This article originally appeared in Christianity Today on March 26, 1976.
On November 1, 1751, a committee of the Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly, in ordering a bell for the tower of the new State House, instructed that these words from the Old Testament be inscribed on it: "Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof." The Liberty Bell, tradition tells us, heralded the singing of the Declaration of Independence twenty-five years later.
This Scripture verse is from a section of Leviticus that announced to the people of Israel the "year of jubilee." We read, "you shall hallow the … year and proclaim liberation tin the land for all its inhabitants. You shall make this your year of jubilee." (Lev. 25:10).
The year was to be celebrated not through pageantry but through concrete acts that flowed from a deeper commitment to God's justice. The jubilee year proclaimed liberation for the poor and the oppressed. The disinherited were to be restored to their own land. Debts were to be repaid and forgiven, so that those who were bound in economic servitude to others would be free. In short, the jubilee year was a striking course of action and law that helped the dispossessed, insured the just stewardship of wealth and resources, and expressed God's passion for justice.
It was not the imposition of self-righteous kingly power but the faithfulness of the people to their God that would imbue the whole society with this vision. Yet the history of this ancient people reveals that they continually turned to idols and gods of their own making, trusting in their own self-sufficiency, forsaking the weightier demands of justice and mercy, and being confronted with God's judgment.
When Jesus Christ entered human history, his ministry was inaugurated with the same prophetic call for justice and liberation. He rose in the synagogue, Luke tells us, and read from Isaiah, announcing his mission in words that rekindled the vision of the year of jubilee: "The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me; he has sent me to announce good news to the poor, to proclaim release for prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind; to let the broken victims go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" (Luke 4:18).
There he was—God's love incarnate, pouring his life out in sacrificial service for others, proclaiming that God's own kingdom was breaking into our midst, and faithfully following this calling to death on a cross. Through Christ's resurrection we see revealed power that is "far above all government and authority, all power and dominion, and any title of sovereignty that can be named." And here is the power that can set each of us free from human bondage to self, sin, and futility.
The hope that is ours today as a people rests not in our great history or traditions, not in our accomplishments or our own power, but in this One—sovereign over all—who even now is Judge of the nations, and offers to us his healing power.
The biblical message of liberation, etched into the side of the Liberty Bell, resonant through the Scriptures, confronts us this day as judgment, but offers renewing hope. Its liberating power calls us away from placing our trust in the false values, gods, and idols of our own making that characterize this era.
Today our abundance, which has brought material blessings to so many, threatens us spiritually as a peril. Never have we known such wealth, but never have we worshiped wealth more. Dazzled by material success, we have developed a new religion: the worship of progress. We have placed faith in technology, and devote increasing billions to life-destroying arsenals. Whereas people once looked toward God for salvation, our culture now propels them toward the domination of nature and fellow human beings in a ceaseless quest for material accumulation. The search for the transcendent, mystical, supernatural reality of life is being supplanted by religious devotion to what is visible, tangible, and synthetic.
From such bondage Jesus Christ yearns to set us free. "Where your treasure is," Christ said, "there your heart will be also." He proclaims unto us who are rich, and unto those who are poor, a jubilee that would liberate us all from spiritual and physical impoverishment.
Obedience to Christ can exercise a vital influence in our corporate life as a nation and people, but only on his own terms. To believe that true faithfulness to Jesus Christ will bolster our structures of power, or protect society's status quo, is impious folly. We who are finite dare not attempt to use an infinite God for our own ends.
Jesus Christ lived, died, and rose again to give to us the gift of new life and to proclaim a new order. Therein lies the hope for all humanity. We have been given the vision of how our personal and corporate life can be molded by values undergirded by an all-encompassing love.
But all this runs counter to the realities of power and politics that often possess each of us. It requires a break, a new starting point. This is repentance—personal and collective. It commands us to turn from selfishness, materialism, and prelacy and turn to selfless love, spiritual fullness, and servanthood..
Our hope as a people is found only in our response to him who is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Let there be no mistake: such a hope entails a profound new beginning. Christ's love liberates us, and breaks the parameters of the old order to institute a new creation, within us and among us. What we require at this juncture in our history is a new revolution spiritual revolution that transforms our values and reshapes our corporate life. This would be the natural manifestation of true repentance.
Lest we think that such words sound impractical, irrational, or outlandish, we should recognize that the core of our own American Revolution was not the waging of a successful war but a dramatically new starting point that first transformed the hearts and minds of the colonists, nurturing a new vision. John Adams clearly explained this truth when he wrote:
What do we mean by the Revolution? The American War? That was no part of the Revolution. … The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people. A change in their religious sentiments, or their duties and obligations . … This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments and affections was the real American Revolution.
Today the message of Christ presents us with the imperative of a "radical change" in our values—a change spiritually rooted, whose effects would be revolutionary in our time. Its first impact would be a new understanding of leadership. "The rulers of the world lord it over you," Christ said, "But I am among you as one who serves." Christ was among us in the form of a servant, and he demonstrated his leadership by washing others' feet. Following him means we are to lose our lives in order to find them.
Embracing the power of love, we are to forsake the love of power. Therein we discover the power that truly is the most revolutionary force—the power of sacrificial love, shown to the whole world by Christ's redeeming death on a cross. As St. Paul told early believers:
This doctrine of the cross is sheer folly to those on their way to ruin, but to us who are on the way to salvation it is the power of God . … Divine folly is wiser than the wisdom of man, and divine weakness than man's strength. My brothers, think what sort of people you are, whom God has called. Few of you are men of wisdom, by any human standard; few are powerful or highly born. Yet, to shame the wise, God has chosen what the world counts folly, and to shame what is strong, God has chosen what the world counts weakness. He has chosen things low and contemptible, mere nothings, to overthrow the existing order. And so there is no place for human pride in the presence of God Christ Jesus is our righteousness; in him we are set free [I Cor. 1:18, 25-30].
We can discover authentic and creative power in servanthood. From such a posture of humility, our nation could affirm this true understanding of leadership. Abraham Lincoln exemplified this well when he wrote:
We have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has ever grown. But … we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us. It behooves us, then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.
This new revolution would also bring a true understanding of our common humanity. When we encounter the Creator through repentance and love, our hearts are turned outward to all people. We discover a boundless love—the indiscriminate love of a Father who rushes to embrace the returning prodigal, and gives a feast. It is a love that knows no boundaries of class, race, ideology, or nation.
We see it manifest in Jesus. His love knew no conditions; it extended to all. We are to love as he did, for to hate another, for whatever reason, is to hate one for whom Christ suffered and died. We are called to an unlimited liability for our brothers and sisters throughout all creation. There are no exclusions to make, no qualifications to impose. Their destiny, their livelihood, and their fulfillment become inseparable from our own.
Finally, this spiritual revolution will produce a just embodiment of stewardship. In our era, this is critical to the vision of liberation that God offers humanity, just as when the jubilee year was first proclaimed to the people of Israel.
Humanity is beset by a cleavage between the wealthy and the impoverished; further, the affluence of a few is dramatized by the realities of global scarcity. We here are the guardians of enormous prosperity; as a people we utilize about 40 percent of the globe's resources, yet we have only 6 percent of its people.
Our materialism holds us in bondage to what we consume and process. But Christ's good news sets us free from the poverty of abundance. That freedom can be the means for liberating those who face death this day because of impoverishment that is beyond their control. In the end this revolution will teach us that we own nothing. We are only stewards. The world's resources belong to its Creator; they are to be used not for the luxury of a few but the livelihood of all.
To whom much has been given, our Lord said, much is required. He asked us for our love, our commitment, our possessions, our discipleship. In this we will find our truest freedom.
Let us begin this revolution now. Let us be known as a people who are committed to the primacy of spiritual community, and as just and compassionate stewards in service to the needs of humanity.
Christ calls each one of us to give ourselves to this liberating revolution. Let us covenant with one another to mobilize our resources and commit our lives for the corporate spiritual transformation that this revolution will bring. He awaits us now, with his love reaching out, even for the "healing of the nations." Let us listen for his word speaking to each of us. And let us "stand fast, therefore, in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free."
This article originally appeared in Christianity Today on March 26, 1976.
Copyright © 1976 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christianity Today interviewed Mark Hatfield for a 1982 cover story
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