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The Prophets Versus Empire

The biblical prophets once cried out against corruption and injustice, calling people to a higher purpose. What might that look like today?

Joseph and His Brethren Welcomed by Pharaoh, watercolor by James Tissot

Joseph and His Brethren Welcomed by Pharaoh

 Watercolor by James Tissot. wikimedia

My wife and I have two children who strengthen my hope for life.

I remember well how anxiously we awaited their births. I remember the frenzy of activity as we prepared their room, our house, and our lives for the great impact we knew was coming. The impact came and turned our lives upside down.

Today our children are teenagers and our life is frenzied with activity. And yet it is all worth it because of the great joy of watching the seasons of life change, evolve, and transform. What was once is now gone. What will be is not yet here. But in this moment, between the times, I live with hope.

I hope even in the face of so much wretchedness today. The America I grew up in is gone. The America I yearn for is not yet. In this moment of the in-between time I find myself brooding and worrying that what I yearn for will not come to pass. I find myself anxious about the future of my children. Will they become cannon fodder for an Empire committed to permanent war? Will they have life snatched from them by a global pandemic? Will they free fall into poverty if the economy collapses?

I have this wonderful dream of what life could be like. But I live in a reality that feels more like a nightmare. It is in the ancient wisdom of scripture that I find meaning for this present moment. It is in the ancient wisdom that I discover seeds for hope.

Dreams and nightmares

There is a story of dreams and nightmares told in the Jewish wisdom of Genesis. In the story a man named Joseph was locked away in an Egyptian prison (Genesis 41 and 47:13ff). There he became known as a wise interpreter of dreams. His abilities came to the attention of Pharaoh, who had been having nightmares.

Joseph interpreted Pharaoh's nightmares as a warning that a great famine was coming. If Pharaoh  planned for the disaster, the people and Pharaoh's empire would be saved. Pharaoh was grateful for this interpretation and placed Joseph in charge of the economy. For seven years, the land and the labor of the people created surplus that Joseph wisely stored away.

After seven years the predicted famine came upon the land with a vengeance. Hunger ruled the nations. But in Egypt there was plenty.  Nevertheless, Joseph, perhaps seduced by the privileges of Pharaoh's wealth, power, and philosophy, did not open the grain silos to share with the people. Instead he forced the people to sell their livestock to Pharaoh in exchange for bread. Then he forced them to sell Pharaoh their land, and finally their bodies until all were enslaved to Pharaoh. All, that is, except the priests, who continued to bless the power of Pharaoh.

The story is a snapshot of Empire, which plunders the commonwealth of the people while protecting the wealth of the elite, with religion going along for the ride. It is a story of hope betrayed.

Jubilee and resistance

But the ancient wisdom also tells a story of hope regained. Alongside the story of Empire, which rises up repeatedly in history, there is also a story of resistance to Empire. The story of resistance emerges from the vision of economic justice known as the Jubilee. The Jubilee is central to the Torah, the Prophets, and the ministry of both Jesus and Paul.

The Jubilee was a blueprint for a just economy. It put a floor under misfortune and misery, preventing generational poverty, even as it put a ceiling on wealth, preventing the emergence of an aristocratic dynasty. It did this through elevating ownership of land, which in those days was wealth, into the hands of God the Creator. Because God owned the land (the wealth), we human beings had no right to seize it for ourselves. It was to be shared for the benefit of all.

The first lesson of the Jubilee was articulated in the Creation story when God rested on the seventh day. Therefore, we human beings, created in God's image, were also to rest once a week.

This was great good news for the poor who are always easily exploited and sometimes (literally) worked to death. It was good news for all who married their work and lost relationship with their community. The Sabbath was the great release from the incessant need to produce and to consume. It also extended outward into an ecological ethic that called for the resting of animals. Even the land was rested every seven years. But the most astonishing event occurred every 50th year when the economy was completely re-designed as wealth was redistributed, debts were forgiven, and land returned to its original owner.

It's not hard to see what this meant for agrarian societies, where families could be forced to sell their land in order to pay off debt resulting from a poor harvest or other mishap. Poverty reached its conclusion when landless peasants had to sell their possessions, and even themselves and members of their families as bond-slaves.

The great 50-year amnesty called for the return of the land to its original owners, therefore ending generational poverty. All debt was written off; slaves were freed, and, importantly, given the means to be economically self-sufficient.

This unilateral restructuring of the economy was to remind Israel that the land belonged to God and that the Israelites were chosen to be a counter-cultural people who must never return to an imperial system like Pharaoh's that produced slavery for some while enriching an elite.

The dying of the American empire

Some will say that the Jubilee is irrelevant today, that it was an economic strategy for a small, relational agrarian culture, nothing like today's complex global capitalist culture. Indeed, what does the Jubilee have to do with us?

The notion of Jubilee emerged from a commitment to live an anti-imperial life. The Jubilee was an economy set free from imperial ambition. Today, we live inside an Empire. We have chosen the path of Pharaoh: a path of domination rather than justice. Under the guise of priestly (Christian) rhetoric, the current administration has disrespected the Constitution, and made a mockery of our political process that balances power between branches of government. It has abandoned the rule of international law, disregarded human and civil rights, and unleashed economic chaos on the poor and on the land. We are dealing with outlaws who are drunk on the blood of imperial power. Whether it be Afghanistan or Iraq, Venezuela or Colombia, the Philippines or Haiti, wherever brown-skinned people live, the dogs of war are unleashed. Whenever people claim their own livestock, land, or even their bodies, this administration steps in to suppress any that dare to rise as an alternative to Empire.

Meanwhile, the causes of Christ—love of enemy, forgiveness of sin, practice of generosity, openness to the stranger, resistance to Empire, liberation of the poor—are today being subverted by a hardening of heart. To put it bluntly, Christ is once again being crucified through the merger of privileged imperial wealth and the religious priests who benefit from Empire's plunder. We are, in other words, living in similar times to those betrayed by Joseph. Pharaoh wants our livestock, land, and labor.

But Empires contain the seeds of their own destruction. Today we are seeing the hollowing out of our institutions, the defeat of our military, the environmental consequences of our arrogance, and the bewilderment of our people. Truly we live in a time without vision. The Empire has run its course and is dying. The American way of life is dying: 6 percent of the world's population consuming 40 percent of the world's resources is neither sustainable nor just. We need to let the Empire die. And as it is dying, we need to build a parallel culture to replace it.

Today's Jubilee

What would this “parallel culture” look like today? What would it look like to be freed from Pharaoh's economy?

In the political world, imagine America reversing its economic policies so that we might spend as much on debt relief and economic redevelopment as we currently do on the military.

Imagine if we spent as much money on alternative energy sources as we do on fossil-fuel exploration and extraction.

Imagine if our food policy were centered around small-scale organic farming instead of large-scale corporate agriculture. Such a reversal of policy would radically reorient our relationships both inter?nationally and within our own nation. Such a reversal would cause the trees to clap their hands.

Imagine how our personal and congregational lives would change if we, for example, withdrew our money from corporate banks that feed off the debt of others, investing instead in co-ops and community development banks.

Imagine the land that houses our church buildings and our own backyards becoming miniature farms growing fresh produce for food banks and the neighborhood.

Imagine our faith communities and civic networks becoming organizing centers and creative think tanks for an anti-debt economy.

In the 1930s Myles Horton and others created the Highlander Folk School to train people of faith to organize labor in the coal mines and textile factories of the south. In the 1950s, they switched their priority to civil rights, training amongst others Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Clarence Jordan (who trained Millard Fuller of Habitat for Humanity), the Freedom Riders, and so on. Highlander, a little jewel in the Appalachian region of Tennessee, was a seed-factory that nurtured and sustained the civil rights movement, and it's still around today working on local issues. Imagine our faith communities as little Highlanders.

As my children move through the frenzy of their teenage years, I live with the hope that their tomorrow will be a time of fulfillment, abundance, and awakening. I hope that their world will embrace the values of Jubilee and resist the seductions of Empire. I hope that they will learn to share what is stored in the grain silos. I hope that they will build a better world.

I know that this hope for their tomorrow begins with us today. It is in our dreaming and our willingness to sacrifice and create that the future will be born. If we cannot articulate and take simple steps into the world we want, then others, who care not at all for tomorrow, will impose the harshness of violence upon us.

I hope that we are still capable of great and noble things. I hope that we are still capable of creating life and celebrating its inevitable evolution. I hope that we are still capable of faith and hope and love. I hope for the year of Jubilee.


The Reverend Richard Lang is Pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Seattle.

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