Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Jubilee, Justice, and the MDGs

Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” Amen. (Luke 4:18)

Jesus tells the hometown folks in Nazareth that his mission basically is bringing good news to the poor. He quotes the prophet Isaiah to demonstrate that his mission is consistent with what God has been promising all along. Jesus has come to fulfill God’s promise of good news to the poor.

Who are the poor? “The poor in the Bible are the helpless, the indigent, the hungry, the oppressed, the needy, the humiliated,” notes Elsa Tamez. “And it is not nature that has put them in this situation; they have been unjustly impoverished and despoiled by the powerful.”[1] This is real material poverty; not the “poor in spirit,” an abstraction that elides the real suffering of people whose poverty we tend to either idealize, vilify, or ignore.

“English equivalents to the Hebrew words for ‘the poor’ are such things as the frail one, the weak one, the bent-over one, the humiliated one. The New Testament Greek word ptōchos means ‘one who does not have what is necessary to subsist’ and is forced into the degrading activity of begging.”[2] It is to such as these that Jesus has come to bring good news.

You can’t help but encounter folks who are ptōchos on the streets of San Francisco. Yet they are only the tip of the iceberg of economic injustice that often lies beneath the surface of our awareness. A recent report, A Tale of Two Economies, chronicles the dark underside of the High Tech - Biotech economy in the Bay Area. The top 150 Silicon Valley companies recorded profits of $37.1 billion dollars in 2005, up 199% from 2003. Genentech, rated the #1 company to work for in the U.S., realized $1.39 billion in profits alone. Unfortunately, the benefits of this economic boom have not been enjoyed by the many low-wage service workers who clean-up after and feed the highly skilled professionals who work for these companies.

While Genentech employees enjoy great benefits, their cafeteria workers are subcontracted through companies like Guckenheimer Enterprises. These workers, like many others working in the Bay Area service economy, earn 69% less than the region’s median income; most can not afford health insurance premiums equaling 20% of take-home pay, and depend upon public assistance for food as well as health care; many report work place injuries and difficulties getting time off to attend to them; those seeking to organize union representation to negotiate better working conditions are harrassed, demoted, or "laid off."

Rosario Ramirez, a Deli worker employed by Guckenheimer, is typical of the Bay Area “working poor.” “I am 55 years old and I don’t have health insurance,” reports Rosario. “Guckenheimer’s health insurance . . . costs more than $200 per month and I only make $10 an hour. But I cannot ask for government assistance because I make too much money to qualify. I have diabetes and I cannot take any medicine for it because I can’t afford it. To survive, I avoid certain foods. But it is an illness that gets you over the long term. For instance, my eyesight is fading. On top of that, I have blood pressure.”[3]

“During 8 hours of work I never get my 10 minute breaks,” notes Aurelio Alvarado, another Guckenheimer employee. “We get pushed to run around like ants rushing everywhere to get work done. I am in charge of stocking kitchen supplies and products in the refrigerator and shelf. Most of the products are heavy, weighing approximately 30-50 pounds each. I lift boxes and boxes of sodas, oranges, potatoes and onions without a belt, dolly or pushcart. I now have a permanent pain in my back that feels like someone is punching me.”[4]

According to one of the union organizers with whom I've spoken, about 65% of these food service workers are Latino and most of them are women. I suspect that, given the climate of anti-immigrant sentiment, these folks are hired because they work hard AND are easy to intimidate. Jesus comes to announce good news to Rosario and Aurelio and all those bent-over ones harvesting our food, and tending our gardens, and cleaning-up our messes; all those who are marginalized and exploited. But what, exactly, is the content of this good news? The good news is that the world is about to turn.

Jesus frames his understanding of the good news of God’s kingdom in terms borrowed from the prophet Isaiah, who offered a vision of homecoming and renewal to the people of Israel in exile:

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor . . . to comfort all who mourn . . . to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit . . . They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations . . . For I the Lord love justice . . .”[5]

Isaiah’s vision is one of refugees and immigrants becoming citizens, of those who are in servitude being liberated, of those who suffer and are weak finding strength and joy. It is a vision of health, of wholeness, of shalom. Jesus appropriates this vision and the mission of bringing good news to the poor, not as an act of charity, but because God loves justice.

Jesus and Isaiah reflect an even older Biblical tradition that recognizes the human tendency toward exploitation of people and the planet, and thus the need for a regular practice of restoring justice. This practice is described in the Book of Leviticus as the observance of the Jubilee year in a seven year cycle. It includes the following elements:

  1. The soil is to lie fallow. Recognizing the limits implicit in ecological health, even the earth must periodically enjoy a Sabbath rest. Earth justice is a biblical concept.
  2. All debts are to be cancelled. This is echoed in the petition, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” in the Lord’s Prayer, which is a Jubilee year prayer.
  3. All slaves are to be freed. No one should live in servitude forever, much less one’s children’s children. Liberty is to be proclaimed throughout the land to everybody, and this liberty is economic as well as social in character.
  4. Capital is to be redistributed: all land acquired since the previous jubilee year must revert to its original owner. This is to protect against gross inequalities in wealth and to insure the economic sustainability of families and communities.

When Jesus proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor he is announcing the observance of the jubilee year to a people who had long ago abandoned its practice. He is challenging us to consider the social and economic implications of the fact that God loves justice, and calling us to participate with him in the mending of the world.

From a human point of view, this is not a once and for all achievement. The world is about to turn, but it will need to turn again, and again, and again. There is a certain realism to the practice of the jubilee year, a recognition that the work of justice and mercy is an ongoing part of the project to make the world a habitable place for the children of God.

The observance of the Jubilee will look different in our day than it did in an ancient agrarian society, but its principles remain the same. It includes actions like the campaign urging Bay Area Biotech and High-Tech companies to adopt Responsible Contractor Policies or Codes of Conduct to hold subcontractors accountable for fair wages, compliance with state and federal laws, neutrality toward worker organizing, and worker retention practices when contractors change. Christian communities and leaders should endorse such policies because God loves justice.

Last year, the Episcopal Church adopted the United Nation’s Millenium Development goals as a blue print for imagining what the observance of the jubilee year will look like on a global scale, calling us to work to:

  1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  2. Achieve universal primary education
  3. Promote gender equality and empower women
  4. Reduce child Mortality
  5. Improve maternal health
  6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
  7. Ensure environmental sustainability
  8. Develop a global partnership for economic development

Jesus calls us to embrace this Jubilee vision and to make it real in the lives of the poor in our neighborhood and around the globe. Last week, a group of us met with Eleanor Milroy from the Bay Area Organizing Project to begin a conversation about how St. John’s can make a difference in the city of San Francisco. We must continue that conversation and move from talk to action in the coming months.

I’m heartened by St. John’s growing relationship with the Diocese of El Salvador and look forward to our next mission trip there in October, as well as by the work Liz Specht and others are doing through El Porvenir to provide access to clean water in Nicaragua. In addition, I’m working with people from around the diocese to develop a microfinance program that will help gay and lesbian people in Uganda achieve economic sustainability. Our commitment to justice must be global and local.

All of these are what I would call jubilee year initiatives, and their practice is part of what it means to be faithful disciples of Jesus. The Church does not exist for its own sake, but for the sake of the healing of the world. It is time to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor again – and again – until the great last day when God is all in all. Until then:

My heart shalll sing of the day you bring, let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears for the dawn draws near and the world is about to turn. Amen.

[1] Elsa Tamez, Bible of the Oppressed, p. 70.

[2] Robert McAfee Brown, Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes, p. 99.

[3] “A Tale of Two Economies: Food Service Workers in the High Tech-Biotech Corridor,” p. 8 found at

[4] “Tale of Two Economies,” p. 11.

[5] Isaiah 61:1-4, 8a

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