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From the November, 2008
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Sabbath Shift by Robert Hart

Sabbath Shift

Robert Hart on Sunday Marathons & New Savages

If someone wants a picture of mankind without religion, I suggest the first twenty minutes of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. That image would be perfect if the apes were naked rather than furry, and used human speech rather than chimpanzee shrieks. Otherwise, it is just about right, and far from the ethically sensible and civilized non-religious world envisioned by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

At church one Sunday morning in Fountain Hills, Arizona, about fifteen minutes before service time, I was told that a man wanted me to come outside and speak with him (rather an imposition for a priest who is trying to put on vestments and concentrate). I went out into the Phoenix valley sunlight and was approached by the man, a rather busy-looking fellow visibly stressed. “We want to spray-paint the new office building next door. Could you ask everyone to move their cars far away from your parking lot and walk back to church?”

Even if everyone in my congregation had been young and athletic, I would have answered the same way. But the fact that a couple of parishioners made a great effort to walk even a short distance, leaning on their walkers and panting—such was their determination to be in church for Holy Communion—made his request all the more silly. “Absolutely not. Under no circumstances will I ask them to do any such thing.”

“But we need to get this job finished, and I have my crew here, and I have to pay them.” I thought about the big sign that said “Church,” clear for all to see, under a huge cross, and considered that this was, after all, Sunday morning. Only one reply seemed appropriate. “You should have known better than to schedule a spray-paint job next door to a church on a Sunday morning.” I went back inside and turned my attention back where it belonged.

Running over Religious Freedom

Back in the 1970s we were all so busy fighting the major issues, especially for the pro-life cause, and trying to evangelize in the face of the major social upheavals introduced in the previous decade, that defense of what were mockingly called the “blue laws” seemed a bit archaic and counterproductive. In fact, even many Christians were probably glad that stores previously closed on Sundays were now open seven days a week, and that the world had finally given us non-stop shopping. By 1983 nearly everything was open everyday.

But look where this has led. All too often now it is simply assumed that religious liberty and rights can be sacrificed for a public occasion. On March 24, 2002, Washington, D.C., held a marathon race that hindered many people from attending church. Adding insult to injury, that day was Palm Sunday. The mayor, Anthony Williams, had the nerve to say that all the churches should get together in some public arena for an interfaith service, and leave the roads clear for the marathon runners. This insensitivity to and violation of people’s cherished rights are intolerable on any Sunday, but doubly offensive on Palm Sunday.

And Washington’s 2002 race wasn’t an anomaly. In Pittsburgh, for instance, five or six downtown churches must close on one Sunday every year because of the Pittsburgh Marathon. No one is permitted to drive or even walk on the streets around these churches because such activity would “interfere” with the race. Sunday-morning marathons that block access to churches are annual events in Stamford, New York; Evansville, Illinois; Los Angeles, California (despite claims of improvement in 2006), and so many other cities that we have not the space to list them all. The First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion is blatantly curtailed by cities and towns without penalty.

Burdensome Liberation

“Liberation” from the blue laws has become a burden especially to the poor, who need the Sabbath rest even if they do not go to church. They now have to go to work on Sunday, even if they are troubled by their conscience for missing church, or simply hurt because they miss it. This progressive, bold step away from the shackles of the past, promising freedom and prosperity, has taken its toll on the people who suffer the greatest economic need, making them choose between their religious observance and their paycheck.

That is the very opposite of expanded freedom. Perhaps those “silly” blue laws, and other social norms and mores, provided a kind of freedom of their own, especially for people in the working and laboring classes.

I learned that one business in that Arizona town, a diner near the church, had traditionally closed every Sunday until shortly before my arrival. But then a local clergyman, my predecessor, convinced the owner to open every Sunday for the convenience of the congregation. Many liked to go there after the early Mass (8:00 AM) each Sunday and have breakfast together. One waitress there, I learned, had been a member of the church, but was no longer.

I remember the sight of that waitress looking at her former fellow church members, serving them breakfast, missing the services every Sunday. I suppose it was very convenient for the people who could now hop over to the diner after church, but at what cost to that waitress? Is this what a Christian clergyman should have asked for?

Just this past Sunday here in Easton, Maryland, about half an hour before our principal Holy Communion service, I heard what sounded very much like machine-gun fire out in the street. It turned out to be one of those hand-held jackhammers that tears up a street or sidewalk and deafens all passers by. I walked through the front doors of the church into the street, and got the attention of the crew. They were contractors working by the schedule of their boss, who was not of the town.

“You can’t do this here this morning,” I said. We are about to have a church service.” I pointed to St. Andrew’s, a historic (former Roman Catholic) church building that dated from about 1860. They all looked up at the steeple with the cross, and at the signs with clearly visible words like “St. Andrew’s Anglican Church,” “Holy Communion Sunday morning at 10:00,” and other subtle clues.

“Do you want us to stop?”

Just then our bishop walked right up, smiling, and asked them in friendly tones if he needed to call the mayor. Easton is civilized, and the crew knew that they were not going to be drilling for quite some time. But what if they had arrived during a service? They would have been stopped, but only after creating an inexcusable interruption of a sort no one would have dreamed of making several years ago, during a time when work crews and their bosses simply did not need to be told.

False Paradise

In 2006, a town councilman in Scottsdale, Arizona, introduced a bill that would make it illegal for churches to hold services except on Sunday, on the grounds that some of the church parking created an “inconvenience.” No Holy Week services, often no Christmas services, no Saturday weddings, no weekday funerals, no midweek Masses in liturgical churches, no Wednesday Bible studies, no prayer meetings, no revival services in Baptist churches. Sunday was enough.

Even if that bit of insanity had passed, the courts would have been obligated to strike it down. But what has happened in our day and age that makes such lunacy conceivable at all?

Pure capitalism, without ethical or even legal restraints to protect the freedom of the lower classes to worship God, is no wonderful Utopia. We have moved away from those protections hardly noticing what we were doing, and sometimes even cheering for all the wrong reasons as we welcomed the alleged convenience and liberty.

We have, however, been taking a step forward into the world of those first twenty minutes of Kubrick’s movie. Not as hairy, ape-like, pre-man creatures, but rather as businessmen, shopkeepers, entrepreneurs, contractors, and politicians, all living down to the call of the wild in a non-religious “paradise” of savagery.


Robert Hart is rector of St. Benedict's Anglican Catholic Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (Anglican Catholic Church Original Province). He also contributes regularly to the blog The Continuum. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.

Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. letters@touchstonemag.com

 

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“Sabbath Shift” first appeared in the November 2008 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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