Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Jubilee Mentality


Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a sabbath for the Lord...And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family.
Leviticus 25:2,10

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they released their nets and followed him.
Mark 1:16-18

Jesus said to them, ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’
Mark 12:17

He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of Jubilee.’
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’

Luke 4:17b-21

Jesus’ call to discipleship is identified in the gospel with “release” from our captivity to the dominant Mammon system. This is indicated by the fact that the verb used to describe the fishermen “leaving” their nets to follow Jesus is the same verb used to describe the forgiveness of sin/ debt, the liberation of captives and the unbinding of the demon-possessed. This Jubilee release takes many forms: writing off debt, practicing solidarity with the poorest, making sure that everyone is included at the social table, sharing our assets with each other – and resisting the tyranny of Caesar’s coin! I believe Jesus invites us to do the same today. Our task is not to rationalize why we can’t follow, or to equivocate where Jesus was clear, but to figure out what his call means in concrete terms today, in a world quite different (but probably no more complex and ambiguous) than that of the gospels.
Ched Myers

The Jewish monk Jonathan Shefa has spent the past 2 1/2 years living in a Catholic monastery in Israel, committing himself to the Jewish spiritual practices of Sabbath (no computer, phone, TV, car or money from Friday sunset to nightfall on Saturday), Hitbodedut (walking out into the fields, the forest, the hills and talking out loud to God) and Jubilee (the 50th year of the economic cycle when all property and productive resources are meant to be redistributed equally to ensure that disparities in wealth do not balloon out of proportion). He woke up 3 mornings a week at 6am to study Leviticus 25 with an Orthodox rabbi and what he discovered (thus far) is that the Jubilee provision for God's people is vital because it signals a radical trust in God, who gives us land and resources in order to bless each other and the rest of the worl. However, since the Garden of Eden fiasco, humanity has been hampered with fear, distorting our vision:

Fear isn't just something that strikes now and again; it is built into the system, a kind of energetic white noise that helps perpetuate the illusion of separateness and keeps me from living here, now, in total equanimous surrender to what is.

God's people--those who sign on to participate with God in the redemption of the world--are those strange humans who commit to an economics of trust, modeling an alternative to a world drowning in fear. Shefa was motivated to start a movement called Global Sabbath, organizing a global day of rest for humanity, the earth and all its creatures. Why only one day? His answer:

The Talmud teaches us that if humanity were to experience one day of true Sabbath, it would change the course of history, that it would be the beginning of a new world. Tasting our true potential, all together--knowing that around the globe people are experiencing peace, that the earth is receiving its due rest and that we are sharing this world--would shift something within us, giving us a new sense of what is possible, our true capacity. We would come to realize that if we can do it for one day, we can do it for two; and if we can do it for two we can do it for good.

Christian biblical scholar and activist Ched Myers reminds us that the Hebrew Bible's call for Sabbath has three essential connotations:

1. The Sabbath suspension of doing in order to be is grounded in the Self-limiting character of God, who created and then rested.

2. Sabbath concerns the communal discipline of setting limits. We are commanded to cease our determined work to transform the world, in particular the “economic” activity of production and distribution of goods. Why? It is because of our Fallen human impulse to work compulsively, to consume addictively, and to use and exploit resources and labor mercilessly.

3. Sabbath is a tradition of economic justice. The practice is introduced in the context of the manna story in Exodus 16...it represents a communal practice of constraint within the context of economic sufficiency for all.


More than 30 years ago, John Howard Yoder documented the very real socio-political-economic proclamation of Jubilee as a live indicator that God's Reign had invaded the world in Christ. In 26AD, Herod the Great's Reign had over-burdened peasants with taxes which led to borrowing which led to the inability to pay back which led to debt-slavery. After all, when you lose your house and everything else you own as collateral no matter how hard you work, the only thing you have left is your undignified self which is then promptly handed over to the "authorities."

When Jesus got up and read from Isaiah 61 in the Nazareth synagogue, he was announcing that his alternative campaign had begun and he was recruiting faithful and courageous disciples to canvass all over Palestine with the audacious message--echoing Torah and the prophets--that all of God's People were called to be a blessing to the entire world (Genesis 15) by "releasing" humanity and the earth from debts, slavery, imprisonment, addiction, exploitation, pollution, abuse and neglect.

However, the Jubilee Mentality is perhaps the most underrated Christian practice in the US today. A big part of the problem, as I've experienced it, is that most Christians in the US (1) do not view this portion of Scripture as pertaining to Christians because they (conveniently) do not interpet Jesus' inaugural address in Luke 4 as echoing Jubilee language and (2) believe that Jesus' commission to his disciples was spiritual and eternal, not social, political and economic. I've heard it said over and over again that the Bible does not support economic equality (that's "socialism") and that "the poor will always be among us" (an out-of-context proof-text strategy from Mark's gospel).

The Jubilee is absurd to Christians who are more influenced (whether they acknowledge it or know it) by Reaganomics than by the Jesus described in the Gospel of Luke (a convicting practice might be spending 2 hours one afternoon reading Luke & counting all the times that the gospel of the kingdom of God is equated with food and resource sharing) who was inevitably crucified by the religious and political leaders because of his prophetic confrontation with them (they hoarded wealth and supported others who did the same--a major anti-Jubilee trend in 1st century Palestine). As Yoder proposed in Politics of Jesus (1972), when we join Jesus' Jubilee campaign, we are not advocating communism, but a more humanizing and energizing regulated market system that lifts the overwhelming burden off of everyday people (not to mention advocating for a personal responsibility of more generous, abundant & simple habits of consumption and sharing).

Things haven't changed, even (especially?) in a country where 75% profess to be "Christians" whose very vocation is to echo and embody Jesus' inaugural address in Luke 4: to bring good news to the poor...to proclaim release to the captives...recovery of sight to the blind...to let the oppressed go free...to proclaim the year of Jubilee. In a land of rapidly growing income inequality, we are, more than ever, in dire need of Christians who take seriously Jesus' Jubilee Mentality.



Not to mention the fact that the United States is leading the world in number of convicts filling American prisons, as well as skyrocketing credit card debt:



Myers reminds disciples that there is not a single blueprint or system to live out Jubilee perfectly, but portrays the Christian life of Jubilee as a series of "life-long tasks of turning away from all the personal and political delusions and dysfunction." He offers us 5 areas of our lives to examine how faithfully and passionately we are participating in the Jubilee mentality:

1. The land: Is there any natural place that you care enough about to defend? Whether it’s a backyard garden, a local streambed, a regional watershed or a beloved national park, we cannot rehabilitate our relationship to the earth in the abstract.

2. The poor: The truth of any society is embodied not by its richest, most powerful, or most beautiful members, but by those on the bottom. The marginalized will unmask our illusions about the nobility of the status quo and teach us about grace aid the struggle to survive, to change, and to heal. I would include in this that we have a special responsibility to learn who the indigenous people of our area were and are, and to face the legacy of our dispossession of them.

3. Our money: Our paralysis because of debt servicing needs to be examined, on the household, national, and international levels. Re-examine how you and your church handle your surplus, and consider re-investing it in communities that most need access to capital. There is a current renaissance of alternative banking and community currency experiments just waiting for Christians to plug into!

4. Our possessions: Whether or not we suffer from “affluenza,” we need to realize how fetishistic our relationship to things has become for all of us, thanks to the mystical and inescapable huckstering of Madison Avenue. Until and unless we truly are convicted that our “stuff” cannot save us or make us happy, we will be unable and uninterested in commencing the journey of “recovery” from our attachment to a consumer culture that is fundamentally addictive/compulsive and that is driving the destructive ideology of growth.

5. Our work: How we earn our bread, and the relationship between wage-labor and life-work,is possibly the most important nexus of examination. Our anxiety about money keeps us fretful about work, and allows it to direct our time and space in ways that may have little to do with our discipleship vocation. If our identity should not be defined by what we own, neither should it be defined by what we do.


Sabbath and Jubilee are vital practices for contemporary followers of Jesus, whether we live in the city, the country, suburbia or a monastery. May we be agents of "release" in a world of enslavement.

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