Acton Institute Powerblog

Jubilee and Social Justice: A dangerous quest to overcome social inequalities

Kim Tan. Jubilee and social justice: A dangerous quest to overcome inequalities. Abingdon Press. 2021. 102 pages.

 

Kim Tan,  the co-founder of the Transformational Business Network, has just published his latest book: Jubilee and Social Justice. It is a must-read for social impact entrepreneurs like Tan who, in the subtitle, calls the Jubilee adventure a “dangerous quest.” He dares heroic-minded Christians to resurrect this forgotten ordinance of the Old Covenant.

For those who have never seriously practiced the Jubilee principles of liberation, mercy, rest, and hospitality, it might well mean undergoing radical changes as Christian believers. As these Jubilee principles take root in our spirituality, charity, and work, they eventual fuse and convert souls into ingenious agents of wealth creation and distribution. Jubilee practitioners soon realize that they strive not just for individual sanctity but what Tan terms the “social holiness” of their daily enterprise and to care for their neighbors.

What is more, for Tan, while in the Old Covenant God’s people celebrated the Jubilee every 50 years, “under the New Covenant, Jubilee is everyday.” Is this even possible, given that the Israelites had enormous difficulties committing to the Jubilee, and today we have many more material temptations to wrestle with?

It may be hard, even impossible for many nowadays, yet Tan says in his “author’s warning” that living the Jubilee is worth it and pays dividends. “When I discovered the Jubilee, it turned my life upside down, challenged me about my addiction to materialism,” he writes. “It shaped my investment philosophy and led me to build businesses to alleviate poverty.”

First, before we accept Tan’s Jubilee challenge, his book takes readers on an epic biblical journey, back to when God’s chosen people wandered vast deserts in search of the Promised Land. Led by Moses and Joshua, they departed Mount Sinai with a law of good living while dreaming of abundance and, above all, a homeland where they never again had to suffer any form of earthly captivity. After being tested for 40 years, God’s people would eventually arrive in safety – but it wasn’t a done deal on arrival. To remain peacefully settled and freely flourishing in the Promised Land, the Lord on High would require His children below to demonstrate concrete acts of mercy, generosity, hospitality and – above all else – liberation during set intervals of time.

Every third year, Israelites were commanded to set aside a tenth of their wealth, especially agricultural produce, for helping the marginalized and destitute. Every seventh year, the Lord ordered them to carry out a 12-month “Sabbath” (shemittah): Animals, lands, and workers rested; debts were canceled; and slaves were released. Every 50 years came the greatest test of social justice, the “Sabbath of Sabbaths,” as Tan notes. Its three requirements were the same as the seventh year of sacrifice, but additionally, Israelites were asked that “land(s) that had been sold in the previous forty-nine years be returned to their original owners.” This latter demand was radical – and it was not popular at all, Tan writes. But at least for one generation, landholdings didn’t concentrate in the hands of a few dominant, wealthy families and their spoiled sons – who did not automatically a receive large land inheritance – would be forced to stand on their own two feet and fend for themselves.

Tan says the Jubilee acted as a “reset button to prevent the kind of situation where the rich get richer and the poorer get poorer.” Yet the major benefits of practicing the Jubilee were not just about money, efficiency, and assets but more about liberty, mercy, and love – effectively paying forward God’s gifts to fellow Israelites, who knew all too well what it was like to suffer extreme poverty, isolation, and servitude in Egypt:

What is the Jubilee? The year of the Jubilee … was meant to take place every fifty years among God’s ancient people. Liberty was proclaimed throughout the land as debts were canceled, land returned to families, and slaves were set free. However, this special year was the climax of other legislation that regularly improved the living conditions of former Egyptian slaves.

Tans says the “Jubilee principles” inspired Jewish society to mirror “God’s justice” on secular matters such as burdensome taxation, exorbitant interest, the high cost of rent and land acquisition, and many other “social structures” that, over time and bad habit, tend to veer from the virtuous mean. Living the Jubilee meant empowering “God’s desire that [His] people live in shalom … [what] today we might describe as complete well-being and wholeness: spiritual, material, relational, emotional.”

Tan argues that the Jubilee was too challenging in the Old Covenant. It only became possible with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Only when the people experienced the indwelling of the Spirit were they able to practice the extraordinary generosity recorded in the Book of Acts. It is here, in Acts 4, that the Jubilee promise that “there will be no poor among you” (Deuteronomy 15) is finally fulfilled.

The author tells the story of how he first experienced these Jubilee principles. Tan says the “Jubilee lifestyle” materialized during his graduate studies as a Malaysian emigrant and student in the UK’s University of Surrey in the 1980s and 1990s. It was in bucolic southern England where Tan and others were called to live like the Acts community. They applied some creative finance to resolve their housing challenges: They pooled income with fellow economically struggling students to purchase several homes. His group became known as the “Denzil Road Family.” Tan writes that they didn’t create any centralized holding entity or trust, but all was “privately owned”:

At its peak, there were forty of us living in twelve houses … In line with our understanding of private ownership and Jubilee, we assisted each other in buying our own houses. We gifted each other with sums of money for the deposit, with the balance financed with a mortgage.

As the project continued, the Denzil Road Family saved money by sharing their financial resources to buy food in bulk. They organized daily meals together, inviting hundreds of guests with whom they would enjoy Christian fellowship and witnessing – despite the often “interesting cooking.” But “there were no needy persons among us,” Tan recalls. Indeed, the joint homeowners even had a storehouse where they administered food supplies to other students in need.

The Denzil Road community ended after eight years. With the homes sold, they left their possessions behind but took their faith, capital, and Jubilee principles with them to invest in future communities, enterprises, and households. Hence, the Jubilee spirit went well beyond Surrey in their new adventures. This was especially so with Tan, in his unwavering mission to emancipate his neighbors from countless forms of dependence, solitude, and destitution.

Tan says their experiment was not such a unique faith experience. Regardless, he writes, the Surrey project was possible because of private capital. Tan compared their Jubilee experiment to earlier monastic communities which at first shunned both shared living and any common ownership through total isolation in desert dwellings. Per the demands of both “Individual” and “social” holiness, monks eventually banded together, pooled resources, and grew in their mission throughout the Middle Ages precisely because they made a decision to leverage wealth and private property. Then they became investors, used properties as collateral, created and sold products, and started other businesses and charities. Their private enterprise did indeed permit their own upkeep but was ultimately targeted to releasing others from the captivity of poverty, sickness, ignorance, and social exclusion. Their charitable programs, including low-interest money lending – and even large-scale healthcare facilities and learning communities – became models for today’s soup kitchens, schools, banks, and hospitals.

Tan recounts how he went on to succeed in his professional vocation of biotechnology, started his own family, and grew ever deeper in his faith commitment to the principles of the Jubilee. He then took the “Jubilee lifestyle” to whole new levels, believing that the pies of wealth creation would always multiply if people focused on helping others.

Tan created a similarly “pooled” private capital family called the Transformational Business Network (TBN) dedicated to releasing entire communities from various forms of captivity, including extreme poverty, prostitution, the AIDS epidemic, or family incarceration. In his last chapter, Tan highlights some of TBN’s social impact ventures – and many others outside this network –  that have met the Jubilee challenge.

The first is Agape Connecting People, a call center operating inside Singapore’s largest penitentiary. Agape also operates outside the Changi Prison and is where ex-inmates may be re-employed once they are paroled or have completed their sentences. It is where they “find a strong sense of belonging” and gain immediate work, despite their fresh ex-con status. Tan says, “[E]x-offenders don’t have to hide their background and don’t feel judged … This is their family.” There we see how “the Gospel’s transformation of the human community by solidarity in Christ leads to freedom.” Best of all, Tan admits, Agape has greatly reduced recidivism, the high rates of relapsed criminals who re-enter prison. “Agape speaks of forgiveness and the God of second, third, and fourth chances.”

Some other impressive projects are briefly described under the chapter’s heading “Set the Captives Free.” They include a five-star safari resort called Kuzuko in one of the poorest (70% unemployment) regions of South Africa and among those hardest hit by HIV. Then, there is Affordable Abode in Malaysia and Singapore, which builds cost-effective kenaf (hibiscus) fiber panels for home construction and auto interiors. Affordable Abode is a win-win-win, providing employment, strong renewable materials, and inexpensive housing for the poor. We are told about Hagar International in Cambodia and Vietnam, whose employees were survivors of sex trafficking: They find stability and avoid the trafficking rings through employment in catering and food services. We learn of Friends International, which hosts thousands of overseas students in the UK, and Mary’s Meals, a charity that ensures poor children are fed in schools, enabling them to concentrate on their studies instead of their hunger pains. Finally, there is Regenesys BPO in the Philippines, which liberates “survivors of sex and labor trafficking in Business Process Outsourcing.” There, the victims receive “computer training to do photo editing for US-based real estate companies.”

Kim Tan’s Jubilee and Social Justice really is “dangerous,” as it forces Christian readers to redirect their ego and self-serving entrepreneurship. They just might have to completely refocus away from primarily taking care of themselves (“me first”) to taking care of their neighbors (“others first”) – especially those trapped in poverty, addiction, imprisonment, and human trafficking. Fear not, however: Tan’s Jubliee-inspired enterprises have been successful not just because they really do good, but because they really are good (profitable and sustainable) businesses. Tan’s short book deserves to be amended with new, inspiring chapters written by readers who keep Tan’s inspiring Jubilee legacy alive.