While in Kerrville, I was pleased to spend quite a bit of time talking with Dr. Virgil Wood, a pastor and civil rights leader who was on the national board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for the last decade of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life. Virgil was promoting an "African American Jubilee Edition" of the King James Bible. It contains a thoughtful 16-chapter foreword by Wood and various scholars articulating the most relevant stories and concepts from the Bible in the traditions of black Americans.
Viewed in context as a moral document, and ignoring certain historical anachronisms, over the years I've found the Bible a great source of ideas for improving the justice system. After the Tulia episode, the idea to respond by requiring corroboration for testimony of drug informants came partially from the Bible, where both Old and New Testaments require two or three witnesses, never one alone, to sustain a criminal conviction. Wood's opening essay highlights another biblical concept that's to my mind worth rejuvenating: the Jubilee.
And he shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family (Leviticus 25.10, KJV)This passage, Wood points out, actually is the verse transcribed at the top of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia! In addition, he writes, "the British and American legal systems of bankruptcy laws come out of the Jubilee tradition."
In the New Testament in Luke Chapter 4, Jesus himself endorsed the Jubilee tradition, identifying six primary elements, writes Wood:
(1) to preach the gospel to the poor; (2) to heal the broken-hearted (3) to proclaim liberty to the captives; (4) to restore sight to the blind (5) to set at liberty those who are oppressed; and (6) to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.Isaiah 61 ordained a similar set of prescriptions, says Wood, but the command to "set at liberty those who are oppressed" in Luke was stated in Isaiah as "the opening of the prison to them that are bound." Free the slaves. Set the prisoners free. These were not metaphors - these were requirements in Mosaic Law expected to be fulfilled in the real world once every five decades. Wood knows that attaining Jubilee may be a painfully slow journey," but
As a Church, as a nation, as a people, the whole polity, the whole family, the whole of humanity, we will remember to the profit of ourselves and our common future that Jubilee is a universal mandate for a civil world and a civil society. ...He's certainly got that right - you'll never know until you try.
As we explore its practices we will discover that Jubilee is the guarantor of the Good Society, with its provisions for self-adjudication of every kind of injustice and hostility that builds up in individuals. Skeptics say that Jubilee cannot work. But it can also be said that whether or not Jubilee can work, we will not know until we have put its principles into practice.
In his book, "What's the Matter with Kansas?" Thomas Frank scratched his head over why self-avowed religious populists in the Kansas GOP promoted economic policies that damaged their constituencies and even themselves. Maybe they just need to read more from Dr. Wood, Leviticus and Isaiah, because within the Jubilee concept lies a powerful economic populism that matches the zeal usually reserved today for arguing over abortion and the culture war.
It's easy to understand why a tradition to free slaves once every 50 years might be precious to a people enslaved for 400 years in America without such a respite. But it doesn't take much thought to see that the Jubilee concept could enjoy modern applications - it's become a relic, but it needn't be.
If it found the right messengers and audience, Jubilee could become a powerful biblical basis for broadening the scope of religious populism in 21st century America to include millions of religious folks (if not a silent majority, then a large, silent faction) who're turned off by culture war squabbles. That'd be a fascinating turn of events, wouldn't it? As Dr. Wood says, nobody will know until somebody tries.
To order a copy of the Jubilee Bible call toll free 888-670-4797.