By Ben Self As many friends of Christian Appalachian Project will know, we are celebrating our organization’s 50th year of service to the people of Appalachia. In the process, we are also launching a “Moving Mountains” campaign to expand and energize our poverty relief efforts in the region. This context provides the perfect opportunity to explore the ancient Biblical notion of the “year of jubilee”. The word “jubilee” is often used to refer simply to major anniversary celebrations. For example, the Queen of England recently celebrated her “Diamond Jubilee”, marking the 60th year of her reign. She has previously celebrated a “Silver Jubilee” (25 years) and “Golden Jubilee” (50 years), and may someday even celebrate a “Platinum Jubilee” (70/75 years). As on each of Elizabeth II’s jubilee years, we too feel like Christian Appalachian Project’s 50th anniversary provides a wonderful opportunity to celebrate all that has been accomplished since our founding by Rev. Ralph Beiting in 1964. Yet, as some readers will recall, the word “jubilee” also has a more profound Biblical meaning—beyond simply “celebration”—a meaning which gives it important symbolic and historical relevance for both Jews and Christians. It is this Biblical meaning that particularly relates to Christian Appalachian Project’s 50th anniversary “Moving Mountains” campaign, which you might even call our “year of jubilee” campaign. The Original Meaning of “Jubilee” Primary scriptural references to the “year of jubilee” are found in the book of Leviticus, the third of the five books of Moses (collectively known as the “Torah” or “Pentateuch”) in the Hebrew Bible. These books contain what is known as the Law of Moses, given by God for the people of Israel and revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai following his people’s escape from bondage in Egypt. Although many of these laws seem archaic to us now, they do contain important themes that can provide insight into God’s will for all generations. The laws relating to the “year of jubilee” are outlined in chapter 25, but the chapter actually begins with a commandment on the keeping of “sabbath years”. Building from the tradition of the sabbath day—a day of rest taken every seventh day—God commands the Israelites to take a full “sabbath year” every seventh year. As we read: “In the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards… Whatever the land yields during the sabbath year will be food for you.” This extraordinary concept of the “sabbath year” becomes the basis for an even more extraordinary set of commandments centering around the “year of jubilee”. As we read on:
Count off seven sabbath years—seven times seven years—so that the seven sabbath years amount to a period of forty-nine years. Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land. Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you…
So, every fifty years, beginning on the annual “Day of Atonement”, the people of Israel are here commanded to enact a special “year of jubilee”, an occasion on which liberty shall be proclaimed “throughout the land”. The word “jubilee” comes from the Hebrew “yobel” or “yovel” literally meaning a “ram’s horn” that can be blown like a trumpet, and signifies the sound of the ram’s horn—“a trumpet blast of liberty”—that was to inaugurate this great year of the liberation as well as celebration. The emphasis on “liberty” was not meant to be simply symbolic or aspirational. The rest of the chapter in fact outlines four concrete commandments God has for God’s people as part of the “year of jubilee”, as follows:
- The “year of jubilee” shall again be a “sabbath year” in which the land is laid fallow and the people abstain from their usual work, living simply on what has been preserved and what can be found growing wildly (Leviticus 25: 11-12).
- In the “year of jubilee” all properties shall be returned to the original owners or to their heirs (Leviticus 25: 13, 25-28). This way, ancestral lands would not be allowed to pass permanently out of the possession of the families/tribes to which they were originally allotted.
- In the “year of jubilee” every Israelite shall be released from his/her debts; in most cases, this would mean being released from indentured servitude (Leviticus 25: 39-41).
- Finally, all slaves shall be set free (Leviticus 25: 54).
Imagine what a celebration such a year would have been for the poor! What an astonishing reversal of fortunes! Overnight, with but the sounding of a ram’s horn, the exiles regained their ancestral homes, the debtors were released from their debts, and the slaves were freed! Not surprisingly, scholars doubt whether the “year of jubilee” was ever practiced on a large scale, at least in full accord with what is commanded. At the same time, one assumes that the laws relating to the return of ancestral properties and the release of slaves and indentured servants must have at least resonated with the Israelites, particularly at the time they were first handed down. After all, God had only just brought them out of slavery in Egypt! It’s also hard to argue with the rationale that God provides to Moses in the text as the basis for these extraordinary acts of liberation to the land and to people: namely that all things belong to God. As God tells Moses: “The land is Mine and you reside in My land as foreigners and strangers”, and later, “[all people] are to be released in the Year of Jubilee, for the Israelites belong to Me as servants.” An old offertory hymn puts it thus:
We give Thee but Thine own, Whate’er the gift may be; All that we have is Thine alone, A trust, O Lord, from Thee.
At the very least, the commandments and principles associated with the “year of jubilee” must have provided important guidelines to the people of Israel, helping to inform the way they interacted with one another on a personal, if not always political, level. The Theme of “Jubilee” Down the Centuries Even if the “jubilee” laws were never upheld on a large scale, they offer powerful insights into the character of God and God’s vision, not just for the Israelites but for all generations. The themes from chapter 25 in Leviticus have inspired Jews and Christians in a variety of different ways down the centuries, a few of which are worth highlighting here. First, the idea of a “year of jubilee” is revisited in important passages later in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. In Isaiah 61, reflecting on the experience of the Israelites in the period of Babylonian captivity (long after the Egyptian captivity), the prophet Isaiah heralds a new “year of jubilee”, what he calls a “year of the Lord’s favor” for his people:
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.
In this famous passage, Isaiah reaffirms God’s compassion for the poor and oppressed, and foresees a time in which God’s dream of “jubilee” shall indeed be realized, when the poor and downhearted shall be lifted up and the captives set free, a time of both inward and outward liberation. The theme of “jubilee” is also later revisited by Jesus. In fact, according to the Gospel of Luke, the very first thing that Jesus speaks about in His public ministry is “jubilee”. After being tested for forty days in the wilderness, Jesus returns to His hometown of Nazareth, where, on the sabbath day, He stands up in the synagogue before all of the townspeople and reads an excerpt from the passage above in Isaiah. Astonishingly, upon rolling up the scroll, He tells the crowd: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” According to Jesus, it is He who has come to fulfill at last the “year of the Lord’s favor” (or “jubilee”)! Many Christians believe that Jesus inaugurated a new Kingdom, the Kingdom of God—a “jubilee” Kingdom—through His life, death, and resurrection. It was no mistake, as we read in Leviticus, that God originally intended “jubilee” years to begin on the “Day of Atonement”, a day on which Jews still repent for their sins and seek God’s pardon. For Christians, “atonement” is fulfilled in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, and represents the start of a kind of spiritual “jubilee”—a liberation from the bondage of spiritual debts, just as “jubilee” traditionally implied liberation from financial debts, from exile, from poverty, from slavery. It is this liberation from spiritual debts that Christians believe opens the way for love to begin to more fully take hold in our lives, and by extension, in the world. Given the rich symbolic significance of the concept of “jubilee” for Christians, the theme has often been used to inspire and convict the faithful. The Catholic Church, for example, has declared official “jubilee” years approximately every 25 or 50 years since Pope Boniface VIII first declared a “year of jubilee” in A.D. 1300. While focusing on all the themes noted above, “jubilee” years in the Catholic tradition have also often involved either some special pilgrimage, or have taken on some other commemorative or inaugural significance. Another interesting historical example of the use of the concept of “jubilee” is that of the Civil War and pre-Civil War era in the United States when the idea of “jubilee” gained particular relevance as part of the abolitionist movement. “Jubilee” was referenced in well-known anti-slavery poems of the age such as William Lloyd Garrison’s “The Triumph Of Freedom”. Garrison’s poem was used at the conclusion of one of Frederick Douglass’s most famous speeches—“What to the Slave is the Fourth of July”—given the day before Independence Day, 1852. The poem opens with these lines:
God speed the year of jubilee, The wide world o’er! When from their galling chains set free, Th’ oppressed shall vilely bend the knee, And wear the yoke of tyranny, Like brutes, no more;—
In more recent years, beginning in the 1990s, the idea of a “jubilee” for debt was adopted by “Jubilee 2000”, a coalition movement in over 40 countries that called for the cancellation of a large percentage of third world debt by the year 2000. The movement aimed to wipe out $90 billion owed by the world’s poorest nations, and was supported by the Anglican Church and a number of well-known celebrities such as Bono and Muhammad Ali. After 2000, the movement split into a number of smaller regional or national organizations that are still active to this day. The Lessons of Jubilee To most readers, the ancient laws associated with the “year of jubilee” will seem utterly impractical for modern societies. But we know that God still desires for the captives to be freed, for the poor to be released from debts they cannot pay, for refugees to be able to return to their homelands, and for both land and people to experience regular “sabbaths”. While the “year of jubilee” is only occasionally referenced in the scriptures, the Bible is packed with the themes of “jubilee”—themes of God’s compassion for the less fortunate, and not only compassion for them, but God’s will that something concrete be done to help them. What matters most for us today is not so much the letter of the laws surrounding the “year of jubilee” but the spirit, and clearly, through the “jubilee” laws, God intended to provide a means by which the poorest people in Israel could be given a chance to start over with a clean slate. The radical vision for society that is presented by the “year of jubilee” means that we all have a responsibility to help lift the poor from the bondage and despair of poverty, in all its forms. For 50 years, Christian Appalachian Project has been committed to helping fulfill that responsibility in its own little corner of the globe, providing the kinds of relief and support many of Appalachia’s poor need for a fresh start. And even with all the progress that has been made here, we hope to continue to provide help in Appalachia as long as it is needed. So as we embark on our 50th anniversary “Moving Mountains” campaign—our own little “year of jubilee” campaign—we remember that in the fight against global poverty, which goes far beyond what we are doing, and relies on partnerships between people and organizations of all kinds across the world, every year should be a year to proclaim the Good News of “jubilee”.