The Liberty Gospel

The Liberty Gospel

Leviticus 25:10

August 7, 2011

Fr. Theron Walker

 

We’ve made a great big deal about the Liberty Bell this weekend. The Bell is one of the most important symbols of American ideals. It was there at the Revolution, in the Abolition and Sufferage movements, and even was used by Budweiser at the end of Prohibition! But it’s history and meaning predate even the Revolution. Why did the colonial legislature of Pennsylvania, in 1751, choose Leviticus 25:10 for their great bell? Why did they choose a three thousand year old passage of Scripture about an obscure Jewish festival?

 

So, here’s three questions I aim to answer today.

  1. What is Leviticus 25:10 about?
  2. Why was it so important and fitting to those Christians in Pennsylvania?
  3. What are some implications for us?

 

Let’s start with the Bible passage itself. “Proclaim Liberty to all the Land and its inhabitants.” The twenty-fifth chapter of Leviticus contains instructions from God, to Israel about how they are to live in the Promised Land. The whole book is a kind of Constitution for Israel. The twenty-fifth chapter is about a once every fifty years celebration of Liberty. The celebration is called a Jubilee.

 

In the Year of Jubilee, several important things happen. The land itself was given a Sabbath rest. This idea terrified the people—live off of savings, not current production for a whole year? Yep. Do it, trust God, honor God, because ultimately, the land is His, and you’ll be ok. In the ancient world, there wasn’t much by way of capital. All most people had was their ability to do manual labor. Just about the only thing a person could own was their body. And the other thing possible for them to own was land, something to work so they could eat.

 

This is where Leviticus is so remarkable, a light of revelation in world history. Once every fifty years, people who, because of debt became slaves or lost or even sold their land, were to be liberated. There were provisions protecting and remunerating the current owners. So, this wasn’t about reshuffling of capital. The Jubilee celebration of Liberty establishes in Israel’s Constitution an inalienable right to one’s own body. Human beings cannot really be slaves. Our inner nature is free individuals connected to our families. And the Jubilee establishes an inalienable right to property, in that case, land, for the average extended family.

 

So, to sum up, although due to debt and even sale, people become enslaved and estranged from family and land, they have an inalienable right to themselves, and to the opportunity to own something that they can work. This is a right to personal property.

 

On top of this, the passage of Scripture Jesus read from when he inaugurated his ministry was from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah was saying, it’s time to celebrate the Year of Jubilee: Liberty. In choosing this passage, Jesus was saying, he was the incarnation of the Year of Jubilee, Liberty to the captives. He is the means by which people can return to God, and to themselves.

 

The second question. Why was the proclamation of liberty from Leviticus so important and fitting to those Christians in Pennslyvania?

American historian, David Hackett Fischer writes, “In 1751 the Assembly of Pennsylvania celebrated an anniversary. The Charter of Privileges, which William Penn had granted his settlers in 1701 to guarantee their liberty, was exactly half a century old. To mark the occasion, the legislature ordered that a great bell should be purchased for the Pennsylvania Sate House.

 

Today, that building is better known as Independence Hall, and the great Quaker bell is called the Liberty Bell. Both of these symbols are associated in the popular mind with the American Revolution. But in fact they were the products of an earlier period.” (Albion’s Seed:595).

 

In Colonial America, the Quakers were the third largest group of Christians, with the Puritan Congregationalists being the largest, and Anglicans the second. In 1750, 70% of the Pennsylvania legislature were Quakers. A Quaker chose Leviticus 25:10 for the inscription.

 

Back in England and Wales, Quakers were persecuted by Anglicans and Puritans. Church of England clergy in particular, had it in for Quakers. For their beliefs, Quakers were routinely arrested and punished. But worse, many Quakers refused to pay their tithes! That really enraged the Anglican clergy. Back then, the church tax was simply the tithe, and local Anglican clergy collected it.

 

Quakers refused to pay their tithes, even though it meant their properties could be seized. They believed one’s religious beliefs and practices should be chosen, not coerced. Love for God could not really be coerced, only chosen. Seizing their property was to them a double sin: a sin against conscience, and a sin against one’s property. A person’s property was sacred; a person had a right to their property because it was the fruit of their life and labor. Neither the church nor the state had a prior right to one’s property, anymore than either had a prior right to one’s body.

 

The Quakers believed in the right to personal property for themselves, and for their neighbors. This was Golden Rule stuff, love of God and neighbor. This was Ten Commandments stuff, as in, “Thou shalt not steal, and Thou shalt not covet.” The term Fischer uses is very important, very Leviticus, very Jesus: Reciprocal Liberty. Love demands you respect my personal property, and I respect you and yours. That’s something to celebrate, something to proclaim.

 

Now, the third question: some implications for us.

 

We need a year of Jubilee, a Proclamation of Liberty for personal property. I emphatically don’t mean just wiping the slate clean for everyone in debt. The Year of Jubilee doesn’t just wipe the slate clean. It protects the property of investors, creditors, as well as debtors. Even the slavery of sin isn’t wiped clean by fiat. The debts of sin are paid for, but not by us. Jesus paid our debts incurred by sin.

 

We need to return to reciprocal liberty: the right of personal property. I see this two basic ways. First, property ownership is a right. Our neighbors don’t have a right to our property. We don’t have a right to their property either. Before we ever even think about the role of government, before we ever even think about mortgages or health care or retirement, we must embrace and hold fast to our, and our neighbor’s right to their property. To forget this, to give this up to have something today that we cannot afford, to sell it to be taken care of, is to disobey God’s law. Disobeying God’s law is sin, and it doesn’t work. This is natural law. When we disobey natural law, we pay. It may take time, years not days. But bubbles burst.

 

This is an important spiritual shift in our thinking. This nation is in trouble financially. The people’s government is in trouble. Families are in trouble. We’re not broke because of bad circumstances, bad luck. We’re broke because people want stuff they can’t pay for. Because guess what, creditors as well as debtors have property rights. Bubbles bursting, crashing markets, collapsing confidence happens when we break Nature’s Laws, God’s Laws.

 

There is a holy connection between our labor and our very selves. We have this right, and so do our neighbors. No one but God and ourselves can create an economic recovery. Recovery isn’t a matter of tweaking a few policies, trimming a few government programs. Recovery is about us, returning to a very basic Natural Law, God’s Law of reciprocal Liberty, the right to be free, the right to one’s property, and the responsibility to honor our neighbor’s property too. 

Yes, we built a replica of the Liberty Bell for our local parade.  And as is ALWAYS the case with these things, it took a whole lot longer than we estimated.  But, the outcome!  Over a dozen people worked on the bell.  And in the parade, one child bystander said, "How did they get that here?!"