Today’s post is by Rev. Jae Hyoung Choi. Rev. Choi is Missionary in Residence with the General Board of Global Ministries. It is part of what will be an occasional series on mission and jubilee.
Today, one of the most common understandings of Christian mission is mission as “helping.” Helping is an integral part of mission, but it is not the entirety of mission. The Church also faces a challenge that the world tends to show apathy and antipathy towards churches’ attempts at helping.
One reason for this could be that people are looking for a fundamentally different approach from the Church. With the increase of technology and efficiency, goods and services overflow, and yet poverty still overburdens a majority of the population. This is a constant human condition that calls for a particular Christian response.
What we learn from Moses, the prophets, and Jesus is that their responses were radical, penetrating the core of the problem. Starting backward from the apostles, to Jesus, to the prophets, and to the Law of Moses, we reach to the Law of Jubilee. What I am going to talk about in this piece is the biblical Jubilee, specifically its land ownership principle and its relationship to Christian mission.
The Law of Jubilee is the culmination of the Sabbatical regulation, which is central to the Torah. It was promulgated for sustainable justice and equality through periodic restoration of land ownership. In Leviticus 25, Jubilee is defined to include the laws on land, labor, housing, and lending and the foundation is the law concerning land. Verse 23 shows the great principle of Jubilee, “The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers.”
Without doubt, the overarching spirit in this ancient law is “fairness and justice.” The kind of society Jubilee envisions and embodies is (1) that clothing, food, and shelter for all people are secured, (2) that there should be no human bondage, and (3) that out of this social security, all the members of society flourish socioeconomically, ethically, and spiritually.
The Law of Jubilee was akin to a “Silver Bullet” God provided for the liberated Israel so that they could eradicate poverty and oppression and pursue a peaceful life. The Bible depicts God’s Jubilee people as a holy salvific people since it radiates God to the world through their life that stands in contrast to that of the world.
The Jubilee ownership principle is an organic mixture of private and communal ownership. That is, what a person produces out of his/her labor becomes his/her possession. Likewise, what God creates belongs to divine possession. Ecclesiastes 5:9 clarifies the meaning of divine possession, “The increase from the land is taken by all.” In short, according to the Law of Jubilee, ownership, usership, and tradership of land ought to be ruled by the principles of “fairness, equality, and justice.”
About 2,000 years after Moses, Basil the Great, who was from Cappadocia of modern-day Turkey and became the bishop of Caesarea, revisited the Jubilee ownership and stated it thus: “There are [Ownership] between ta idia (one’s own) – what is one’s private property in virtue of one’s having brought it into being, as the product of one’s labor, and ta koina (common goods) which are just ‘there’, which have been created by God for the use of all. Natural productive elements are not ‘there’ due to anyone’s merit or labor.” When the bishop saw the land monopoly pervasive in the empire drove commoners out of their lands into poverty and slavery, he denounced it by saying that whether you are a first settler or a conqueror, if you privatize the land God created for all people, it is “robbery.”
Henry George and Jubilee
In late 19th century, about 1,500 years after Bishop Basil, a poor young man from San Francisco visited New York City. While witnessing the coexistence of skyscrapers going up high and pauperism below, this bewildered young man was determined to understand “the law which associates poverty with progress, and increases want with advancing wealth.” This man was Henry George. After arduous days of labor, he would visit the public library in the evening for self-study and finally came to the conclusion that the root cause of poverty amid progress was derived from land monopoly. Then he proposed a remedy based on the Law of Jubilee.
George knew that it was utterly impossible to redistribute the land in modern societies. So, he proposed to tax the value of land and return the revenues for all the members of society. He got this idea from the tithe, shared by the landed to help the landless, like the Levites, orphans, and widows. Because Henry George advocated levying a tax on land value increase while removing all other taxes upon human exertion, people called his Land Value Taxation the “Single Tax Movement.” From today’s perspective, this Single Tax Movement was tantamount to socioeconomic structural reform to eradicate poverty and polarization of wealth. The important takeaway is that George’s thought was based on the principles of biblical Jubilee.
Mesmerized by George’s philosophy, Leo Tolstoy included the spirit of Jubilee in his novels to enlighten his fellow Russians, especially peasants. Influenced by Tolstoy, Sun Yat Sen, the first president of China, included Henry George’s idea in his book Three Principles and wanted to implement Jubilee principle as the economic foundation of China. When Mao Zedong’s the Red Army succeeded, Sun’s successor Chiang Kai Shek retreated to Formosa, today’s Taiwan, and implemented Sun Yat Sen’s economic plan. Although Taiwan is a Buddhist country, at its economic base there is the biblical principle of Jubilee. We know that Taiwan was the only country in Asia that could withstand the Asia financial crisis in 1997.
Jubilee and Mission
In Hwang Gee, Gang-won-do, South Korea, there is a place called “Jesus Abbey.” It was established by an American Anglican missionary, Reuben Archer Torrey III. Father Torrey served in Korea for 50 years. He read Henry George’s book Progress and Poverty. Later, he translated the book into Korean with the title How to Escape from Poverty? For his entire life, he prayed for Korea and preached Jubilee.
Many Korean young people followed him. When they gather, they pray earnestly for Jubilee Korea, Reunified Korea, and Mission Korea. And when they scatter, they become the evangelists of Jesus and Jubilee. I have been fortunate enough to meet several among them who have been actively working to apply the Jubilee principles to Korea’s national land policy.
Christian mission needs helping the poor, and it also needs solving the root causes of poverty. As we are going through this crucial transition period in history, the Church should be able to reimagine its mission with Jubilee because God’s suffering people and groaning creation thirst for justice.
On his deathbed, Father Torrey left this final word, “Go up to the rooftop and proclaim Jubilee.” We need to remember that the boldest mission John Wesley did was to denounce the English Enclosure, which expelled farmers from the land and made them into a lumpenproletariat during the Industrial Revolution. At the same time, we need to remember that such courageous social action was from the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit that empowered Jesus to proclaim the Year of Lord’s favor, Jubilee.