Priorities for a Jubilee Year

Statement on Priorities for a Jubilee Year
from the Catholic Committee of Appalachia

December 1999

This fiftieth year you shall make sacred by proclaiming liberty in the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when every one of you shall return to his own property, every one to his own family estate. In this fiftieth year, your year of jubilee, you shall not sow, nor shall you reap the aftergrowth or pick the grapes from the untrimmed vines. Since this is the jubilee, which shall be sacred for you, you may not eat of its produce, except as taken directly from the field.

(Lev. 25:10-12)

The church has drawn our attention to the beginning of the new millennium as a time of jubilee. Church leaders rightly suggest study and deepening of our Christian beliefs, but we believe a greater focus on powerful elements of the scriptural tradition of Jubilee is essential. In this statement, we wish to reflect on possible applications of that scriptural tradition for the church in Appalachia to a broader planetary reality. The Jubilee year presents us with a sacred moment in which to take stock of our human activity and its effects on the earth. It is a propitious time to examine whether or not we are in right relationship with the entire community of Creation.

The land must not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine . . . in the jubilee year it must be released and returned to its original owner.(Lev. 25:23-28) In many parts of Appalachia, absentee ownership of land is the rule, rather than the exception, with some counties being 80% or more in the hands of industries or holding companies. As our Appalachian bishops state in their pastoral message At Home in the Web of Life, just land reform must be a concern for those who believe that property should serve the common good, and be subject to the principle of subsidiarity. The church could call for companies to relinquish the lands they hold, but do not use, for homes and gardens for the area’s struggling families. Some states already have laws allowing the state government to appropriate company lands untouched within a certain number of years. Such policies would be a great boon in this region, in which people often lose home after home in a flood plain because it is the only land available for housing.

Because land for any kind of small enterprise is difficult to obtain, we suggest freeing church-held property suitable for  sustainably managed gardening, forestry, or other projects generated by local people. Facilities belonging to church entities and religious congregations could be offered for project demonstrations, and as simple living centers where folks could learn to reconnect with the natural environment. Instruction and hands-on practice in a variety of low-cost and efficient methods of housing, heating, gardening, resource management, and such could be offered. Many parishes and pastoral centers in the region already have physical plants which would lend themselves to such use. Church organizations might consider loans or grants to help local folks begin sustainable enterprises. People from areas where the environment has been severely degraded might come to the centers for spiritual and psychological refreshment and renewal.

For six years you may sow your land and gather in its produce. But the seventh year you shall let the land lie untilled and unharvested, that the poor among you may eat of it and the beasts of the field may eat what the poor leave. (Ex. 23:10-11) Observing the Jubilee tradition provides an opportunity to examine the ways in which huge agribusiness influences what we eat, and which varieties of fruits, vegetables, and farm animals will survive into the new millennium. We must pay attention to the depletion of our soil, on which we are so dependent for sustenance. Globally, we lose 2.5 billion tons of fertile topsoil annually. We need to question as well practices that breed animals in unnatural conditions, and produce such creatures as fowl whose legs cannot support their meaty bodies.

We believe this is a time for Christians to reflect upon the just use of the foodstuffs our lands can grow, and what drives us to consume at the levels we do. Perhaps we might consider not eating meat during the Jubilee year because of the effects of livestock on the food and water supply. Grain fed to cattle in the United States alone would feed millions of marginal or starving persons in other countries. Intensive raising and grazing of livestock eventually result in desertification and deforestation of the grazing lands, causing millions of acres to become useless for cultivation. Irrigation projects divert an increasingly diminished supply of water from agricultural land to provide it to livestock. And domestic animal pollutants are one of the chief sources of contamination of the global water supply.

We should also be increasingly sensitive to ways in which the land needs healing. We now routinely find clear-cut and eroded forests. Our Appalachian mountains have their heads lopped off to extract coal and other minerals. Rivers, streams and oceans have become so polluted they cannot sustain the myriad life forms dependent on them. Air laced with particulate matter creates respiratory problems for an increasing number of humans annually. Sprawling cities reduce the habitat of other creatures so drastically as to threaten their very survival, contributing to the extinction of from 15,000 to over 100,000 species each year. All these things might be food for thought in a year devoted to the restoration of the land.

Scripture tells us God saw that everything created was good (Gen. 1:31), and each created thing has value, so an essential part of the healing process must certainly be an effort to “re-inspirit” the earth. Developing educational programs for both children and adults within our faith communities that teach love and care for Creation would be a significant step. Present curriculum offers little aid in educating persons toward assuming a respectful role within God’s magnificent creation. There are indeed messages about God as Creator of all things, and of the infinite variety of the earth. However, these are, for the most part, instilled with the idea that everything is created for humans, and is ours to use in whatever ways we choose, regardless of the ill effects our actions might have on the community of Creation. This separation of ourselves from the rest of the life God created has resulted in alienation and isolation for us as creatures. In refusing to acknowledge our own creaturely status before God, we have become strangers in our Home.

At the end of every seven-year period you shall have a relaxation of debts, which shall be observed a follows. Every creditor shall relax his claim on what he has loaned his neighbor; he must not press his neighbor, his kinsman, because a relaxation in honor of the Lord has been proclaimed. (Deut. 15:1-2) There can be no serious argument that the so-called First World nations, through the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, hold the persons of Third World countries in debt. Often these nations’ debts are such that additional loans must be obtained solely to pay the interest owed. Structural Adjustment Programs are taking a heavy toll on the vulnerable citizens of these countries, depriving the residents of desperately needed funding for health care, education, farm credits, child welfare, and other essential support services. We firmly believe that the situation is unjust and immoral. Any discussion by the church on the subject of a true Jubilee Year should include a strenuous plea to the IMF and World Bank nations for remission of these oppressive debts. Certainly the very circumstances cry to God for redress. The church can and should be a powerful moral force in calling attention to the plight of brothers and sisters in Third World nations.

It will also be necessary to address the difficulties being experienced by the dispossessed and refugees in our world. “If one of your kinsmen in any community is in need in the land which the Lord, your God, is giving you, you shall not harden your heart nor close your hand to him in his need. Instead, you shall open your hand to him and freely lend him enough to meet his need . . . When you give to him, give freely and not with ill will; for the Lord your God, will bless you . . . I command you to open your hand to your poor and needy kinsman in your country.(Deut. 15:7-11) God specifically instructs us that we are not to harden our hearts against the oppressed in our midst, but are to meet their needs with an open heart, and an open hand. It is easy to forget that soil and land issues in other countries, often exacerbated by the burden of debt, contribute greatly to the cause of these people’s displacement. Therefore, we must welcome the stranger, while addressing the root problems in the country of origin. All persons are children of God, and our immigration policies should not discriminate in matters of race, care for the poor, health care, education, and other basic human rights.

The Church should ask us to consider a Jubilee sabbatical from our lifestyle as well. We live too often in “communities without community,” collecting more and more material belongings within our spacious homes while not knowing the people next door. Thousands of people crowd the streets of our cities, hustling busily to the next destination, seldom making eye contact with another human being, much less speaking. This daily rat race of work, child care, and activity after activity has cost us much of our sense of family and community. Sharing a meal as a family seems almost impossible as family members move to the rhythm of their individual schedules. Commitment these days seems to be a matter for the moment, rather than for the long haul. When we have little meaningful contact with others, it is easy to view them as objects rather than as other subjects. Small wonder that exploitation of men, women, and children, both sexually and as cheap, unfairly paid labor is common.

We are living, as Pope John Paul II has said, in a “culture of death,” in which the economy drives virtually everything, and the service of Mammon drives the economy. Some live in excessive luxury while others have inadequate food, shelter, or clothing. Our misuse and unjust appropriation of resources, along with our exponential population growth, has destroyed the harmony of nature, and deprives all of us of our proper places in the earth community. We are in desperate need of a time for stepping back and taking stock of the closeness we have lost. Perhaps a Jubilee year in the scriptural tradition could help us to grasp what our true hungers are, and to make valid, ethical decisions about what is essential for a good life. Relationships might begin to count again, and in our common bonds with each other, we might truly see Jesus Christ in our midst—that same Jesus, who claimed the words of Isaiah, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the lowly, to heal the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord.(Is. 61:1-2)

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