.” We find the strength to get out of debt, and the commitment to stay out of debt, most reliably when we combine spiritual support structures with social and economic ones.

Writing your debt story is an essential step in linking love and money. Each time we face the hard questions and the blank page, we take another step toward emotional maturity and financial independence.

For myself, I sometimes hit a wall when I try to look deeply into the shadows lurking behind my fiscal actions and values. When that happens, I back off for a while. Sabbath rest is an essential part of the love-money process. When we get stuck, it is good to take a time-out, think about our dilemma, and pray for help looking at the stuff we are not yet willing to see. Then the day comes when the hard questions make sense and the hidden reasons become clear. The Light overcomes the darkness, and the hard parts of writing our money-love story get easier.

Your story may not turn out the way you thought it would in the beginning, because your writing helps to shape a living reality. Your intention, your attention, and your words on the page can shape a fresh future. When you are ready for the truth, it flows through you and out onto the page.

Messy first drafts are hard, so don’t let pitfalls of doubt, disgust, or disorientation stop you. Gradually, you and your debt story will come together as one. The practice of contemplating your debt story will change your choices and inform your next steps, just as it changes the old story you’ve told yourself for far too long. Both you and your debt story can rejoice in becoming more free, more true and, probably, more grateful.  ~~~

Judith Favor is a convinced Friend at home in Claremont Monthly Meeting (PacYM).

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