Transcription from November 17, 2012 by Fred Kammer, SJ at the Ignatian Family Teach-In in Washington D.C.
I have found over the years that the Scriptures are a powerful way to break through some of the political categories in which people get stuck when thinking about a lot of issues of justice and peace. With regard to moving beyond the margins on the immigration issue, the first key Hebrew concept that can inspire us all to new ways of thinking is the jubilee year, which Jesus later calls “the year of the Lord.” LEVITICUS 25 explains about the jubilee years (which take two forms—in the seventh and 49th or 50th year). The sacred text explains how property is never to be lost permanently by sale or forfeiture and is to be returned in the jubilee year to its original owner. Intrinsic to the jubilee tradition was that those who are indentured or enslaved because of their poverty or debt, they too are to be freed in the jubilee year and returned to their own property. In the SEVENTH OR SABBATICAL YEAR, land was to be uncultivated, slaves freed, and debts relieved. Most people were imprisoned for debt.
The JUBILEE YEAR, OR GRAND SABBATICAL, was to be every forty-ninth or fiftieth year. In that year the people were to be restored to their full sense of community and right order: a community of faith and fidelity, sharing the goods of the earth, with God dwelling in their midst. As Blessed Pope John Paul II explained in Tertio Millenio Adveniente in 1994:
What was true for the sabbatical year was also true for the jubilee year, which fell every 50 years. In the jubilee year, however, the customs of the sabbatical year were broadened and celebrated with even greater solemnity. … One of the most significant consequences of the jubilee year was the general “emancipation” of all the dwellers on the land in need of being freed.
This took place by restoring all community members, no matter what their standing or position, to a full share of the community’s goods. Property was to be returned to its original owners; slaves were to be freed; and all members restored to full membership, no matter what past misfortune or failure had occurred.
Beneath this custom, of course, lay the faith insight that the land was really Yahweh’s, who had made it a gift to the community for its use, in the words of the U.S. bishops, as “stewards charged with working for the good of all in the name of God, the sole owner of creation.” All the community members, too, were kin to the Lord, not to be enslaved or rejected from active participation in the Lord’s family. Underlying the practice of an equitable distribution of resources was the:
…assumption that genuine need was due either to a breakdown in the equitable distribution of community resources or to the possession of a social identity, such as that of widow or orphan, over which an individual had no control.
While the jubilee tradition might be considered idyllic or primitive, it was rooted in deeply religious concepts and presented a social ideal for the people.
This same sense of our communality with the Lord and the earth, of distributing resources to meet basic human needs, and of resistance to exclusion from community participation persists today. It can be found in both particular cultural or ethnic groups and even in our own Anglo-American legal institutions. Many Native Americans among us retain a sense of common ownership which often runs against the dominant private property ethic of American capitalism and much of our culture. Belief in tribal ownership and resistance to fencing the land, for example, seems close to the caution from LEVITICUS that, “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity for the land belongs to me and you are only stranger and sojourners...” (25:23)
This compelling sense of the communal destination intended for the earth’s goods is not just the province of ancient or so-called primitive peoples. As a lawyer who began my practice of law as a Jesuit scholastic with the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, I found a biblical sense of human community and the subordinate role of property-rights to people-rights built into the fabric of some contemporary laws as well. “Starting all over”; “no one should be so down that they cannot get up again”; and “beginning again” -- these are shorthand, for example, for our bankruptcy laws. A basic premise is woven through the American legal tradition of bankruptcy which is rooted in English Common Law and provided for in the U.S. CONSTITUTION is that property rights ultimately are subordinate to human needs and human dignity. In bankruptcy proceedings, we say in effect to those insolvents who are so down-and-out that they cannot get up again, “We cancel your debts; you can begin again.” It is a fresh-start doctrine reminiscent of the jubilee year.
Part of our bankruptcy system involves the related concept of homestead exemptions. The oldest tradition of homestead exemptions was that people need to preserve some basic minimum for survival, even against the otherwise legitimate needs of the body politic. The exemptions also insure that, in the event of bankruptcy, the bankrupt person or family is allowed to keep certain minimal goods as a kind of “grubstake” to begin again.
Even in our modern laws, then, there seems to survive a kind of jubilee year and its underpinning rationale -- that the goods of the earth are meant for everybody, and that we are one human community. If someone is brought so low that they cannot get up, the community helps them on their feet again and lets them start life over.
As a lawyer and a Jesuit, I also found that the bankruptcy and homestead provisions are related as well to the amnesty concept in criminal law. Amnesty is a kind of forgiveness or reconciliation doctrine, recognized by most of us when a governor grants amnesty to a person accused or convicted of a crime. Similarly, the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act granted a kind of amnesty in its provisions for citizenship application for undocumented persons who had been living and working in the United States for an extended period and who met certain legal requirements. These concepts all seem rooted in the image of the sovereign who can forgive debts, injustices, and crimes in the interest of reestablishing the right order of the community, bringing peace to warring factions, and helping the entire community to have a fresh start. But they also reflect a Church that believes in forgiveness and reconciliation.
Most recently, the jubilee concept was strongly urged upon the international community for the jubilee or millennium year 2000 by Pope John Paul II, other religious leaders, social justice advocates, and even popular rock stars like Bono. The application of jubilee here was to the enormous burden of international debt payments borne by many of the world’s poorest nations. These countries, like the enslaved debtors of ancient Israel, were unable to pay their debts and simultaneously meet the basic needs of their populations for food, education, social services, and basic health care. Concepts which the Scriptures applied to the community of Israel were now urged upon the entire community of nations. In fact, under the impetus of jubilee observances, significant debt relief was agreed to by the creditor nations of the world and is now being slowly implemented for many poor debtor nations.
In 2008, the 35th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus in its document Challenges to Our Mission Today highlights the Jubilee aspects of Jesus himself:
13. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus inaugurates his public ministry in the synagogue of Nazareth. Reading from the prophet Isaiah, and acknowledging being anointed by the Spirit, he announces good news to the poor, the release of captives, the recovery of sight by the blind, and freedom for the oppressed. With this action he roots himself and his ministry in the tradition of the Jewish prophets who passionately proclaimed God’s justice, the duty of Israel to establish right relationships with God, with one another, especially the least among them, and with the land. This threefold duty took on special significance in the Jubilee year and in “the year of the Lord’s favour” which Jesus announces and embodies.
14. In proclaiming God’s message of love and compassion Jesus crosses over physical and socio-religious frontiers. His message of reconciliation is preached both to the people of Israel and to those living outside its physical and spiritual frontiers: tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners, and persons of all kinds who are marginalised and excluded. His ministry of reconciliation with God and with one another knows no boundaries. He speaks to the powerful challenging them to a change of heart. He reaches out to the poor, showing them his special love for the sinner, the poor widow, and the lost sheep. The kingdom of God which he constantly preaches becomes a vision for a world where all relationships are reconciled in God. Jesus confronts the powers that oppose this kingdom, and that opposition leads him to death on the cross, a death which he freely accepts in keeping with his mission. On the cross we see how all his words and actions are revealed as expressions of the final reconciliation effected by
the Crucified and Risen Lord, through whom comes the new creation when all relationships will be set right in God.
To conclude this treatment of jubilee, I have developed this at length because for me immigration reform is a jubilee concept, and we need to use this concept in our re-imagining our sisters and brothers from across our borders and moving them from beyond the margins into our national community. It means freeing people of the burden of being “undocumented,” “without papers,” or “illegal” just as the debtor was freed of his debts at the jubilee. It recognizes the common humanity which we have with all immigrants and, frankly, their contribution to our economic well-being, and the fact that they, their children (often U.S. citizens), and families are part of our communities and should be brought into full membership—just as people were in the Jubilee Years.
In our fight last year against anti-immigrant bills in the Mississippi, one law enforcement officer put it this way; he said that, with crowded jails, he would prefer to lock up a drug dealer than a man who is just working to support his family. That is a jubilee response!
I now want to focus on people who are poor because the poor play a critical part in the biblical view of the world and its understanding of persons, property, and community…and the place of the immigrant. Some years ago when I worked in Washington, I was on a panel with a Moslem and Jewish scholar to talk about how our traditions reflected on the needs of those who are poor and oppressed. The Jewish scholar turned to Isaiah 58—a favorite text of mine for many years—and explained that it is read in every synagogue in the world on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement when devout Jews fast for 24-hours before coming to prayer. He then read this text Isaiah:
Is this the manner of fasting I wish,
of keeping a day of penance:
That a man bow his head like a reed,
and lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
This rather is the fasting I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly;
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed;
breaking every yoke;
Sharing your bread with the hungry;
sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;
Clothing the naked when you see them;
and not turning your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn
and your wound shall quickly be healed.
Your vindication shall go before you,
and the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help and he will say: here I am! (Isa 58:5-9)
Isaiah was underscoring the central place of the poor in the religious experience of the people, in their understanding of creation’s goodness, and their responsibility for it as a faith community.
From the time of the Deuteronomic laws, the covenant, and the earliest prophets, there was special mention of the poor and a special place for them existed in the community. The Hebrew word for the poor is the anawim, the little ones, originally those “overwhelmed by want.” In the Old Testament, this group is primarily widows, orphans, and strangers (literally the refugees, sojourners, migrants, immigrants). They are the poor and powerless in their society. Their very existence and the harsh conditions of their lives reflected Israel’s violation of the social virtues rooted in its ancient ideals. Their poverty was often the result of unjust oppression. Thus they were what Pope John Paul called “God’s beloved poor.”
In this special status before Yahweh, the anawim embodied Israel’s own history of enslavement in Egypt, when only the Lord could free them. Like the Hebrews in Egypt, these poor had special protection from, and special access to, the Lord. The book of Exodus puts it this way:
You shall not molest or oppress an alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt. You shall not wrong any widow or orphan. If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry (Exod 22:20-22).
Their special status reflected a combination of powerlessness, poverty, and systemic exclusion from full membership in the community and the protection it afforded. Yahweh, then, was their protector.
Today, many commentators on the scriptures continue to use anawim in a fully developed sense that now explicitly includes four groups: widows, orphans, strangers, and the poor. All four are linked in the interconnection of poverty, powerlessness, and exclusion from the community and in the oppression they suffer at the hands of the larger community. Believers are charged to see to it that the anawim are not without the means to meet their basic needs, nor are they to be excluded from the community or its decision-making by their lack of means.
As the Scriptures and their faith understanding developed, care for the anawim actually became the test of Israel’s faithfulness. Rather than the objects of optional charity or pious generosity, the poor became the measure of Israel’s fidelity to the Lord Yahweh. How they were treated lay at the heart of the concept of biblical justice and righteousness. The 35th Jesuit General Congregation in Challenges to our Mission Today underscored this same focus on those who are poor in these words:
27. Our commitment to establish right relationships invites us to see the world from the perspective of the poor and marginalised, learning from them, acting with and for them. In this context, the Holy Father reminds us that the preferential option for the poor ”is implicit in the Christological faith in a God who for us became poor, to enrich us with his poverty (2 Cor 8-9)”26 . He invites us with a prophetic call to renew our mission “among the poor and for the poor.”
This special duty towards the poor, the anawim, also underpins the Church’s position today on the treatment of migrants, immigrants, and refugees and the more detailed discussions in Catholic Social Teaching. The rights of migrating people (refugees, immigrants, asylum seekers, migrant workers, and internally displaced persons-IDPs) begin with the foundation of all of Catholic Social Teaching, namely, the dignity and sanctity of the human person. The right to life and the conditions worthy of human life—when threatened by poverty, injustice, religious intolerance, armed conflict and other root causes of migration—give rise to the right to migrate. As Blessed Pope John XXIII explained:
Every human being has the right to freedom of movement and of residence within the confines of his own country; and, when there are just reasons for it, the right to emigrate to other countries and take up residence there. The fact that one is a citizen of a particular state does not detract in any way from his membership in the human family as a whole, nor from his citizenship in the world community.
This is a right to both emigrate from one’s own country and immigrate into another country.
In 2003, the bishops of the United States and Mexico named five principles that have emerged from our tradition with regard to migration:
First, persons have a right to find opportunities in their own homeland. This principle reflects the responsibilities of all citizens and governments for the common good of their societies, creating the political, economic, and social conditions for persons to live in dignity, raise their families, use their God-given gifts to achieve a full life, and find the necessary employment that provides a living family wage. More wealthy and powerful nations are obliged to assist other less developed nations in creating the conditions for people to live dignified lives.
Second, persons have the right to migrate to support themselves and their families. Pope Pius XII declared in 1952 that both natural law and devotion to humanity required that international migration be opened to people forced from their own countries by revolutions, unemployment, or hunger. He explained, “For the Creator of the universe made all good things primarily for the good of all.” When people cannot find adequate work, they have a natural right to work elsewhere to find the means of survival for themselves and their families.
Third, sovereign nations have the right to control their borders. Our tradition recognizes the right of nations to control their territories, a right arising from their responsibility for the common good. However, as Pope Pius explained further, this right is not absolute. The sovereignty of the state “cannot be exaggerated to the point that access to this land is, for inadequate or unjustified reasons, denied to needy and decent people from other nations…” As the U.S. and Mexican bishops note, individual rights and the responsibility of the state for the common good are complementary.
In the current condition of the world, in which global poverty and persecution are rampant, the presumption is that persons must migrate in order to support and protect themselves and that nations who are able to receive them should do so whenever possible.
Fourth, refugees and asylum seekers should be afforded protection. Those who flee wars and persecution have a higher claim for protection from the global community. As the U.S. and Mexican bishops urged, “This requires, at a minimum, that migrants have a right to claim refugee status without incarceration and to have their claims fully considered by a competent authority.”
Fifth, the human dignity and human rights of undocumented migrants should be respected. As the bishops note, “Regardless of their legal status, migrants, like all persons, possess inherent dignity that should be respected.” This applies to punitive laws, enforcement policies and practices, detention conditions, abuse and neglect, and policies that assault the integrity of families, especially those with minor children.
Even undocumented workers, so often subject to inadequate wages and demeaning working conditions in a shadow economy, are entitled to basic human rights in terms of wages and working conditions. That a person is an immigrant worker, even one without legal documents, does not change his or her status as a human person made in God’s image. Demeaning wages, inhuman working conditions, and the denial of workers’ natural rights—with or without documents—are an assault on the dignity and sanctity of the human person.
Lastly, I want to talk briefly about Hope, which I have found extremely important in my own life and work for justice and in the lives of people with whom I have worked. It seems we Catholics know a lot about faith and love, and we talk and write about both. Hope, however, is a much unappreciated virtue, but critical to those who work in adverse circumstances and sometimes against what seem to be overwhelming odds. The best description about hope came to my attention in the mid-1990s at a prayer service with Catholic Charities workers in California. Many of us were very concerned about the impact of so-called welfare reform on the lives of poor families, so hope became a much needed topic. The text that struck me came from an unlikely source—Eastern Europe.
In 1986, Czech Poet Václav Havel described hope in words that for me capture the distinctiveness of this virtue and its ability to help all of us to continue at our difficult work even in hard times:
Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul, and it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart. . . .
Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.
Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. . . . It is this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.
What Havel describes as “hopeless conditions” in the final lines quoted here is his homeland under communism. Amazingly, three years later, communism collapsed in most of Europe. What so many people had hoped and prayed for during so many years suddenly became a reality and Havel himself would later be elected President of a democratic Czech Republic.
Hope, then, is indeed a virtue important in the world of working for justice and peace. It is essential to all of us here who long for a more just and peaceful world and who will need hope to commit ourselves in fidelity to be women and men for and with others.
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