Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Jubilee Part 3

Jo Hunter Adams

Happy New Year!

I commented yesterday that Zimbabwe and South Africa both offer a lot of insights on redistribution and jubilee. But I had a complete block talking about these, because I strongly believe in redistribution but am completely at a loss on how good redistribution-- redistribution that increases dignity and justice-- could be realized at a governmental level. Although I know some at a personal level when it comes to South Africa and Zim, I actually can't speak to redistribution in really concrete ways, which I think is important.

So I'm going to cop out and say I don't know. I don't think it's enough for us to make individual choices (though that's essential) that involve personal redistribution, but I don't know how we create and sustain governments whose goal is redistribution. At least not in truly unequal societies. I welcome thoughts, insights etc. and in the meantime, I'll be trying out those individual choices...

Jubilee, Part 2

Jo Hunter Adams

This blog seems to be all about thinking out loud. Bear with me as I stay fairly abstract for one more post.

When it comes to distribution and redistribution, the Bible seems to say something very similar to what a lot of post-colonial thinkers say. So I think what's shocking is not the idea of redistribution itself, but that countries with a large Christian population can (and should?) be far more sold on it than they are. It's not just a communist idea, and it's definitely not an idea that needs to be feared and avoided in churches.

The language of Human Rights came in large part after the International Declaration of Human Rights after World War II. Human rights links closely with human dignity. We get a glimpse of the consequences of inequality when we read the great colonial and post-colonial writers (Cesaire, Fanon), and perhaps even when we read Marx. But it's harder to find examples of equality and keeping people in community. Even the example of jubilee in ancient Israel is pretty limited.

But one way that it is helpful is in showing us exactly how bad multi-generational inequality must be, for God had a plan in place to avoid this kind of exclusion.

I think Zimbabwe and South Africa both show, in different ways, how difficult redistribution can be after many generations. In the twenty-first century, participating in society doesn't just take a plot of land; it takes land, education and money. If we try to think about jubilee today, that's what we have to be thinking about.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Jo Hunter Adams

As 2008 comes to a close, I’ve been thinking about the Biblical concept of jubilee (Leviticus 15 & 25). It may be a useful idea to think about, even if you're not someone who looks to the Bible for guidance. This year I've had the opportunity to think with cool, thoughtful people about economic justice in relation to the Bible, and in a lot of ways it was a first for me. On top of that, I got my first proper job, and inevitably having a steady income tests a lot of assumptions about money. The idea of jubilee keeps resonating strongly with me, so I wanted to talk about it a little more.

Considering jubilee lived out in today's world is difficult. Jubilee calls for the redistribution of land every 50 years, for slaves to be set free and elsewhere in Leviticus there is the call for all widows and orphans to be provided for via government. What's interesting here is that it definitely seemed as though a leadership was in charge of carrying out the redistribution. So it's more than generosity and philanthropy; it's not something that we can do as a family unit, or even in community as church (though there's plenty we can do there too).

This redistribution did not mean there was no private property, nor that people deserved total inequality. The reason God wanted jubilee seemed to be based on:
1) The inherent dignity of every person.
2) Acting on the dignity of every individual was ultimately better for society.
3) To remind people that what they owned was ultimately God's provision for them.
Jubilee seemed to be God’s plan B because people’s imperfections—disease, injustice, irresponsibility or greed--lead to inequality. I would like to think that Jubilee was meant to prevent systemic inequality. There's a sense here that people were not supposed to go through several generations of scarcity.

Why? I think that equality is necessary to keep people in community. People who feel different may struggle to be in community with one another (just think of how hard it is to reach out to someone you consider poor). This struggle would surely be compounded over decades of scarcity. Individuals whose land had been returned to them could have the dignity of welcoming people into their homes. Perhaps they could be part of decision making in their community, or just be empowered to make their own decisions.

In the New Testament-- where it's not just the Jewish people anymore, and there's plenty of disempowerment-- there seems to more than equality driving our relationships with one another; people who follow Jesus' can relate on the basis of that commonality. However, there's plenty of danger in focusing only on that commonality and forgetting that material equality is important, has always been important.

There are two dimensions of jubilee today. At one level there is relative wealth that signifies dignity and decision-making power. So, the poor in the United States may be wealthy by global standards, but not have the power they need to participate on equal footing in community. In contrast, someone may be equal to their peers in poor countries, but their basic human dignity is not respected or lived out. It seems there is a strong argument against both kinds of inequality/disempowerment.

When I look at the reasons God seemed to want jubilee, I see colonialism and racism and their impact as one of the biggest arguments for jubilee today. Everyone loses when there are generations upon generations of inequality. More on this in my next post.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Gratitude Economy

Jo Hunter Adams

In the U.S., it’s clear that wealth can be slavery, just as extreme poverty is slavery. Jesus talks about the challenge of wealth constantly. But it’s sometimes hard to think about what counts as wealth, and at what point one becomes enslaved. The Boston Faith and Justice Network put together a panel called The Gratitude Economy, where three people, from very different backgrounds, spoke about gratitude and generosity.

It was clear that there are an infinite number of definitions of wealth, but the point of the panel for me was that:
a) Going against the prevailing U.S. culture when it comes to wealth is super difficult.
b) There’s huge freedom that comes with setting yourself apart in your approach to wealth.

It’s fairly obvious that it's important not to be obsessed or in love with wealth. But I think that kind of attachment to wealth is subtly different from setting yourself apart from an materially inflated culture. It's much harder for me to set myself apart--As a South African in the United States, I don’t think my main struggle has been with loving money. I think my main struggle is in the expectation that one’s standard of living gradually improves. Certain things make it easier: My church and my work don't place huge focus on wealth, or even particular styles of clothing or particular standards of living. There's plenty of socio-economic diversity in both places.

So the two main messages from the gratitude economy involved a reframing: From feeling short-changed or self-righteous when your lifestyle doesn't keep up with your expectations, to feeling free to pursue everything else that's out there. What is out there? Generosity, gratitude, full use of major material blessings (my ipod touch comes to mind!) and less pressure to work for the paycheck alone.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Heroic Leadership

Jo Hunter Adams

Heroic Leadership by Chris Lowney, has been a book that’s come up in my life several times over the last few months; it focuses on the history and leadership of the Jesuits, a Catholic order that has survived, and at times flourished, for over four hundred years. It is written by a former Jesuit monk who went on to work for major consulting firms.

He asks, how is it that a group that was banned for over forty years by the Catholic church, and has some pretty strict philosophies, managed to survive and thrive into the twenty-first century? What company can make such a boast?

The answers have bearing on the way we think about leadership in our own lives. The Jesuits are well-known for being “doers”, most notably for starting one of the most widespread, egalitarian, and best education systems in the world. They’re also an all-male order, which may be super-important to you, or not.

I wanted to highlight two main take home messages:

1.) Leadership evolves out of who you are as a person, and is made up of the daily tasks of your life, not out of some special or exclusive method, nor reserved for the CEO of a company.

2.) Movements may start out of response to a direct need. In today's world, there’s a fair amount if emphasis on goal-setting and long-term vision. And I’m all for goals. Yet the story of the Jesuits suggests that a massive movement can also evolve out of a localized and well thought-out response to a specific need. The Jesuits did not set out to start the largest education system in the world. Rather, they discovered that the monks that joined that order often did not have the education they needed to be “the best.” The Jesuits created schools in response to that need; their response gradually snowballed into a huge movement.

I think both of these points are meant to be encouraging. It makes a lot of sense to develop character, good habits, discipline, and maturity, rather than solely try to figure out how people work (and how you can get them to follow you). The latter seems impossible and possibly manipulative. The former seems fully applicable in all spheres of life. Even it doesn’t work to elevate me in any part of my life, character development is always a good idea. It’s a good framework.

On the second point: How often do I feel that, in order to bring positive change, I have to know everything (or at least more than most)? And since I know I don’t know everything, I feel paralyzed and may just wait for greater genius to rain down on me at some unknown point in the future.

In public health and behavior change, there’s an idea that if you tell someone to do something that they don’t think they can do (quit smoking overnight, start eating “healthy”, exercise 15 hours a week), they won’t do anything at all, even though even doing a little would be better than nothing (smoking a little less, eating one vegetable there and then, exercising 10 minutes a day). I think the Jesuit’s story is a cheer for those who can’t develop a long-term vision just yet, but can respond to a small problem. Big things, and even great leadership in an entire field, can start small.

For those of you who are interested in the spiritual side, there’s also a whole a lot of anecdotes in the book about Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, and how he seemed to be all about trying things, but trying things with reflection. Unlike orders who believed pretty strongly in being silent and contemplative much of the day, the Jesuits came to believe in doing stuff, with the expectation that God would guide them in the midst of that.

I thought this was one more super-encouraging possibility. It seems like Jesus pushed his disciples to do exactly that—preach, heal people, do church—even though they didn’t necessarily know exactly what they were doing. So the message seems to be “go for it” with the caution “but think about what you’re doing while you’re doing it.”