Many Christians will have heard of the Jubilee 2000 campaign for a one
off cancellation of unpayable debts of the poorest countries this year.
From small beginnings, the campaign has surprised many by going so far
toward achieving what looked impossible a few years ago, enlisting the
support of such respected figures as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair in its
wake. The campaign takes inspiration from the Old Testament, but does
make economic sense and what significance, if any, does it have for Christians
in the 21st century?
The campaign takes inspiration from Leviticus chapter 25, a text that
portrays events 3,400 years ago following the exodus of the Israelites
from Egypt, led by Moses. The chapter sets down provisions for a Year
of Jubilee every 50 years in which the Israelites were to cancel debts,
release slaves and return property sold by those who had become poor.
To recover the significance of this ancient text one might try to locate
it within the great sweep of the biblical story handed down from one generation
to the next. Beginning with Genesis and the Fall, this overarching narrative
recounts God's promises to Abraham closely followed by the sale of his
son Joseph into slavery by his brothers. Yet the story unfolds to affirm
God's purposes at work as, through Joseph, the Egyptians are blessed and
Abraham's descendants prosper in Egypt. The plot develops as Egypt increasingly
oppresses Abraham's descendants. Then, through Moses, Aaron and Joshua
the Israelites are set free and led to a promised land where they are
to be set apart from other nations (that is to be holy) and embody in
their society the justice and mercy of the living God. Anyone visiting
third world nations today will notice how this great Exodus narrative,
which can seem so remote for us in Jersey, is read by so many poor around
the world as a story of profound hope and encouragement.
A Faithful Society?
The biblical story continues as the Israelites prepare to settle in the
Promised Land. Their dependence on, and allegiance to the God who liberated
them and who is experienced as present among them was to be given expression
in the most concrete and practical ways in the political, social and religious
life of that society. It is here that we find the Jubilee provisions among
an impressive array of powerful symbolic and ritual expressions of dependence
on, and responsive faithfulness to the character of the living God "who
shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the
fatherless and the widow and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing"
(Deut. 10:18). So, for example, at harvest time the Israelites are enjoined
"do not reap to the very edge of your field
Leave [this] for
the poor and the alien" ((Leviticus 19:9). Israel appears to be poised
to enjoy God's promised blessings of prosperity, peace, security and long
life, recognising the character of the God from whom these blessings came
and mirroring His love for them in their society.
It is uncertain how far such a blueprint for society was ever implemented.
Even as the Law was being set down Moses is portrayed lamenting "For
I know that after my death you are sure to become utterly corrupted and
turn away from the way I have commanded you" (Deut. 31:29). The plot
moves on, continuing to resonate with the same themes. 800 hundred years
later, after the period of the kings and judges, prophets now lament the
society that has emerged - yet still allow for a change of heart. "If
you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other
justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and
do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other
gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place" (Jeremiah
7:5). But no change of heart occurred and the story goes on to record
the demise of the society and the exile that followed.
An Unexpected Fulfilment
Christians read the themes of the biblical story coming together and
find startling fulfilment. Luke portrays Jesus initial action announcing
the year of the of the Lord's favour in Galilee, resonating back 600 years
to the hopes expressed in Isaiah whose prophecy in turn sprang out of
the Exodus and Jubilee 1,400 years before. Jesus actions, His death and
resurrection came to be remembered by Christians as revealing God coming
at last to dwell among his people, inaugurating the new creation within
which His love, justice and mercy might at last be present in the world,
written on human hearts. Jesus life and death convicts the world's rejection
of its Creator's love whilst simultaneously holding out the possibility
for restoring the relationship and investing the gospel with power to
Did Christians lose the Way?
So the themes given expression in the Jubilee are not merely a cause
deserving of approval but spring right from the heart of the biblical
portrayal of the character of God. Yet, for contemporary western ears,
this can seem strangely alien. Such portrayals can leave us deeply suspicious
that this may be a veiled insinuation of political agendas into pure spiritual
matters. The profound worldly implications of the story are easily read
(especially by the powerful) as simply a metaphor for dealing with private
angst. But the spiritual call to the worship of the living God, might
equally be read as metaphorical appeal for the reign of justice and mercy
here and now (c.f. Jer. 22:16). Better Jesus answer that the command to
love God is to be understood to be like loving one's neighbour. A one
sided "spiritual" reading becomes irrelevant to the pressing
questions of our time, the very urgent questions of peace, justice, stability
and prosperity that Leviticus addresses. It is not, of course, that the
private world of the individual is not affected. Rather, the gospel is
denied its power and relevance if the individual is singled out while
passing by the wider concerns of life here and now. So Christians may
be exhorted to do a bit more for "the poor" or to support one
good cause or another. But this is very far from the Israelite's sense
of the presence among them of the living God who cares passionately for
His people. Without this grounding in a sense of God's passionate concern
for the affairs of the world reading of the gospel risks being seen as
by the world as underpinning nothing more than more than dubious speculation.
Speculations addressing anxieties about the existence of heaven (thought
of simply as a place entered after death), or perhaps some cataclysmic
apprehension about the end to the material world. Such as this is hardly
good news that can set hearts on fire with a revelation of the love of
the God who cares for our total condition here and eternally, the Lord
of all creation. Heaven forbid that the hope of the world is to be found
in the charitable disposition of the powerful (or the call to revolution).
What is the Significance of this?
The ordering of society set down in Leviticus and Deuteronomy cannot
simply be held out as a solution to political and economic dilemmas facing
the world today. It does not obviously underwrite political programmes
of either the left or the right or provide any blueprint for an alternative.
But if we subjected our societies to a critique grounded in the vision
set out there, what could we learn? We might start by looking at those
groups that are poor and oppressed, denied justice or without hope of
ever making a living. How is it that these groups come into being and
what grounds does our society give for a hope for a better future for
Jubilee 2000 offers real hope for millions of people around the world.
In a world where poverty kills a child every two seconds this is hope
that can literally be counted in lives saved. The cost for the developed
nations of this would be less than 1p per person per day. But it's significance
is also symbolic, expressing in a partial and imperfect way an anticipation
of an immeasurably wider and deeper biblical hope in God.
Whether we find our life stories given meaning within the biblical story
or not, we might benefit from looking carefully at the conditions and
assumptions that underpin our societies. Will these make for stability
and prosperity? Might we be storing up for ourselves the fate that overtook
Israel as so many forgotten nations that neglected the mercy and justice
of the Creator?