Posts Tagged 'debt cancellation'

Sabbath Economics: Becoming Human in a Progress-Driven Age, Part III – Jesus, Jubilee (Debt Cancellation and Redistribution) and Everyday Practices

Jesus and Jubilee

(See Part II for an expanded definition of “Jubilee”)

It was the late Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, in his classic work The Politics of Jesus who pointed out that Jesus was at his core a Jubilee practitioner.(1)  Luke’s gospel is organized around Jesus’ proclamation of “good news for the poor” (Luke 7:22, see 14:13, 21). What could be better news for real poor people than debt cancellation and land restoration? Likewise, a Jubilee gospel is usually bad news for the wealthy (as the Magnificat’s proclamation that God “has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:53, see Mark 10:22). Though the evidence goes far beyond these texts. Sabbath economic principles lay at the heart of his call to discipleship and his ministry, and was at the centre of his conflict with the religious leaders.(2)

At the heart of Jesus call to discipleship was the command, “leave and follow” (Mark 1:18-20, Luke 5:28). Both Levi and Zaccheaus were expected to leave behind their oppressive economic ways in order to embrace Jubilee liberation through redistribution. Jesus promises that whoever leaves “house or family or fields” (the symbols of the basic agrarian economy: site of consumption, labor force, site of production) will receive the same back “hundredfold” (Mark 10:29-30). Discipleship meant leaving behind the seduction and oppression of the debt system for an economy of enough for everyone. In this new economy, which Jesus calls the “Kingdom,” there are no rich and no poor, as the rich by definition “cannot enter” it (Mark 10:23-25). His radical restructuring was based on a downward mobility, where the “first shall be last, and the last shall be first” (Mark 10:31) which was at it’s heart a Jubilee ultimatum.(3)

Jesus also displayed this new Jubilee-centered economy of grace as the one who had authority to forgive sins, or debts. Although “sin” (hamartia) and “debt” (opheileema) are different words in the Greek, there are several indications of their semantic and social equivalence. The Lord’s Prayer according to Luke says “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us” (Luke 11:4). Also, throughout the New Testament the same verb (aphiemi) is used to “forgive” sin and “release” from debt. We see this correlation in Luke’s version of the story of the woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her hair (Luke 7:36-50). Jesus prefaces his forgiveness of the woman’s sins with an object lesson about a creditor that forgave debt (Luke 7:41-43). Matthew makes the same connection with Jesus’ exhortation to forgive sins “seventy times seven” – a clear illusion to the Jubilee “seven times seven” of Leviticus 25:8.  (4)

Jesus also asserted his authority to interpret the true Sabbath practice as one that humanizes us in a world where so much of our socioeconomic practices are dehumanizing. When Jesus instructed his disciples to help themselves to field produce, the religious leaders were angry because they were working on the Sabbath. But their legalistic view of the Sabbath was a perverted one. They thought that humanity was created to observe the Sabbath, But Jesus justified it with a story about the right of hungry Israelites to food regardless of social conventions (Mark 2:23-26). Then comes his punchline: “The Sabbath was created for humanity” (2:27). This reinforces the Sabbath as part of the order of God’s good creation (Genesis 2:2-3), and it’s purpose to restore us to our originally intended just, peaceful, and equitable ways.

Jesus also proclaimed that poverty is not natural but is the result of human sin, specifically the Israelites’ failing to obey God’s commands of Sabbath keeping and Jubilee. When Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus with oil in Mark 14, the disciples protested, saying that they could have sold the oil and given the money to give the poor. Jesus responded with “the poor you will always have with you,” (v. 7) which was a mirroring of the statement in Deut. 15: 4-5 that “there will be no poor among you…if only you will strictly obey the voice of the Lord, being careful to do all that I have commanded you” – as long as they were faithful to God’s commands to keep Sabbath and Jubilee practices of debt-release, freeing of slaves, letting the land rest, and redistribution. They of course failed to do these things, and so Jesus is saying to the disciples that there would always be poor among them, because they will always be unfaithful. However, to say that we must forget this concept because we have always failed to live up to it, as many in the church say today, is to say that we should also forget about trying to love our enemies or sexual fidelity, as hardly anyone in the church practices these commands either!  (5)

It was these subversive economic teachings that got Jesus in trouble with the religious authorities, who were the ones benefiting from the current economic structure. Jesus undermined the dominant socio-economic structure by declaring good news to the poor, warnings to the rich, expectations of redistribution by those who had oppressed, demonstrations of debt forgiveness to all, and a true interpretation of Sabbath – that in its practice we become more human -who we were created to be. Jesus declaration of the Kingdom as a place where the “last will be first, and first shall be last” was enough to convince the religious and political authorities that if they didn’t have this man crucified, they would all lose their positions of power and wealth if the people were intent to make him the King of the Jews.


From Biblical Principles to Everyday Practice

For those who insist that the principles of Sabbath Economics must remain relevant today, we have a lot of hard work to do. We must diligently use our creativity to come up with ways of working, living, spending and consuming that proclaim to those around us that we believe another world is possible.

According to Matthew Colwell, author of Practicing Sabbath Economics and Julie Clawson, author of Everyday Justice, there are a number of things that individuals, households, and entire communities can do to take small steps towards a more faithful counter-formational response to God’s call to be a Sabbath people. The following seven steps are based on the “Sabbath Economic Covenant” developed by Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries, an ecumenical organization focused on economic and spiritual discipleship. The covenant is a simple tool for applying the biblical theme of Sabbath economics to daily practice, inviting people to commit to changes in seven economic areas. Some steps to consider: (6)

1. We must invest our money responsibly. We must make sure it is held in Socially Responsible Investments (SRI) that screen out predatory lending, war profiteering, and other unjust economic practices. Better yet is to invest in Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) that make capital available to the poor and to undeserved communities.

2. We must look at our credit cards and how we use them. Many banks practice predatory lending practices, we can learn about our banks at www.responsiblewealth.org. More eco-friendly credit card options are available today such as the Salmon Nation card from Shorebank Pacific, a bank committed to environmentally sustainable community development (www.salmonnation.com). Since owning a credit card comes with it the temptation to overspend, it might be a good idea to construct a “credit card condom,” a paper sleeve placed over the card that says “Do I really need this?” or “Can I afford this?”

3. We must get organized in our giving. We must evaluate the organizations that we donate to, and ask which ones most reflect our values and priorities. Sabbath Economics begs the specific question: “Are we giving to organizations that locally and globally promote an economy of sufficiency, ensuring that the poor and hungry have enough?”

4. We must take steps towards a greener lifestyle. Evaluations of our ecological footprints can be done at www.myfootprint.org. Transportation choices can have a huge impact, so if possible bicycling, walking, taking public transportation or limiting / avoiding unnecessary travel can help. As for food, local and organic is always best – purchasing food from a local farmer’s market through a community supported agriculture program, or through a community or self-tended garden. Avoid foods that contain excessive packaging, and following the old mantra, “reduce, reuse, recycle” remains helpful. Composting food scraps as well cuts down on garbage and will break down easier and not clog landfills.

5. We must practice simplicity and ethical consumption. In Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things, John C. Ryan and Alan Thein Durning note, “Though they see only a fraction of it, Americans consume 120 pounds – nearly their average body weight – every day in natural resources extracted from farms, forests, rangelands, and mines.”(7)  They also note that if the whole world were to consume at the level of North Americans, we would need at least three additional planets to support it. We must therefore consider ways to limit our consumption to more sustainable levels, and when we do consume, to do so ethically. Julie Clawson in her book Everyday Justice defines ethical consumption as “the application of our moral values and ethical standards to our consumer habits.”(8)

We will still need to be consumers, but instead of being implicit about the unjust practices that are happening to get stuff made for us, we can attempt to redeem the process by living by a more consistent ethic. William Cavanaugh talks about how a symptom of consumerism is not attachment to things, but rather detachment – we use and discard at an every-increasing rate, and we are detached from the means of production and the people who are doing the producing and manual labor.(9)  If it is out of our sight, it is out of our minds. It is important then, for us to inform ourselves about where and how our coffee, chocolate, oil, and clothes are coming from, under what conditions they are being produced (or grown or extracted) and choose to purchase fair trade, used, or locally produced items, or else engage in the making of things we need ourselves. The two books I’ve mentioned in this section are a great start for informing yourself about these things.

6. We must take steps toward greater solidarity with the poor and the marginalized. There are many kinds of trips of exposure or “reverse mission” trips designed to help groups of people connect with and learn from people who are living in poverty. Organizations such as Witness for Peace, Christian Peacemaker Teams, and the Center for Global Education all provide such opportunities. For more local solidarity options, consider moving into a low-income neighborhood, or into an intentional community (such as the one I live in now) that seeks to build relationships through soup kitchens, refugee or homeless shelter work.

7. We must observe a Sabbath discipline in our daily, weekly, monthly and/or yearly rhythm. Taking time out of our busy schedules to stop working, reflect on our lives, rediscover peace, contentment, and gratitude, and to simply enjoy and delight in the goodness of God’s creation can be an extremely counter-formational discipline that point to our desire to serve the God of Creation instead of seductive and destructive god of Mammon.

Individual and household economic actions such as these are no substitute for the necessary work of public action and political advocacy. We must all make our voices heard, in the public square, that we will not support unjust government policies that favour the rich and make life unbearable for the poor. We must make it known to our government that economic growth at all costs should not be our number one priority, but rather we support an economy that factors in ‘pre-care’ policies, as Goudzwaard describes. But these practices are a vital complement to the larger political work, reinforcing and amplifying our public witness. They are simple, everyday expression of faith that will be a light to others that we believe in a better way. They are ways to “say to the darkness, we beg to differ,” as Mary Jo Leddy says.(10)

Conclusion

The church must no longer ignore the theological implications of our economic practices. For those of us in the West, we must own up to the fact that we have and do still contribute to the idolatrous ideology of progress through our desire for constant improvement, for more and better stuff, and through our need to prove ourselves through our overly-productive and chaotic work practices. We must recognize that we have ignored the practice of Sabbath for too long – we have neglected to cultivate postures of peace, gratitude, and delight in creation, we have neglected to remember our liberation from slavery so that we could practice non-oppresive self-restraint and equity, and we have neglected to practice Jubilee debt forgiveness and redistribution that were so central to the covenant relationship between God and the Hebrews and also to the teachings and subversive practices of Jesus. We must continue to educate ourselves and others about Sabbath Economic practices and take the steps necessary to proclaim with our lives that our allegiance is not with the idol of Mammon but with the God who is restoring all of Creation, and in doing so, we become more human in the process.

Me canoeing near Peterborough, Ontario

Peace all, and thanks for reading.

-Jen

___

Endnotes

1 John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, (Grand Rapids, Eerdman’s, 1972).
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 All steps are from Matthew Colwell, “Practicing Sabbath Economics,” Sojourners, May 2008.
7 John C. Ryan and Alan Thein, Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things, (Northwest Environmental Watch, 1997),p. 5.
8 Julie Clawson, Everyday Justice, (Downer’s Grove, Illinois: IVP, 2009), p.26.
9 William Cavanaugh, Being Consumed, (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 2008), p. 50-51.
10 Mary Jo Leddy, Say to the Darkness ‘We Beg to Differ’, (Lester and Orpen Denny’s, 1990), cover.


Bibliography

William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.

Julie Clawson, Everyday Justice, Downer’s Grove: IVP, 2009.

Matthew Colwell, “Practicing Sabbath Economics.” Sojourners, May 2008.

Marva J. Dawn, Living the Sabbath Wholly, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989.

Bob Goudzwaard, et. al., Hope in Troubled Times, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007.

__________, Aid for the Overdeveloped West, Toronto: Wedge, 1975.

__________, Beyond Poverty and Affluence,Toronto: U of T Press, 1995.

Mary Jo Leddy, Radical Gratitude, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002.

__________, Say to the Darkness ‘We Beg to Differ’, Lester & Orpen Denny’s, 1990.

Bill McKibben, Enough, New York: Owl, 2003.

Ched Myers, “Jesus’ New Economy of Grace,” Sojourners, July-August 1998.

__________, The Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics, Washington, DC: Tell the World, Church of the Savior, 2001.

__________, “Sabbath Economics: The gift must always move.” http://www.chedmyers.org

John C. Ryan and Alan Thein, Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things, Northwest     Environment, 1997.

James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009.

Norman Wirzba, Living the Sabbath, Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006.

John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, Grand Rapids, Eerdman’s, 1972.

Jean Vanier, Becoming Human, Toronto: Anansi, 1998.


Follow jen_galicinski on Twitter