African history is known for two unforgettable virtues. Audacity and Forgiveness. Only on the rarest of moments are they combined. However, those moments are unforgettable. This past Sunday, I asked two questions of our CCR audience.
First, “How many can recognize the name, Hannibal, General of Carthage?
Second, “How many can recognize the name, Joseph, son of Jacob, Prime Minister of Egypt?”
Both CCR services found that three times as many people recognized the name of Joseph as compared to Hannibal. Both were audacious men. They were extremely bold and daring. They were not restricted to prior ideas and conventions. They faced the unknown with great initiative and resourcefulness.
Hannibal faced the might of Ancient Rome’s military and took his army and their elephants over the mountains of the Alps. Military historians have marveled at his audacity. He used the strength of his institution, the Carthage Army to make one of history’s most spectacular raids.
Yet, another in Africa did something even more audacious. Joseph, son of Jacob was sold as a slave by his brothers. For 13 years he lived as either a prisoner or slave. Then in a surprise turn of events he became Egypt’s Prime Minister. He had 22 years to plan and plot his revenge. However, instead of exacting revenge he used the strength of his institution, the Egyptian government to forgive. His forgiveness reconciled, restored, and rescued. His audacious forgiveness is remembered as one of the humanity’s stories that must be repeated time after time, generation after generation.
Approximately 400 years after Joseph’s audacious forgiveness God led Israel out of slavery in Egypt. In this wilderness journey God gave them a new law. This law was to transform them from a large dysfunctional extended family into a nation who taught all other nations to honor God. They were commanded to practice the beauty of a Sabbath rhythm. This rhythm reached its final triumph every 50 years in the Jubilee. On this sacred year, God commanded Israel they must forgive institutionally (Leviticus 25:8-555). It is an audacious command.
Meg Guillebaud taught us well about the Sabbath Year and the environment. For six years Israel planted and harvested. Then on the seventh year (Sabbath Year) the land was to rest (Exodus 23:10-11. Leviticus 25:1-7).
After seven of these cycles (49 years), on the fiftieth (50th) year a Jubilee Year was proclaimed. The community had met to grief over sin and resolve to change their behavior. They fasted and rested on this Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:1-34). Then the loud music and party began. The trumpet was blown. Freedom was proclaimed.
Israel’s economic system had similarities to the surrounding nations. When someone was in debt they first sold their clan’s land. Then when their property was all gone they sold themselves. On the Jubilee the debt prisoners were freed. The land was returned to the clan. Extended families gathered and celebrated.
For two years the land and people rested. They lived on the bounty of stored food and the produce of the land.
Three thousand five hundred years later though we can never repeat this ritual I believe we all hunger for such a time where we rest, celebrate with our closest family and friends, and get a chance to start life a fresh.
We cannot replicate this command, but we can practice enduring Jubilee principles. I see five enduring principles.
First, our business dealings must be noted for truth, equity, and justice (25:14). Some will look at Jubilee and see it as a way to get an unfair advantage. That completely goes against the commands to tell the truth in all our documentation (Exodus 20:16). Also, the Sabbath command means we must be equitable to all despite gender, ethnic, or economic differences (Exodus 20:10). At our best we are motivated by principles such as hope, joy, and love. However, at our worst we are motivated by the fear of God. We must never lose this fear (Leviticus 25:17).
Second, the Jubilee reminds us we must care for our extended family. When they are in trouble those of us who have means must come to their rescue (25:25). For some of us today, our extended families are still our social network. Others of us have lived through seasons of history where our extended family is no longer our security net. For our faith community, the church is our extended family. I believe the implication of this command is that the church must care for the most vulnerable of society.
Third, Jubilee reminds us that nothing on this earth is really “mine.” We are all refugees (25:23). We began to use the “mine” pronoun as soon as we can speak. Whatever our mother tongue we proclaim, “wange.” God instructs Israel to remember. They were refugees for 400 years. They know what it is like to have no possessions; especially one’s freedom. They must never lose their ability to empathize. The Jubilee reminds us that our possessions are only an entrusted stewardship from God.
Fourth, work is honorable and no one should be treated as a slave (25:40). The wealthy were never to abuse those who were poor. In our context I find this very relevant. Many of us as children were refugees. We saw our parents deprived of legal status and economic opportunities that would have allowed them to succeed. Practically, they were treated as slaves. Now, many of us have landed in a place where though we have a good income we still need those to labor for us; and the wages in which we pay them are still less than ideal. We may desire to change the economic reality, but the means to do so is not in our circle of influence. What is in our influence is that we can treat our working class laborers with honor. We can give them time to rest. We can treat them with dignity. We can practice Jubilee.
Last, Jubilee reminds us that at least once per lifetime the only way to make things right is to forgive institutionally. We must use the strength of our institutions to do what is truly audacious. Particularly, when our institutions are young and maturing we find that sometimes we have to say, “This is a mess that cannot be made right by anything other than forgiveness.”
Let me confess one of my many sins. I have been sinned against in great ways by my historical denomination. When I wrestled with this with an open Bible I found some comforting texts. For instance, the Old Testament required restitution (Exodus 22-23). In the New Testament, when Zacchaeus was transformed by Jesus’ forgiveness his repentance included making restitution by four fold. Paul seems to allude to this principle of restitution in restoring the fallen (2 Corinthians 7:10-12). Even the 12 Steps Program requires for one to recover from addiction he must make amends to all who ones behavior has harmed. As I wrestled with the consequence of others sins in my life I became an accountant. I tabulated what they would need to do to restore what they had taken.
Then something startling happened. It was much like Joseph’s experience. I realized without all of the painful actions of others I never would have developed the character, skills, or network that allows me to bless others. How could I resent the capacity God had given me to bless through others poor choices? It was time for me to practice Jubilee. I had to use my institutional strength to forgive.
As we move past the command and come to history we discover just how audacious the Jubilee command is. There is no historical record of Israel taking a Jubilee year. There is one historical record of Israel taking a Sabbath Year (1 Maccabees 6:49). Most conclude the Jubilee command required more audacious courage, faith, and humility than Israel could muster. Jesus likely referred to the Jubilee when He proclaimed His mission to liberate humanity from sin and its consequences (Isaiah 61:1-2; Luke 4:17-19).
I’ve found this Jubilee command especially applicable to Rwanda. My understanding from reading is that in pre-colonial Rwanda during periods of famine those who were poor would take a position similar to Old Testament Israel. They would become the possession of another family to survive. Maybe, an English translation of the practice could be “indentured servant.” Some might consider this slavery. However, the situation does not seem to be permanent for generations. Frequently the one indebted would arise and be incorporated into the extended family where they landed. It also still seems clear that though Rwanda sought like many to find economic solutions to poverty and chaos Rwanda did not like her neighbors trade her poor to others as slaves. (Slavery in the Great Lakes Region of East Africa, Henri Medard and, Shane Doyle.)
About 20 years ago a movement started called the Jubilee movement. It was started by those who saw this command and believed the modern application was that the poor indebted nations could only arise from poverty by Jubilee. The institution must be used to forgive debt. It was promoted by both believers and non-believers. It was discussed in meetings from the N.G.O. to donor to embassy communities.
Rwanda was a particularly troubling case. During the war, the government who plotted genocide borrowed money that was later used to perpetrate genocide. Rwanda’s Minister of Finance following liberation, Dr. Donald Kaberuka with great dignity voiced that since the debt was a debt of a sovereign government it must be paid. However, many of us felt that justice could not stomach paying the debt of genocide. As time and discussions passed much of Rwanda’s institutional debt was forgiven. The Jubilee command was practiced. Justice was restored. (For further reading see: http://www.cgdev.org/content/article/detail/1424565/
Now the question arises of “moral hazard.” If the risk is taken away from borrowing some may misuse their loans. They assume that their debt will be forgiven. Thus they manipulate forgiveness. They turn a beautiful gift into an ugly weapon. It seems the Jubilee speaks directly to this. Our business dealings must be noted for truth, equity, and justice (25:14). We cannot devalue forgiveness by assuming it is a tool to manipulate.
It is the same for grace. Paul writes that some will attempt to take advantage of grace (Romans 6). Forgiveness is risky. Yet, forgiveness is transformational. Without an understanding of both our individual and communal sin we have no capacity to practice audacious forgiveness. Without audacious forgiveness our community cannot be healed. Without this healing of grace our institutions cannot grow to be just. Without these two paradoxical values of justice and grace we are condemned to cycles of frustration and destruction. Thus audacious forgiveness must be institutional.
May history remember us for practicing this old African virtue of audacious forgiveness in our generation.