Jubilee in the pandemic?

Eviction is an increasing threat for renters struggling to pay bills in the wake of the economic downturn that followed the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Art: FGC/Shutterstock
Published April 23, 2020

As finances tighten for millions of Canadians, Anglicans call for levelling the playing field—and perhaps conducting our business in new ways.

To explain his understanding of the biblical concept of Jubilee, the Rev. Jeffrey Metcalfe uses an analogy with the board game Monopoly.

According to the rules of Monopoly, one player wins by buying up properties and collecting rent from other players until they drive all their opponents into bankruptcy.

“What would happen if you played the game of Monopoly and every seven turns around the board, all the properties went back into the deck?” Metcalfe, canon theologian for the diocese of Quebec, asks. Under such rules, he suggests, the game might appear very different.

In the Book of Leviticus, Jubilee refers to the year at the end of seven cycles of shmita, the sabbath that comes at the end of each seven-year agricultural cycle. Thus taking place every 50 years, the Jubilee was viewed as a holy year in which each person should return to their own property. In other books of the Old Testament, the celebration of Jubilee includes the freeing of all Hebrew slaves and prisoners and the forgiveness of debts.

The economic downturn that followed the COVID-19 pandemic may have given the spirit of Jubilee a new relevance. In the face of skyrocketing unemployment, millions of Canadians are facing increasing difficulties paying rent and bills.

Calls for moratoriums on rent payments and evictions are gaining in popularity. On April 6, The Globe and Mail ran a story about looming rent strikes, which reported: “Landlords across Canada should brace for rent strikes in May unless the government steps in with rental subsidies for occupants as the outbreak of new coronavirus decimates wages, industry groups and tenants said on Monday.”

A 2016 rent strike. Photo: Michael Szpakowski/Flickr

In 2016, the Anglican Church of Canada released On the Theology of Money, a resource that served partially as a response to the Occupy Wall Street movement and its focus on economic inequality. Metcalfe, who chaired the Task Force on the Theology of Money that produced the document, draws a parallel between Jubilee in ancient Israel and the question of addressing modern inequalities.

“In some ways, not a lot’s changed,” Metcalfe says. “Where does the gap sit between the rich and the poor?”

National Indigenous Anglican Archbishop Mark MacDonald defines Jubilee as the simultaneous recognition of four things.

Firstly, Jubilee recognizes that God has provided abundantly in creation for the needs of human beings and all creatures. Secondly, it recognizes that there are human beings with needs that have not been met. Whether due to human failures or sin, MacDonald says, “the abundance that some experience is not evenly distributed, putting people at a disadvantage.”

Thirdly, Jubilee recognizes that “the needs of other people are a moral obligation for us—that in the wealth of some, the poor, those in need, those at disadvantage have a certain claim, and this moral claim must be responded to.”

“In the long run, nobody is going to be served by devastating people’s lives because of their debt.” —National Indigenous Anglican Archbishop Mark MacDonald

Finally, this recognition demands communal action of people coming together and providing for others.

“I think people with spiritual sensibilities, whether they be Christian or not, would see in this pandemic all of those things happening simultaneously,” MacDonald says. “For me, this is a real critical and important thing.”

The National Indigenous Archbishop has regularly criticized “the culture of money,” which he describes as a modern form of idolatry. The COVID-19 crisis, he says, “illustrates human need in such a way that it portrays the absurdities of the primary systems that we’re operating in. It reveals the absurdity of the culture of money. In the long run, nobody is going to be served by devastating people’s lives because of their debt.”

The Rev. Laurel Dykstra has long been guided in her ministry by the concept of Jubilee. Two decades ago, she was involved with the Canadian Ecumenical Jubilee Initiative in Vancouver. This action group sought to examine different expressions of Jubilee throughout history and ways these models could be enacted into systems today.

A priest for Salal + Cedar, a ministry of the diocese of New Westminster supporting environmental, racial and economic justice, Dykstra says Jubilee is not an act of charity. Rather, it is a “levelling mechanism,” a “periodic reset” of a system that has become grossly imbalanced. The Canadian Ecumenical Jubilee Initiative in its work sought to embody Jubilee in three main areas: release from debts; release of prisoners, with conversations around restorative justice and prison abolition; and return of land, particularly relating to Indigenous peoples.

In the context of COVID-19, Dykstra sees room for the church to call for resets such as addressing job insecurity among workers, supporting wage increases, personal protective equipment, and the right to refuse unsafe work.

“One of the things that’s being exposed is that the people who are now essential workers, people who are working in grocery stores…those people have been essential all along,” Dykstra says. “That is an aspect of a reset.”

Another example of a “reset” might be taking into account activists for disability rights, who may have been rejected for jobs in the past because they could not travel to a work site, now pointing out how many jobs can be done at home.

A third example might be the release of prison inmates. On Good Friday, the Anglican Journal published an interview with the Rev. Leigh Kern, a prison chaplain in Toronto who calls for the depopulation of prisons to reduce spread of the virus.

“I think that any measure of decarceration would be a reset,” Dykstra says. “I think we’re obviously a long way off from prison abolition or wholesale return of Indigenous land. But any ways that we enact Jubilee [on a] small scale are also just practice flexing those muscles—practice for what we can do better and more the next time we have an opportunity.”

Enacting Jubilee in these ways, however, might require a break from ways the Anglican Church of Canada has acted in the past. Dykstra says that the church in recent years has conceptualized Jubilee largely through the lens of world debt relief—for example, by pointing out how institutions such as the International Monetary Fund impoverish nations by keeping them trapped in cycles of debt.

The church itself is often deeply entwined in existing economic structures, which can make challenging those structures difficult. Archbishop MacDonald says that the Anglican Church of Canada should “absolutely” support calls for moratoria on rent payments or evictions, noting that the spirit of jubilee “calls us to not only embody this as a people, but to help to embody this spirit in society.”

While Dykstra shares this view, she notes that supporting calls for rent strikes might be a “big jump” for the church, in part because speaking of Jubilee in such terms has not been an “active part of our vocabulary theologically of late.”

“I would be astonished and delighted to see the church in a position of advocating for rent relief, advocating for caps on what people can earn by essentially investment and land speculation,” Dykstra says. At the same time, she adds, “I don’t see evidence that we have a lot of skills for that.”

“Under COVID-19…we’re as much at a crisis as everyone else. We’ve bought into systems where we’re landlords, where churches are renting out their buildings and struggling to figure out how they make ends meet when they don’t have renters for programs. We’re pretty allied with economic order that relies on people paying their rent.”

The Rev. Joshua Paetkau, who served along with Metcalfe on the Theology of Money task force and is a priest in the Parishes of New Carlisle in the diocese of Quebec, says that COVID-19 has “sharpened the attention around things like the housing crisis.” However, he is unsure whether calling for policies such as a moratorium on rent would be an effective or helpful solution.

In Leviticus, Paetkau notes, Jubilee is envisioned as “regulatory mechanism” set to occur at a periodic interval of time, not an “intervention in a state of crisis” responding to a particular circumstance.

“Things like rent strikes and debt strikes, whatever their merits, don’t really have anything to do with a biblical concept of Jubilee,” he says. “Of course, in popular consciousness Jubilee has really become synonymous with debt relief measures, which is, I suppose, why it is coming up at this time.

“A rent strike, in my opinion, is foolishness, since it presupposes and reinforces social antagonism between landlords and tenants. There is no reason to suppose that this antagonism is at the root of the problem. It would certainly be foreign to the biblical spirit of Jubilee, which is not designed to reinforce class conflict or social antagonism.”

While acknowledging that landlords can engage in abusive and extortionate practices, Paetkau believes the response should be calling for appropriate rent controls and housing regulations, not a blanket rent strike.

“I don’t think that calling for a moratorium on rent would be a socially responsible position for the Anglican Church of Canada to adopt,” he says. “At this point many governments across Canada have ruled against evictions during the time of COVID-19, which is reasonable. At the same time, landlords need to be able to pay mortgages and keep their properties in good repair. Simply saying that rent should not be paid does not address that.”

When it comes to supporting workers, Paetkau similarly believes that calling for good labour regulations would reflect the biblical spirit of Jubilee by helping restore balance to the economic framework of society. The Anglican Church of Canada, he suggests, has a “tradition of thoughtful and scholarly reflection…that could be put to use in addressing the social question of precarious work.”

The Rev. Maggie Helwig, fellow veteran of the Theology of Money task force and a long-time activist, believes that the COVID-19 pandemic could serve as an opportunity to redress unjust aspects of the current economic system.

Helwig, rector at the Church of St. Stephen-in-the-Fields in Toronto, cites the “desperation” of many low-wage workers who cannot stay home, but must work in life-threatening conditions simply to survive, often while ill themselves. Meanwhile, a figure like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, “is increasing his personal wealth at an even faster rate during this crisis, mostly on the backs of deeply exploited workers.”

A real Jubilee, Helwig says, would involve “a lasting change in how we think about the basis of our global economy, and how that can be reflected at national and local levels.

“A system which requires a decent living wage and proper labour protections for all workers, a dignified standard of living for those who can’t work, housing for the homeless, a guarantee of higher standards of care for the elderly and disabled, and a structured means of ensuring equitable distribution of wealth—all these would be much closer to the spirit of the Levitical Jubilee.”

“We have this in our tradition,” she adds. “We have the memory of the God whose characteristic action is the liberation of the oppressed, and who calls us to be a new society based on an equal sharing of resourcing, and a recognition of the infinite value of each person.”

The role of the Anglican Church of Canada in advancing Jubilee, MacDonald says, is to proclaim and advocate for systems that “recognize our common humanity and our common responsibilities to each other.”

“The spirit of Jubilee is not a unique and spectacular thing,” he adds. “The spirit of Jubilee should infuse everything that we do. It’s really a biblical explanation of our human responsibility to each other and to creation.”


  • Matthew Puddister

    Matthew Puddister is a staff writer for the Anglican Journal. Most recently, Puddister worked as corporate communicator for the Anglican Church of Canada, a position he held since Dec. 1, 2014. He previously served as a city reporter for the Prince Albert Daily Herald. A former resident of Kingston, Ont., Puddister has a degree in English literature from Queen’s University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario. He also supports General Synod's corporate communications.

    [email protected]

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