A Year of Jubilee

Published: November 2nd 2003
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Alright, so I didn’t bike to Chapel Hill.

When my girlfriend Jennifer unexpectedly came into town for the weekend, I changed my plans and decided to load my bike on the back of her car and hitch a ride for the fifteen miles from Durham to Chapel Hill. Even after a day of rest my knees and thighs were still killing me, so I figured another day off of the bike couldn’t hurt, especially with the mountains of North Carolina looming ahead of me on my way up to Asheville.

We arrived at the Chapel Hill Meeting in tome for their weekly forum, at which I had been asked to speak about what had led me to make my bike trip.

I found myself speaking to twenty or so Friends, and I knew going in that the Chapel Hill Meeting was more universalist and less christocentric than my own Meeting in Virginia Beach. Whereas my Meeting was of the “conservative” branch of Quakerism, and remained classically Christian and unpastored, most unpastored Quaker Meetings have become less Christian over the years. Christian Quaker Meetings have tended to hire pastors, and in many ways resemble mainstream Protestant churches with a set program of worship. My Meeting represented a remnant of what Quakerism had been at its inception three hundred years ago: Christian, but without a pastor or program of worship. I wasn’t sure how universalist the Chapel Hill Meeting would be, but I decided that I would stay true to my Meeting and speak from the Scriptures that I had learned as a child.

I opened my presentation by reading the prophet Isaiah’s Jubilee prophecy, but I modified my reading slightly. Instead of reading the passage in the first person singular, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,” I read instead read it in the first person plural, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon us.”

In the Gospel of Luke, chapter four, Jesus begins his public ministry by reading the Jubilee prophecy of Isaiah, chapter 61, to his hometown synagogue, and then proclaiming that “this scripture ahs been fulfilled in your hearing.” But I do not think that Jesus’ reading was the sole occasion upon which the jubilee prophecy was fulfilled, but rather it was also fulfilled when Isaiah proclaimed hundreds of years beforehand and also every time that it is red aloud. The Jubilee prophecy is not limited to a single person, but applies to all persons who take it to heart. And so that day in Chapel Hill I read aloud,

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon ,
Because he has anointed to bring good news to the poor,
He ahs sent to proclaim release to the captives,
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To let the oppressed go free,
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The year of Jubilee, or the year of the Lord’s favor, represented a unique, and perhaps unpracticed, conception of social justice and equality amongst Western civilizations. The Torah, or first five books of the Jewish scriptures, outlined how the promised land of Israel would be divided equally amongst the tribes of Israel- each household would receive a plot of land. Whereas in Egypt all land and all fruits of the land was owned by the pharaoh, in Israel each person was to have his own “vine and fig tree.”

Land could be bought and sold in Israel, but every fifty years a year of Jubilee was to be celebrated and all land returned to its original owners, thus maintaining economic equality. Historical records suggest that the year of Jubilee was only observed once in ancient Israel, if at all, but is still represents a radical re-visioning of the distribution of wealth and a living out of God’s way here on Earth.

It is from the promise of the year of Jubilee that I draw my courage to speak to Friends about the promise of Fair Trade economics. Through Fair Trade, the producers of the consumer goods we purchase everyday are ensured a fair wage for their labors. Millions of people around the world make less than a living wage for their labors, , but the fruits of their labors create massive profits for international corporations and stockholders.

The year of Jubilee calls us to free the imprisoned and restore sight to the blind. How many people are denied their basic human necessities such as food and shelter because the only work they can find pays less than a living wage? How many children go blind because their parents cannot afford to meet their basic nutritional needs? Phil Knight grows fat on tens of thousands of dollars a day as CEO of Nike, but the workers in the outsourced factories making Nike apparel stave on dollars a day. All the while affluent consumers heed the tax-deductible Nike advertising that tells them that they will attain happiness with another pair of $100 Nikes.

The original Hebrew word for “sin” did not mean then what it does nowadays. Today we speak of sin as a willful violation of moral norms. But the original Hebrew word was used to describe an archer who had missed the target. If we continually strive for perfection, we will continually find ourselves falling short. If we blame and chastise ourselves for falling short we will never get any closer t our goal, and will continue to live the common cycle of sin and forgiveness. But an archer who misses the target does not ask for forgiveness or chastise himself, but rather tries again. WE likewise need to acknowledge when we have gone astray, and try again.

We will not always be able to purchase Fair Trade goods, but if we acknowledge when we cannot that we are missing the mark than it will be better than if we willfully ignored the consequences of our actions. Every time we hit the target by purchasing Fair Trade good we help workers to earn a living wage, and we will be keeping the promise of the Jubilee prophecy.


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