Jubilee: Moving from Palliative to Systemic Ministry With the Poor

One of the more challenging classes I took in seminary was oddly enough not the big, wooly bear known as “systematic theology” (the study of theology within a certain framework that is more or less credal). The class that I found both immensely frustrating as well as incredibly thought-provoking was a class called “Church in its Social Context,” taught then by Dr. Theodore Walker.

I knew of Dr. Walker mostly because his hair was something of a legend, worn in long dreads that, at the time, hit the bottom of his ankles. He would start class by lifting his hair and putting it in his lap in order to sit down. But the hair soon faded into the mundane and what began to stand out immediately to this white, former Evangelical who grew up in an affluent corner of the world was the first taste of liberation theology.

Dr. Walker started the semester with the assertion that he believed poverty could be ended in our lifetime. I was more or less intrigued by his remark; I don’t remember either agreeing or disagreeing, but I do remember my friends thinking he was rather naive.

As the semester rolled on, we were charged with memorizing two passages verbatim (punctuation, capitalization, and spelling all counted): Luke 4:14-20b and Matthew 22:34-40, which read:

“Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free, 

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ 

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.”

“When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’”

We would have random quizzes throughout the semester and if so much as a comma was out of place, we had to redo it.

This seemed horribly tedious and was often the source of much grumbling, but looking back on the class as a whole, it was the first time anyone threw down a gauntlet at me, not at a crowd of which I happened to be a part, not at an organization or church, but me. “Kristen, what are you going to do about this?”

I have no idea, but I get the keen notion that “getting an idea” soon is going to be important.

Churches are very good at palliative care of the poor, and not all of it is bad, and much of it is life-giving, but what kind of long-term impact could we as Christians make if we undertake the work of liberation? What does it look like for a church to go about systemic ministry with the poor? How does a church begin to engage the structures that prohibit people from experiencing jubilee? It probably will not be glamorous and will likely be highly controversial. It will likely not be something “photo-op” worthy for the church Facebook page or newsletter. It might be slow, hard, and likely risky, but the example we have in Christ as a liberator is one worth following.