Grand Jubilee 2013: Biblical Emancipation

We are set to celebrate the Grand Jubilee of the Emancipation Proclamation, and yet millions of our people unjustly languish from the horrific shackles of inadequate education-and hundreds of thousands, and their families, tragically suffer through the additional shackles of incarceration.

How is this possible?

"Jubilee" is a very strong Biblical term, mentioned 14 times in Leviticus 25 alone! It was the blessed year, in a 50-year cycle, when people were liberated from all shackles and all debts. Every family was again given their portion of land, the ancient key to economic empowerment. Within these initial Jubilee instructions we read the staunchest statement of liberation-Proclaim liberty throughout all the land, to all the inhabitants-the bold Bible verse prophetically written on our Liberty Bell years before 1776. "Jubilee" comes from the Hebrew "jubil," a ram's horn blown everywhere to proclaim precious personal and social liberation.

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"Jubilee" is also the understood core concept in Jesus' prophetic proclamation of his own life purposes at the very beginning of his ministry, when he read publicly from Isaiah 61:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me.
He has anointed me
to tell the good news to poor people.
He has sent me to announce freedom for prisoners.
He has sent me so that the blind will see again.
He wants me to free those who are beaten down.
And he has sent me to announce the year when he will set his people free. [Luke 4, NIRV]

2013 marks the "Grand Jubilee" during which all these themes can come together. This is the 150th anniversary of the great Emancipation Proclamation, put in effect January 1, 1863, the brief two-page document that initiated the legal transformation of America, abolishing slavery forever. Even though the eloquent Abraham Lincoln wrote it, the words are plain and legal, even geographically limiting the initial benefits.*

However, two momentous themes ring out in the Emancipation Proclamation. First, as of January 1, 1863, people held as slaves "shall be then, thenceforth, and forever free." Second, all government authorities "will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no acts to repress such persons in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom." Wonderful words! Now 150 years later, it is high time to help release our shackled brothers and sisters "…for their actual freedom."

Fact: Far too many of our brothers and sisters still wear shackles. Visible shackles. Throughout our land, African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans complete high school at 2/3 the rate of European-Americans, enter college at 1/2 the rate, and complete college at 1/3 the rate. 10% finish college, and among the men it is 7%. The data-rich New York school system acknowledges that 91% of the African-American students are neither college nor career ready when they are finished with school-dropping out or graduating. These debilitating shackles sustain the tragically vicious, visible personal and economic enslavement that demeans millions of our brothers and sisters, degrades families, and destroys our liberty. We do not flourish as the creative and brilliant people God created and redeemed us to become!

Can we get real about this Grand Jubilee celebration? Can we truly call it a "Jubilee" if we fail to follow the clear Biblical commands for a Jubilee? In the Leviticus 25 instructions, in God's handbook for our lives, liberation had to be matched by economic empowerment. Can you imagine people liberated from slavery but with no economic resources to enable them to care for themselves and their families? What a tragic trick! That would be a completely empty, frustrating, futile "freedom."

To the contrary, in the Jubilee Year all were released from shackles and restored to the "shekels" of economic power, the valuable land to labor on and to grow the produce needed in the agrarian economies of old. Anyone who is not economically empowered is not free. Owning the key resource in an economy empowers people to unlock their own enslaving shackles-and also open up their own lives, liberties and pursuits of happiness.

In Biblical times the key was land; today education is the key. In a farming economy you need land; in the information economy you need education.

Good intentions, enthusiastic worship, passionate prayers-even great preaching-will never take the place of excellent education. How can the church filled with powerful worship, prayer and preaching on Sundays not be open during the week specifically to train children, youth and adults to read and understand the very Word that empowers the church in the first place? Especially liberating is education that honors God and empowers all people even to read and study the Bible, the handbook of liberation. As Frederick Douglass so profoundly observed, "Once you learn to read, you will be forever free."

Improving our schools would be a nice step, but God's architecture of education is much greater. Homes and churches must be restored to their divine educational roles in training children, youth and adults-not only in reading, writing and arithmetic, but also in relationships, responsibility and religion, areas long neglected in our schools.

Our churches can also equip our homes-and not only the homes of church members, but the homes throughout our communities. A teaching degree and a teacher's certificate are not necessary for vastly improving the lives of people. In literacy programs in our churches we can use the Bible to teach (1) general literacy-words, comprehension, grammar, interpretation-as well as (2) life and culture literacy, and especially (3) Bible literacy itself. Without this Bible literacy, the rest is flat.

Churches can also teach parents, grandparents and guardians how to enhance learning environments in their homes. Children and youth are learning in the home and neighborhood environment-from their televisions, mp3s, cell phones, friends, neighbors and such like-but that education is frequently futile at best, and more frequently foul. How can we allow so much waste of time and opportunity in the priceless educational settings of the homes? In our communities? In our churches? Our churches, communities and homes can do better.

So, let us together declare the 2013 Grand Jubilee Year also the Year of Education Emancipation (YEE)-for ourselves, our children, our youth, our communities, our nation, our world, and our churches. The Lord will be pleased, human emancipation will be real, and people will be empowered "…for their actual freedom."

* The full legal emancipation came almost three years later with the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the American Constitution: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." President Lincoln had written this splendid amendment, but it was not ratified until eight months after his tragic assassination.

Dr. Paul de Vries is the president of New York Divinity School, and a pastor, speaker and author. Since 2004, he has served on the Board of the National Association of Evangelicals, representing 40 million evangelical Americans.

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