One of the most intriguing features of the rediscovery of the ancient biblical concept of Jubilee, and of its use as the guiding metaphor for campaigns against modern debt slavery, is the way in which both have been powerfully connected in the minds of many people with our wishes and aspirations for the new Millennium.
Of course there is much that is purely incidental about this. We all know that the dating of 2000 AD from the birth of Christ depends largely upon historical error and happenstance, for example. There is also no concrete historical or textual link between the issue of debt and the pronouncements of Leviticus 25, even if a strong moral parallelism can be applied and Deuteronomy brought on board. And the biblical Jubilee was certainly not related to any millennial speculation or anticipation.
So, outside the human imagination, there is no reason why these three events should be tied together. Nonetheless, there is much more than media or campaigning hype in the way that such links have been forged. This, in turn, may tell us something useful about what we are (or are not) hoping for in church and society at the moment. Perhaps even what we might hope for…?
Contrary to some expectations, the approaching Millennium in Western society is producing relatively little doom-laden soothsaying or panic about the end of the world, certainly by historical precedent. There is the Y2K computer ‘bug’ to worry about, of course, with its threat of airline chaos and food shortages. But that is pure hype, and more likely to effect Nigeria than North Wales if it does happen, as most people instinctively (and perhaps rather selfishly) realise.
There are also occasional promissory outbursts from religious extremists — like the US ‘Christians Concerned’ group who recently went to Israel in the hope of precipitating Armageddon. But by and large most people seem to be greeting the Millennium moment more with stoicism than with excitement: seeing it as an opportunity to party or (for the really dedicated) to reflect on what the churches are calling ‘A New Start’, rather than as a harbinger of the eschaton.
It is this ‘New Start’ language about the turning of another era — rather than its imminent dissolution — which seems to have inspired the emphasis on a new deal for the world’s poor (cancellation of unpayable debts) and the biblical concept of a periodic levelling out (Jubilee). Worthy as this may be, we cannot fail to recognise that it is a far cry from the actual apocalyptic origins of millennial language in the Revelation of St John! Curiously enough, the sense of a genuine ending (as well as a new beginning) is much more evident in New Age publications than in church ones.
Perhaps this is not as surprising as it first seems. Many Christians may be understandably relieved at the stress on humanitarianism rather than cataclysm. After all, the text of Revelation has been used by many undesirable religious groups to propagate some bizarre and dangerous theories. Think only of US president Ronald Reagan, who read it, in tandem with the advice of Nancy’s astrologer, as signalling that his finger on the nuclear button might be God’s instrument for humanity’s Final Battle.
For this reason mainstream Christians have shyed away from the actual biblical Millennium, and have been happy to pray and work for a dose of Jubilee redistribution instead. At that level there is something both reassuring, practical and sane about the way in which we in the churches are (for the most part) handling the Year 2000.
But we should not escape the fact that this also represents, in another way, a massive loss of vision and hope. For there is a seriously theological sense in which it is not possible to think about the advent of Christ without contemplating an End Of The World As We Know It. I am not talking here about lunatic exegesis of a selection of scriptural texts, parousia paralysis, wild speculation about the inbreaking of God’s kingdom, or fantastic eschatological schemas constructed with scant regard for the huge gap between biblical and contemporary cosmologies. These things are rightly avoided.
Rather, I am referring to the way in which our Christian communities have evidently lost something central to the Gospel promise: an urgent sense that the embodiment of God in Christ, and particularly the Cross by which the religious and political powers-that-be hoped to consign him to history, represents an inescapable moment of judgement and crisis for the world. This is what the Book of Revelation, written to encourage persecuted believers and to expose the demonic force of the Roman Imperial powers, is concerned to show.
By contrast, many of today’s churches — far from confronting the life-destroying principalities and powers of our own age (social, cultural, religious, political and economic) — are still engaged in the Christendom project of accommodation. It is often only in parts of Asia, Latin America and elsewhere in the two-thirds world that we continue to see brave experiments in Christian community which, in the name of the Gospel, refuse the world of injustice as it is.
Meanwhile, in the US and Europe Christians (and I include myself) continue to live in captivity to militarism and the market. The renewal of Jubilee language is a step towards a different kind of future for the followers of Christ and their allies among those of other faith or good faith, but it may not be enough. Our era may yet prove to be more apocalyptic than we would wish, and if so we are likely to be judged and found wanting. As in the Balkan conflict, the cry for an alternative is a call for a new people and a new way, not just another policy.