From the Editor – Jubilee: A Call to Justice
This issue of The Living Pulpit concerns itself with the ancient practice of jubilee. Various perspectives on the subject are presented, examined and applied. I hope that you find the content and complexity of the topic stimulating to your own thinking and that you will be excited about the prospects that this theme has for preaching in the 21st century.
During the George W. Bush administration a new faith-based social initiative was introduced and continues to be pursued in the Obama administration. In this new program, religious organizations receive public funding to administer social programs for the homeless, the addicted, the prisoners, the young, and so on. This is an effort on the part of the government to make the religious organizations in this country the primary provider of charity to those in need. The government is transferring its responsibility to provide for the most vulnerable in our society to religious groups.
As a Baptist minister I could examine this government policy around the issue of the separation of church and state. There is a lot in this policy that threatens the “wall of separation” between church and state. But leaving that issue aside, there is major problem with this initiative from the perspective of jubilee. Jubilee as announced in Hebrew scripture and as proclaimed in the ministry of Jesus is concerned not so much about the practice of charity as it is focused on the practice of justice. The Biblical basis for jubilee is centered on an assumption about the need for equity and justice in society. There is a structural problem in social organization in which some seem to get rich while others remain poor. The inequity that builds over time between the rich and poor is the problem that the practice of jubilee addresses. In the work of jubilee every fifty years debt is to be forgiven and the structures of economic inequity are to be redefined and realigned. Jubilee teaching recognizes the reality of sin in the structure of economics and seeks to address irresponsible wealth on one hand and crippling poverty on the other. There is a clear sense that the need to practice justice is at the heart any solution that concerns the distribution of wealth and the care for the most vulnerable members of any society.
The faith-based initiatives assume that the primary problem that faces our society is charity. We need to find new methods for the distribution of care to those who need it. The question of justice is not addressed because it is assumed that the basic system is equitable and that the primary problem is weak or unfortunate individuals. The call to compassion in this effort seems to cover over issues of justice. Clearly there are people in need all over the country – the homeless, the mentally ill, immigrants, children, and the aged. Will charity solve the basic problem of these people? Certainly the practice of charity may temporarily help ease the need but will it get at the underlying causes of addiction, poverty, homelessness, crime, and need?
Teachings on jubilee give us an analytical tool by which to examine this current government initiative for the use of religious organizations to provide charity. By taking the charity dollars to fund our caring ministries, we might actually be making the underlying causes worse. Unknowingly and/or unwittingly churches and other religious groups may find themselves involved in the support of injustice even as they seek to care for the victims that an unjust society produces. This provides something of a dilemma for religious leaders who promote the practice of compassion but also recognize the need to speak truth to power. An increased provision of charitable deeds will keep some people from suffering but will not address the causes of their suffering.
I hope that this issue of The Living Pulpit will stimulate your thinking about contemporary society and will influence how you preach in these troubled times. As usual we provide a section on the use of the lectionary for your convenience. We look forward to your responses to this issue. As the prophet Amos expressed it, “let justice roll down like a mighty water and righteousness like an ever flowing stream” in your preaching and ministry.
Keith A. Russell