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Sabbath, Nyepi, and Pandemic: The Relevance of Religious Traditions of Self-Restraint for Living with the ‘New Normal’

  November 29th 2021

Prof. Dr. Yahya Wijaya


Civilization in the world today is marked by a super busy life called 'productivity’ which is characterized by: uninterrupted progress in all areas; fierce competition; ever-increasing income, even when one is not working (passive income); the availability of ever innovating products and services. Creativity, productivity, progressivism, and hard-working are considered cardinal virtues. Such a lifestyle needs to be supported by never ceasing facilities: cities and towns that never sleep; infrastructures that always need to be expanded. This concept of life is based on a non-stop global current of amounts of money, ideas, commodities, and humans. Practically that means a running circle of investment-production-marketing-profit-investment. The progressive and productive lifestyle has resulted in easiness and convenience in many aspects such as: communication, transportation, accommodation, leisure, consumption, socializing, worship. Furthermore, affordable and sophisticated technology brings the betterment of life quality resulting from economic growth and the formation of a new middle class, increasing life expectancy, and accessibility of education.

However, a lifestyle, known as ‘productivism’, has been confronted with ‘anti productivism' promoted by groups of Marxism-inspired intellectuals and activists. The disruption of productivism especially happens in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. From an economic perspective, the pandemic interrupts a lifestyle marked by an unceasing process of production and consumption that affects almost all aspects of life. The context of the pandemic motivated Prof. Yahya Wijaya, professor of public theology at Duta Wacana Christian University, Yogyakarta, and affiliated faculty member the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS) to study the relevance of religious traditions of self-restraint, particularly Sabbath and Nyepi.  Therefore, Wijaya employs the method of public theology to reveal that the religious tradition of self-restraint prepares humanity to anticipate interruptions of regularity, such as a pandemic, in a way that is critical of productivism yet distinct from anti-productivism. Wijaya presented this study in Wednesday Forum, a weekly discussion forum organized by ICRS and the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies (CRCS), Universitas Gadjah Mada, Graduate School on November 3, 2021.

Wijaya explained that many have criticized the current economic life which only focuses on productivity and economic development, without taking care of the fact that there are many problems with productivism, especially related to the ecological crisis. Wijaya argues that, from a spiritual perspective, the pandemic and religious traditions of self-restraint should be perceived as synergistic appeals to a balanced lifestyle that is socially, economically, and ecologically harmonious. Therefore, there is a call for alternatives, or the counter-culture, known as 'anti productivism'. This alternative emphasizes priority for social and ecological well-being over company profit, over-production, and excessive consumption. Furthermore, according to this perspective, the world needs a total stop, not just a declaration on economic growth. Thus, from the ethical perspective, it also has a different view. For instance, it seems that there is a dehumanizing tendency of 'work ethic'. It also sees that work is to be accepted at best as a necessary evil (the ideal life is the absence of work) and work hours have to be reduced dramatically.

According to Wijaya, the context of anti-productivism reflects the anxiety of particular intellectual camps living in affluent societies with zero or minus population growth facing social problems that are rooted in hyper-industrialization. Anti-productivism accommodates a vision within the context of "the wealthiest capitalist nations" in the West. It does not represent poorer societies in the Global South struggling to balance population growth and economic growth. Moreover, Wijaya argues that on one hand anti-productivism is helpful in three ways. First, by sounding the alarm as to the harmful effects of productivism on social and ecological life. Second, by calling for preventing the global enthusiasm from undervaluing 'non-productive' activities. And third, anti-productivism highlights the significance of voluntary works for the economy, including those initiated by religious communities and charitable organizations. However, Wijaya also explains that there are problems with anti-productivism. Firstly, a lack of a concrete, realistic alternative for the system it criticizes. Secondly, their fundamental assumption, that work contradicts social life, overlooks the potential of work to function otherwise, that is, as a social context where people of different backgrounds share not only their economic interest but also broader personal and common concerns. The spheres of work, family, and charity often overlap, such as in the case of micro, small, and medium enterprises that make up more than 90% of the private sector in the Global South, many of them taking the form of the family business. This leaves an important question unanswered, namely what are people to do when they do not work? It is clear that, traditionally, less work was related to aristocratic culture that put working people at the lower social rank, whilst those considered noble were the ones who claimed to have privileges in the economy without doing any real work. In addition, traces of aristocratic culture remain salient in many countries in the Global South where bureaucratic jobs are deemed more valuable than professional let alone technical ones, resulting in high cost, over-bureaucratic public services, and an unproductive economy that relies too much on imports.

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic unexpectedly broke through the culture of productivism. All of a sudden, many unceasing and ever-increasing things had to be rescheduled, reformatted, delayed, or canceled. The earth became a dangerous, scary place. From an economic point of view, the economic growth in many countries changed from positive to negative. Stock exchange indexes turned red-dominant. Profitable businesses such as tourism, transportation, finance, culinary, and entertainment faced the hardest situation; many had to close down. Following that, the pandemic also confronts anti-productivism. Communal and social events became unconducive and had to be avoided, including regular religious worship. Weddings, funerals, birthdays, and other celebrations had to be made short and simplified. All had to adapt to the new norm which is home-based and online.  The pandemic puts both productivism and anti-productivism to the test. The necessary restrictions require a significant reduction of economic activities. In such circumstances, giving priority to production and valuing humans according to productivity would put the lives of many workers in danger as well as victimize their close contacts, particularly if the elderly and those suffering from serious illness are amongst them. Such an approach is also unjust for healthcare workers who would have to carry the burdens of overcapacity in hospitals whilst taking the risk of losing their own lives. At the same time, it would be reckless to take for granted anti-productivism’s radical denial of work. If the solution to end the pandemic depends on an effective vaccination and responsible healthcare services, which can only be produced through the creative and hard work of scientists and healthcare workers, the negation of work is misleading.

The next question is how to comprehend this disruption spiritually? According to Wijaya, religions and spiritual traditions have, in fact, anticipated disruptions of life regularity by training the people to do 'disruptive practices' such as fasting, Nyepi (silencing), and retreat. Unfortunately, those traditions of self-restraint are often practiced inconsistently which lightens their sense of disruption. The Jewish tradition of the Sabbath is the 4th of the Ten Commandments in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) that are crucial for the existence of the nation. On the Sabbath, all regular economic activities must stop (disrupted). In the Exodus 20:8-11 version, the Sabbath commandment is related to the creation story, that God rests on the Sabbath. This implies that the Sabbath is crucial for natural relations, including social relations (human-human); human and other than human; and creatures-creator (spiritual relations). Neglecting the Sabbath means putting natural relations at stake. Progressive and productive life without interruption causes many problems: family and marriage relations; friendship and social responsibility; spirituality (religious activities became merely an extension of economic activity with its norm); ecological crisis (climate change, deforestation, pollution). In the Deuteronomy version, the Sabbath is associated with the history of the people's enslavement in Egypt. This implies that the Sabbath is crucial for the maintenance of freedom, justice, and equality. In the workplace, hierarchy and differentiation are often inevitable. At least one day in a week the original equality between humans is assured.

Meanwhile, the Balinese-Hindu Nyepi is a 24-hour total lockdown in silence when no one is allowed to do any kind of work except in an emergency. The rule of Nyepi is called Catur Brata (The Four Principles of Self-restraint), namely Amati Geni (off the fire), Amati Karya (off work), Amati Lelungan (off traveling), and Amati Lelanguan (off pleasure). The rules apply to all people regardless of social rank, occupation, gender, age, familial status, economic strength, and political affiliation. Nyepi is part of the New Year celebration according to the Caka calendar, demonstrating a confession that equality and harmony among creatures are the original and authentic nature of life. As with the Sabbath, the Nyepi is a refusal to value one's worthiness on the grounds of productivity or consumption behavior. For in total silence everyone is equal regardless of possession, occupation, strength, or fame. In total silence, harmony among creatures is also salient. As part of the new year celebration, the ritual of Nyepi is to be carried out only one day annually, but its ethical values are meant to ensoul the whole year in social life as well as the work sphere.

Wijaya argues that the shared virtues of Sabbath and Nyepi can be seen in the fact that the Sabbath and Nyepi traditions imply a balanced position, creating a sense that neither absolutization nor negation of work is appropriate. Instead of denying work, the religious traditions of self-restraint incorporate virtues for the transformation of work and resilience in difficult times. In this way, both of these religious traditions of self-restraint are at odds with productivism and, at the same time, do not fit well with anti-productivism. The problems with Sabbath and Nyepi. In a production-oriented society, the ethics of those religious traditions are often greatly compromised. In the case of the Sabbath, very few communities practice it as a resting day for all, since weekly total disconnection from regular economic activities is deemed high cost or impractical. Christians normally spend the rest day at the end of the week by combining leisure, physical exercise, and participation in religious services. Whilst such activities are intended to be rejuvenating there are always people who do the operational jobs, and thus, work. As for Nyepi, there is now great pressure to commodify this tradition for the interest of tourism given the position of Bali as a popular global tourist destination.

Finally, according to Wijaya, the pandemic is a form of spiritual message.  In this respect, the pandemic amplifies the ethical concerns of the traditions, yet gives no opportunity for compromise. The 'advantage' of a pandemic in comparison to religious traditions is that it reaches the whole of humanity so that its message transcends the boundaries constructed on the grounds of nationality, locality, religious affiliation, political preference, and economic level. The pandemic has a strength of enforcement that no one and no nation can ignore. In a post-religious society where religions are deemed irrelevant and in a religious society where religions are often politicized, pandemic plays an irresistible role as a medium to deliver a spiritual message. The pandemic and religious traditions of self-restraint should be comprehended as a synergetic collaboration between nature and culture, a warning about the vices of productivism, and an appeal for a more just and balanced yet realistic lifestyle.