Blue Laws, Boycotts, and Chick-fil-A,

To our modern (capitalist) eyes, sabbath appears wasteful and inefficient. But perhaps that’s the point.

Todd Brewer / 9.22.22

When I worked at a coffee shop chain, we always knew when the “JW rush” would happen. Like clockwork, every Sunday a desolate dining room would instantly transform into the cacophony of a wedding reception. The line of customers clad in suits and ties or dresses and hats would snake out the door as soon as the Kingdom Hall next door emptied.

The coffee shop counter only spanned less than three feet, but it created a chasm between two vastly different kinds of people. On the one side were faithful customers; on one side were workers. The saved and the damned. The employees could scarcely cross the counter and convert while still remaining employees. For their part, the Jehovah’s Witnesses did not actually witness where they ate. It was an arrangement of mutual benefit. Food and drinks would be served, money exchanged hands, and one side of the counter would burn in hell for an eternity.

Had the well-dressed coffee patrons ventured to the nearest fast-food chicken retailer, they would have been disappointed to find an empty store.

Chick-fil-A is known for many things: chicken sandwiches, boycotts, and being closed on Sundays. At the estimated cost of a billion dollars of revenue a year, every store across the company shuts its doors on the first day of the week because, in the words of the company’s founder, “Closing our business on Sunday, the Lord’s Day, is our way of honoring God and showing our loyalty to Him.” Whatever one may think of the place derisively known by some as “Christian Chicken” (and the holier-than-thou possibilities cannot be denied[1]) their refusal to make their employees break the sabbath is at least admirable.

***

Going back to at least the second century, the command to “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy” was not observed by Christians on the actual sabbath, but on the first day of the week.[2] Sunday was the day when all the Christians in a region would gather together (perhaps before sunrise) to read scripture, pray, hear an exhortation, and eat a thanksgiving meal of bread and wine. Intermixing the Roman planetary day designations with the Jewish creation story, the second century philosopher Justin believed the Sun’s day (Sunday) to be the most appropriate day of the week for Christians to meet because this was the day when light first shone into darkness, and Jesus was raised from the dead.[3]

Observing Sunday as a day of rest would have been impossible for many of the earliest Christians, whose lower social standing did not afford them the freedom or means to do so. Servants, slaves, and even tradesmen did not have the luxury of setting their own schedules.

Today, debates over proper sabbath rest largely occur at a safe distance from subsistence manual labor. Assuming people do not work on Sundays — or that their work might be an elective choice — the practice of rest encouraged often appears like the leisure previously enjoyed by royalty and landed gentry. Others might spiritualize the meaning of “rest” to be more akin to the ascetical practices of (let’s face it) privileged medieval monks. Shorn from the moorings of human frailty and economic necessity, the sabbath becomes a means to some tangible, personal benefit. Kick your feet up for the day and you’ll be better suited to handle the rest of the week. Recharge your batteries! Man was made for the sabbath, so make the most of it, right? Right?

Jesus taught a few times about how to keep the Sabbath and there is one point to which he repeatedly returns: there is no “better” way to not work. The sabbath is the kind of gift that has little to do with you and even less to do with one’s desire for self-optimization.

There is, however, a bad way to rest. A way to turn the sabbath into religious cruelty.

When God commanded Israel that the sabbath day be kept holy, the details weren’t left to the imagination. God also gave fairly exhaustive stipulations for how to keep the sabbath, closing as many loopholes as possible. Not only were the Israelites prevented from working, but also their children, servants, animals, and any foreigners. God then pivots to offer a rationale for his sabbath laws. The Israelites were all once slaves, subject to the ten-day week and harsh taskmasters of Egypt. God connects the practice of sabbath rest to the national founding event of the Exodus. Those who work on the day of rest become like their enslaved ancestors. Those who might compel others to work on the sabbath become no different than the Egyptians, turning the formerly enslaved into the enslavers.

I guess the chicken shop is on to something? And it’s probably more than a bit ironic for someone to practice a day of rest while having their every need catered to by an army of conscripted hourly employees.

Every seven days the entire nation, without exception, would cease working. This day of rest was not a particularly remarkable or odd event. Almost by definition, it did not require extraordinary effort to obey. Resting at the end of a seven-day week was just the rhythm of how life transpired.

It is this commonplace normalcy of sabbath rest that particularly intrigues me. What if Chick-fil-A weren’t the outlier to the norm, but standard practice? It is almost impossible to imagine. Even mail is now delivered on Sundays. Living in an age where the ever-increasing desires of the consumer coincide with the necessities of profit and competitive advantage, the only real days of rest occur when a foot of snow miraculously falls from the sky.

To our modern (capitalist) eyes, sabbath appears wasteful and inefficient. But perhaps that’s the point. A weekly day of mandatory rest might prevent the exploitation of human capital, a day when every worker can ignore the ding of their cell phone without repercussion. One wonders if we would clamor for a better work life balance if there was an accepted day of rest. Moreover, sabbath changes the mindset and very values of society, of what it imagines to be possible or desirable, away from notions of maximum productivity or self-optimization. A day when even money has no use. Sabbath is a tangible barrier to otherwise unbridled aspirations that better reflects our very natural, human limitations. This designated day of rest points us away from everything that we might will and achieve for ourselves and back to the care and provision of God.[4]

It may be that the ship has sailed on the cultural expectation on a requisite day of rest. With a few exceptions, blue laws are largely a thing of the past. There is, however, one last possibility. Thinking back to those Sunday mornings making espresso, the JW rush was the only busy time of the day. Without that sudden deluge of customers, the coffee shop would have lost money. The store probably wouldn’t have been open in the first place.

COMMENTS


4 responses to “Blue Laws, Boycotts, and Chick-fil-A,”

  1. Katharina Tregonning says:

    In Germany, where I live, life generally comes to a standstill on Sundays. Shops are closed, all construction work is suspended in many areas even lawn mowing is frowned upon as it disturbs the neighbours. It is quite a blessing to have something that marks the beginning a the week.

  2. Bryan J. says:

    What’s fascinating to me is that a generation ago, we were all about getting rid of those silly blue laws. They were “archaic” and from another era. Now, don’t we all kind of wish they were back? Like… wouldn’t it be nice to have a genuine day off that we were forced to rest? It says a lot about human nature that we need negative consequences to our behavior to get us to comply with “rest.”

  3. CJ says:

    I don’t know. The comment above about frowning upon lawnmowers has me re-reading the “bad way to rest” part. Sometimes a dude just needs to mow on sunday.

  4. Pierre says:

    When I was in college I used to take a sabbath day from studying every Sunday. After singing in chapel, I would bound across campus and find myself enjoying brunch on the lawn, or maybe watching football, or reading for pleasure, or playing pool in the student center. Looking back on it, I can’t quite recall how I decided this was a good idea, but something about it was meant to be an outward demonstration of faith, I think. It ended up becoming a really important part of my four years at a university not known for being easy-going… I wonder sometimes if I could re-institute something like that in my life today.

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