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    Jesus, Jubilee, and God’s Reign

    Some reduce God’s kingdom to a theological concept, while others equate it with social justice. A new book looks for a more biblical view.

    By Christian Collins Winn and Charles E. Moore

    April 14, 2023

    Charles E. Moore: Christian, you recently published a book, Jesus, Jubilee, and the Politics of God’s Reign (Eerdmans, 2023). Who are you writing for?

    Christian Collins Winn: When I started writing I was still in the academy fulltime. I intended to write for students, not fellow scholars. I eventually left the academy and went into church ministry, where I have met clergy, faith-rooted organizers, and laypeople struggling to connect their faith with the problem of injustice in the world. Some wondered whether faith and the church had anything to do with justice. Others believed that God’s kingdom and justice had to be at the center of the church. My book attempts to address both audiences.

    There has been a spate of books that address how God’s reign intersects this world. What does your book bring to the table?

    I found myself dissatisfied with the main works on the kingdom published in the past forty or so years. The various notions of God’s kingdom brought forth seemed too abstract. We needed more clarity as to what this kingdom of God actually is.

    God’s kingdom must be understood Christologically. Jesus himself embodies God’s reign; he shows us how God’s reign impinges on the social order. I’m not the only person who has said this, but because of the interlocutors I draw upon and the challenges I engage, my book puts some hands and feet on what God’s kingdom might look like here and now.

    One thing I emphasize is that God’s kingdom should not be over-identified with the church nor with any other human social or political project. God’s kingdom is always God’s kingdom. It breaks into our midst and we can experience it and are called to give witness to it, but our experience of it is more like a parable, illuminating an aspect of God’s kingdom but not the whole truth. We should avoid thinking we are building God’s kingdom. Jesus alone is the kingdom of God. In this sense, I’ve been shaped by Karl Barth and Christoph Blumhardt.

    How do you avoid jettisoning the kingdom of God out of history altogether? Is the claim that Jesus is the kingdom of God only a theological affirmation?

    No, God’s reign is made visible through the Spirit whom Christ pours out on earth and on “all flesh.” The Spirit, the resurrection power of Christ, is now the bearer of the kingdom in our world. In “pouring out the Spirit on all flesh,” God is looking for willing human partners, people who live into the kingdom, the outline of which is discerned in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That’s the bridge. The resurrection and the Spirit are the keys that unlock the ongoing work of Jesus in the world, and that work has concrete social and political ramifications.

    Is this where the Jubilee comes into play?

    Yes. In the Psalms there is a clear sense that Yahweh’s rule (or the kingdom of God) overthrows all other rulers, especially dehumanizing forces. When Yahweh shows up to confront these other powers, however, he judges so as to make life flourish. Yahweh’s power is life-giving, it sets things right and is committed to life. This is what the Jubilee or Sabbath legislation in Deuteronomy and Leviticus are all about: debts are forgiven and land returned. People are freed to fully live and engage in practices in which human community reflects Yahweh's righteousness and justice. When the prophets take up the Jubilee imagery and apply it to other nations and to creation itself, they push the imagery towards a cosmic Jubilee – where everything is set right. This never happens, however, apart from God’s judgment, apart from a confrontation.

    How does Jesus factor into this?

    The same is true with Jesus. A confrontation takes place with powers and authorities that oppress and uphold systems of injustice. Jesus’ life shows us what Jubilee looks like. At the outset of his ministry, Jesus proclaims, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This is a Jubilee announcement. But not everyone welcomed this. This is partly because Jubilee comes not just in the preaching of Jesus, but also in the doing of Jesus. For instance, when an exorcism happens, it is an apocalyptic confrontation with a power that dehumanizes, while also a liberation that restores someone’s humanity, potentially making their community whole again as well. “Sinners”, the outcasts, the oppressed are restored in Jesus’ ministry. This is God’s Jubilee made manifest.

    God’s justice is restorative in nature.

    Right. God’s judgment ultimately serves life. God’s last word is not, “You’re judged,” but rather, “Behold, a new heaven and a new earth!” When I began to look carefully at the Jubilee, I didn’t realize that it started on the Day of Atonement. That is the day when setting everything right begins. In a sense, the Day of Atonement unfolds the social drama in which sin in all its manifestations is overcome and we can start to live the new life that the Jubilee laws imagined.

    You rely heavily on liberation theologians, especially James Cone. Why?

    Cone’s God of the Oppressed was the first theological text I ever read., I didn’t initially understand it in terms of liberation theology. From my perspective, it was just good biblical theology. That book is so deeply rooted in the biblical story of Exodus and the life of Jesus that I couldn’t help but see salvation as liberation. Originally, “Savior” typically referred to a figure who liberates a city or a people. This is why Jubilee and Jesus’ ministry are filled with socially liberative images of restoration and release.

    Writing  within my particular context, I had to deal with such problems as racism and capitalism. If God’s kingdom really is about Jubilee justice, if God’s kingdom really does break into this world, then it has to confront the demons and the powers and principalities that divide and dehumanize us.

    But couldn’t that kind of language be misconstrued? Isn’t it easy to weaponize “liberation” and “justice” to call people to break down the existing power structures?

    It may be tempting to do so, but we must remember who Jesus is. He is the kingdom of God in person, and this kingdom does not wield power as other forces or entities do. We too easily think we are building the kingdom of God because we can use power to enforce what we perceive as God’s way. But this is not the way of Jesus. He and his cross are our ultimate criterion. In this sense, mine is a book about discernment. How do we discern where the kingdom is now so that we can join in as Jesus showed and taught us?

    What might joining in actually mean? What role does the church play?

    Unfortunately, the church, like the state, has too many times been complicit in structural injustice. I don’t mean to say that the kingdom can’t be present in the life of the church. Of course it can. I work within a church context. I just think that God’s kingdom cannot be fully housed in any one place. The church community can be and should be a parable of the kingdom. But God’s kingdom is embodied in other expressions as well. In terms of the church, the Jubilee images and dynamics embodied in Jesus offer a way of organizing our common life together, a way that we see portrayed in the early church.

    It seems that social activism plays an important role in your understanding of the kingdom.

    Wherever there exists honest resistance against powers that make life difficult or impossible for people, something of God’s justice is at hand. It doesn’t need a Christian bumper-sticker on it to make it such.

    At the same time, one of the roles of the church is to give spiritual sustenance to this witness. I need my spiritual reservoir to be filled and I need to be put in touch with others who are also in touch with the Spirit. That’s where the church comes in: it becomes a way station where we are put in touch with that life which is a foretaste of God’s future.

    How much of God’s kingdom can we actually embody or experience in this world?

    What is needed is to discern where God is already at work, and then join in. Of course, what we are longing for and waiting for and struggling for is nothing less than a resurrection of the dead – which only God can call forth. There are spaces in life where the deep richness of life can be experienced, but who of us has really experienced a true and genuine resurrection of the dead or the creation of a new heaven and a new earth where all of creation is set free? That’s the kingdom in all its fullness! That’s something we ultimately have to wait and hope for, even while we live in the here and now in ways that show that we are attuned to God’s justice and righteousness, God’s great Jubilee.

    Are you saying we can only wait things out?

    No, God’s kingdom also breaks into our midst quietly. I think of some of the work that goes on with migrant families. One of my close friends in Minneapolis took in two different migrant families and has helped them find homes and jobs and has also formed a nonprofit around that. Part of their work is just showing up for each other, caring for each other, helping folks get licenses, giving other people rides to work, caring for children. Those are pretty simple things, but they are in the direction of the Jubilee.

    My chapter on Jesus’s life highlights both the extraordinary things that he did, but also the radical nature of such things as his practice of table fellowship. Here Jesus, a marginal person himself, affirms the humanity of those who were often abandoned on the margins. Jesus includes the socially, economically, spiritually, and politically excluded. This is God’s kingdom at work.

    What about the oppressor?

    To be sure we’re all complicit, we’re all caught up in webs of trauma, wounded and wounding. We are all, relatively speaking, oppressors and oppressed, and God’s purpose is precisely to set all of us free, the entire creation. The oppressors are also a target of God’s grace. They too can and must be set free. They must be delivered from the deforming justifications and practices that keep large segments of society from barely making it and that also deform their own humanity.

    But throughout the scriptures there is a word of judgment against those who benefit from and cooperate with those forces that dehumanize others. If the story of Exodus teaches us anything, God’s first priority is to set those in bondage free.

    God’s compassion for the poor consists of both judgment and salvation. If we don’t hold to this tension, the cross and the resurrection, we too easily slip into a cheap kind of grace, or a benign kind of justice, where we say, “God forgives everybody; all of our sins are the same.” This approach whitewashes injustice we all live with and that some of us, probably most of us, reinforce and benefit from.

    God’s kingdom is for all, but when it breaks in a real change occurs. A new social order is born, one in which all of us, not just some, are able to flourish. This is where liberation theology operates as a kind of corrective. Mary’s Magnificat is also a good corrective. “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” When God shows up, there is a great social leveling. All things are made new. It is the Day of Jubilee.

    Contributed By ChristianCollinsWinn Christian Collins Winn

    Christian Collins Winn is the teaching pastor and resident theologian at the Meetinghouse Church in Edina, Minnesota.

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    Contributed By CharlesMoore Charles E. Moore

    Charles E. Moore is a writer and contributing editor to Plough. He is a member of the Bruderhof, an intentional community movement based on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

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