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.