The Old Testament practice of jubilee is perhaps so radical that it is not only inconceivable to imagine its practice in the present time, it was apparently impossible to legislate as a part of the ancient Israelite legal code. The prescription of leveling every gain achieved at the expense of others (land gains or human servitude) every 50th year was designed to specifically prevent the formation of a permanent, multi-generational impoverished class in Israel. Historical evidence generally affirms that the jubilee was a social commitment left on the inscribed tablet cutting room floor of its time. Its day had never arrived.
And truly, what kind of thinking is this in the first place? Surely no society should be expected aspire to this level of ‘draconian’ justice? This is wild-haired, locust & honey, crazy prophet stuff — right? This common and exasperated justification of the status quo should be a problem for contemporary Christians. Paul Hertig (1998), in an excellent article on the mission of Jesus, pointed out that Jesus understood his coming to mean precisely this type of radical reversal, a turning in our society from systemic self-interest, greed, and inequity to structures of and commitments to justice. Quoting Isaiah 58 and 61 in his hometown synagogue (Luke 4), Jesus claimed this unmistakable jubilee language as his own and asserted that his coming had initiated the long awaited jubilee. The day of jubilee had finally arrived! Or, at least, Jesus thought so.
Jesus’ expectation points to a revolutionary quality within Christianity that no amount of stiff traditionalism or obsessive personal piety can squeeze out. A strong testimony to the radical reversals implicit within Christianity comes, for some, from an odd chorus of affirmation. Non-theist Marxist scholars like Badiou and Žižek have proclaimed certain aspects of Christianity to be among the very few philosophies that are radical enough to entertain their societal vision (check out the conclusion of Žižek’s speech to the Occupy Movement on Wall Street). Terry Eagleton, a prominent Marxist literary theorist and a Catholic, in Reason, Faith, & Revolution (2009) echoed this same sentiment. He acknowledged that there are more than a few ‘crazies’ harbored within the faith; nevertheless he asserted that Christianity persistently demands that we ask the right questions about the future of human community.
The task of living into Jesus’ jubilee vision is daunting. Certainly some (most?) reject the challenge entirely due to a variety of justifications ranging from ‘the world is working perfectly well for me’ to ‘souls must be saved’. Others are deeply sympathetic to the call but stagger at its enormity. What really can be done? Can we really do anything that matters?
This post has been partially a prologue to answer those final two questions in the resounding affirmative. I want to close by simply chronicling (and heralding!) the recent work in faith-based community organizing in my hometown. For the last ten years, my community (Emmaus Way in Durham, NC) has been deeply involved in the work of Durham CAN (Congregations, Associations, & Neighborhoods) that is part of IAF International. In the last six months, we have been privileged to be part of some marvelous jubilee work. Here’s an abbreviated list:
- Establishing a universal free breakfast and lunch program to ALL students in several Durham schools (removing the stigma of receiving such aid)
- Further advances to the living wage initiative that was previously adopted by the City of Durham and Duke University due to our organizing
- Significant expansion of translators and family support to Spanish speaking families in area schools (previous translation had been done by pulling students or teachers out of classrooms)
- A radical change to policing in our community. Our local police had been doing vehicle searches of particularly Black motorists at an astounding rate (about 80% of searches were directed at Black drivers which was also quadruple the rate of searches of Black motorists in other NC cities of a similar size and demographics). The result has been the establishment of a written consent process for all searches (cars, homes, backpacks) and a commitment to de-emphasize a very racialized approach to marijuana enforcement.
There are marvelous stories of hope and hard work behind each of those bullet points. The story on policing I want to write about in full in the future. It’s a great one of persistence against enormous objections. But, in this moment, I want to assert that there are hints of jubilee everywhere. We have a casual opening liturgy in Emmaus Way where we say that we gather each week to an open table of grace and to hear narratives of redemption and reversal. We recognize that, alone and disconnected, we are often unable to see the marks of a burgeoning grace. Our personal lives and experiences do not always align with restoration. Organized, in community, in hope, in labor, and in courage — these are the postures that ‘see’ and ‘enact’ Jubilee.
(Below: L-R, Pastors Laney, Davis, VanHaight, and Middleton of the clergy caucus of Durham CAN. Pastor Mark-Anthony Middleton led the policing initiative.)
Hertig, P. (1998). The jubilee mission of Jesus in the gospel of Luke: Reversals of fortunes. Missiology: An International Review, 26(2), 167-179.