Buying towels on a Friday

Eric Crampton, keying off another local economic blogger Feminoptimal, discusses New Zealand’s Good Friday/Easter shopping and alcohol sales restrictions. Eric concludes his post thus:

If you think your god says it should illegal for me to buy a towel on a Friday, or to be able to get sheets for the kids when a rental house screws things up, are you really sure that you’re worshipping one of the good deities?

Perhaps the evidence suggests otherwise, but I suspect that stronger support for the Good Friday/Easter restrictions now comes from the trade unions than from the churches. Churches won’t lead the charge on removing restrictions, but then battles around Sunday trading were lost years ago.

As an evangelical Christian my own position is fairly ambivalent. I won’t work on Sunday (did so three times in 30+ years, twice in episodes of pressing crisis, and once temptation – an interesting overseas meeting – got the better of me). I will do incidental shopping on Sunday, but would prefer a country in which Christian practice was sufficiently pervasive that I couldn’t because no shops were open. I will fly on Sunday – and it would be occasionally inconvenient if the population were sufficiently Christian that no flights were offered. And, to be honest, the congestion in Moore Wilsons last Thursday, as people got in early to avoid the Good Friday closing, was a trifle irritating.

I’ve had it easy – office jobs, and enough flexibility to decide when to do weekend work (and a boss, back in my first year at the Reserve Bank, who had sufficient respect for my convictions that when I told him I wouldn’t come in on a Sunday afternoon to work on the 1984 Post-election Briefing, happily adapted and we did the work on Saturday). For others, the choices are harder – a Christian close to me got out of two industries as Sunday activity became more pervasive and normal.

But I also lived for a couple of years in the United States. Good Friday isn’t a public holiday there – even less so in the multilateral agency I worked in. I worked Good Friday mornings, and chose to take the afternoon as leave to go to church services.   This was a country with church attendance rates that, while falling, are well above those anywhere else in the advanced world. And yet, the newspapers still came even on Christmas Day. Some of that reflected the legacy of the Puritan tradition – Cromwell had banned Christmas, and when I once commented to my mother that it seemed that Baptist churches didn’t know how to do Good Friday services, she pointed out to me that in her youth New Zealand Baptist churches didn’t have such services.

All of which is by way of saying that I doubt any thoughtful Christian claims his “god says it should be illegal for me to buy a towel on a Friday [Good Friday]”.   Apart from anything else, if God can be said to be directive about such matters, it is surely about the Sabbath/Sunday, and even then I’d argue it is for those within the community of faith. Then again, we have the odd situation in which the “reason for the season” is a Christian one – Easter, the central feast of the Christian faith, whose traditions have shaped our Western society for 1500 years or more.

There is a logic in repealing the shopping restrictions (those on the secular high holy day, ANZAC Day, included).   There is place for societies to make collective choices about how they organise themselves – public holidays are an example – but if there is a dominant majority in modern New Zealand at all now, it is a secular one   There might be a similar logic in at least renaming Easter and Christmas public holidays – call them autumn and summer bank holidays instead.  Perhaps we Christians could have back our Christmas season –  which starts, not ends, on Christmas Day.

What would it mean for the church? It is, sadly, noticeable that attendance at services to mark major Christian festivals are much higher when those festivals also fall on public holidays (Good Friday and Christmas). Notice how Ascension Day has been Sunday-ised, and lost to much of the church. Perhaps it would sharpen the challenge to churches, and each of us, to reflect again on what it means to live as minority community in an increasingly indifferent land.  Then again, I’ve heard of charismatic churches that have cancelled Easter services because everyone is away on holiday – for them perhaps it would be an opportunity.

One of my favourite bloggers, Rod Dreher, has been writing about what he calls the Benedict option

This is what I mean by the Benedict Option: to figure out how to live, and build the structures of community that make it possible to live, so that we raise generations of Christian families. Historical circumstances have trimmed back the previous growths of the faith down to the roots. Our job is to patiently tend the roots, and nurture them for the day when the long winter darkness ends.

I think Rod is onto something important, as relevant for New Zealand (where the battles over religious liberty have mostly yet to arrive) as for the United States.

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