So one of the recent news stories in our area has been that the government of Manitoba is about to change the Sunday shopping laws, meaning that rather than being limited to opening only from noon to 6pm, stores will now be able to open as early as 9am. While I’m pretty sure that such a change will go over like the proverbial lead balloon in some municipalities (think of the southern Manitoba “bible belt” for instance… can you see stores in Steinbach or Winkler jumping to open on Sunday mornings?), it will surely be embraced by some of the big retailers in Winnipeg, Brandon, and even Portage la Prairie.
The unions are already getting nervous about the proposed change. “We know we are one of the last hold-outs in Canada that has regulated store hours. We see that as a benefit not as a detriment. We value family life,” commented Blake Crothers of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union local 832. Meanwhile the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce has already weighed in saying that allowing for the 9am opening isn’t going far enough… “You know, there was an opportunity, once you’re opening it up, to get it right — to do it right the first time,” commented Chuck Davidson, the vice president of the Chamber.
There will be a bit of a flurry of commentary coming from the churches, but then it will die out and we’ll all forget that the grocery store was once closed till noon, just as we’ve pretty much forgotten that twenty-five years ago the grocery stores weren’t open at all on Sundays.
But what sort of response should church communities be making here? I wonder if the the most significant thing we could be doing is found in calling our own selves back to something of the original vision of sabbath. Rooted in the six day creation story of Genesis 1:1-2:4 – “and God rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done” – the practice of sabbath is given as a gift to the freed Hebrew slaves at Mount Sinai. No more of that seven day a week economy of Egypt; this is going to be a different kind of people, meant to live according to a different kind of rhythm. It is notable that many Old Testament scholars see the practice as being embraced anew during the period of Israel’s exile in Babylon, when they again lived in society with a non-stop economy. Not participating in that economic world is one of the things that marked off the Israelite captives as being a peculiar people, and strangers in a strange land. Not participating made it possible for them to retain (or reclaim) a distinctive identity.
And how does this translate into our own world? I like the perspective of the great Jewish theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel:
He who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal in embezzling his own life. He must say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of man.
To the biblical mind… labour is the means toward an end, and the Sabbath as a day of rest, as a day of abstaining from toil, is not for the purpose of recovering one’s lost strength and becoming fit for the forthcoming labor. The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life.
The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of Sabbath. It is not an interlude but the climax of living.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath
In Heschel’s view, in other words, it is not legalistic to structure life in such a way that one doesn’t work or shop on the Sabbath; it is rather a gift to have that day to not work and to not be driven by the marketplace.
There are two retail businesses in our city that have made what I think are very courageous decisions about Sunday openings, and both happen to be in the highly competitive electronics business. When the laws first changed to allow for Sunday shopping, both Brian Reimer Audio and Advance Electronics declined the opportunity to open. Positioned firmly within the Christian tradition, Brian Reimer’s decision was a bit risky but also quite logical. On the other hand, for Arnold Frieman – the President & CEO of Advance – the decision was boldly generous. You see Frieman is Jewish, yet because his store is positioned in a multi-cultural social context and with employees from a wide range of backgrounds, he decided to maintain a sabbath principle in a way that made the most sense for the majority of his staff and their families, and so he insisted his store remained closed on Sundays.
Now I have to admit that often as not I find myself slipping into the local grocery store on Sunday afternoons, sometimes to purchase things we need for our church that night… deep sigh. In other words, while the idea of steering clear of the marketplace on Sundays is deeply appealing, my follow-through is pretty thin. I know what it means to say, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” And I know, too, that many people need to work on Sundays, including that usual list of health care workers, police and fire services, residential care staff, and so on. Then add people like the restaurant staff who bring us our breakfast and coffee when we decide to go out for a nice relaxing Sunday breakfast… well, you get the point.
So what do we do, just throw in the towel and see work-free Sundays as being a thing of the past? Or do we seek for ways in a secular seven-day-a-week world to intentionally live otherwise? That could be in acts so public (and risky) as what both Brian Reimer and Arnold Frieman have done, but for most of us it will be in things more modest and closer to home.
I really like the perspective held by my grandfather, which he inherited from his own father who just happened to be a preacher. Sabbath didn’t mean doing nothing, but rather doing those things which give life. In my grandfather’s case, one of the things that most gave him life was digging around in his garden and tending to his roses, and so many a Sunday afternoon found him doing precisely that. Was that work? Only in the most technical and legalistic of senses, because it was those times alone in the garden that reminded him of what it meant to enjoy the stuff of the earth, the beauty of the created world, and even the dirt embedded in his hands.
It makes me a bit sad to think of people having to traipse off to work at Walmart for 9am on a Sunday, and equally sad to think that at the same time there will be people lining up just waiting to start shopping. Yet I’m not about to join some campaign of church leaders to try to outlaw Sunday morning shopping, as I think that kind of an approach would have a very limited shelf life at best. Instead I think we need to remember the story of Israel in Exile, and how a Sabbath sensibility helped to form them as God’s peculiar people, and then to look hard at how we might make some parallel moves in our context, both as individuals and as a company of disciples.
Maybe I’ll finally learn to get my shopping errands done prior to Sunday. Not that depriving Safeway of my $10 or $20 is going to change anything in their books, but it might begin to change my inner orientation. That, at least, is a start.