Jubilee Address (October, 2000)

Good morning, everyone.  Here’s a task of Herculean proportions.  Present an inspirational speech to educators on a beautiful day when they would rather be in their classrooms attending to the myriad of details they need to accomplish before next Tuesday or when they would rather be out on the golf course enjoying their last few hours of self-indulgence and freedom before they bravely enter their next ten months of ceaseless servitude.  I can just see Henry Kooy leaning back, crossing his arms over his chest, and thinking:  OK, Make my day – Inspire me!  Frankly, I am not up to the task. What I’d like to do is share with you some of my journey in understanding what Jubilee means to me as a Christian school educator in the year 1999/2000.  As we dialogue today, as we sing to our God together, as we marvel at the opportunities we have in Christ Jesus to serve him into the new millenium, we can be assured that the Holy Spirit will indeed inspire and equip us.

  Friends, we are teaching in a momentous time. As our children enter those school doors on Tuesday with their Pokeyman lunchboxes and their Animaniac bookbags, millenium fever enters with them.  The end of an era; the beginning of an era.  An occasion for frenzied forecasts by doomsayers and triumphalists.  The Y2K phenomenon. Isn’t there something deliciously ironic in the fact that computers won’t recognize the year 2000?  It’s like a symbolic cultural hanging back, a reluctance to confront the future, a fear and dread that’s infected even the technology of our society.  It feels like a weighty and portentous time.

          And it is a weighty and portentous time with serious ramifications not only for us, but especially for our students.  Consider some of these facts provided by David Pfrimmer in his essay The Challenge of the Next Millenium: A Call to Jubilee:

 Every month the world’s economic system adds more than 7 billion to an already incomprehensible amount of 1.5 trillion dollars of debt borne primarily by the poor nations of the world.

Every day another species becomes extinct.

Every hour 1500 children die of hunger-related diseases.

Every minute $1.8 million is spent on armaments throughout the world. 

These are only a very few facts ( long lists of facts don’t go over too well in speeches), but they do illustrate that the god of our millenium is “the marketplace”.  In his essay “Jubilee or Idolatry? A Radical Antithesis” Brian Walsh outlines what the idol of materialism looks like today:  economic progress is destiny, the only measure of our standard of living is the GNP, the proliferation of cheap and useless consumer goods is normal, high levels of unemployment and a growing gap between rich and poor are to be expected and crippling international and personal indebtedness is unavoidable. Economics rules the world.  Now I have to confess that finance is not my field.  One glance at my chequebook will convince you of that.  Talk of the International Monetary Fund and the Dow Jones average causes my eyes to glaze over.  But the globalization of the marketplace is foundational to the life I lead even if I’m not that interested.

          And what does it all mean for our students and their future?  They will not earn as much as their parents and the loss of buying power will spawn widespread discontent.  This has already been documented as Gen X struggles to establish itself in the working world.  Dorothee Soelle, author of To Work and To Love: A Theology of Creation says: “An acquisitive society relates work to having, not to being; to owning, not to sharing; to getting, not to growing.  By undermining our relatedness, by making it useless, an acquisitive society deadens the desire for good work.”  The loss of meaning for work will be compounded by mergers, takeovers, downsizing and outsourcing which will continue to erode company loyalty, seniority, and worker solidarity.  Anxious and incessant production will be required to forestall fears of scarcity and to maintain the pace of consumption for the increasingly privileged class who will still be able to amass goods.  As the wealth of society “trickles up”, the disenfranchised such as seniors, youth and the disabled will be left to compete with each other for apparently shrinking resources.  I say “apparently” because poverty and hunger issues are inextricably tied to issues of distribution and power.  The resources may indeed be shrinking, but they do so as a result of specific governmental and societal priorities which encourage corporations to maximize profit at any cost and which bow down to private wealth.

          Our students will not only have to grapple with an increasingly complex global economy, they will face ecological concerns which boggle the mind.  Listen to the warning issued in 1992 by a group of 1600 scientists, including 102 Nobel Prize winners.  It is straightforwardly entitled “Warning to Humanity”:  No more than a few decades remain before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for humanity are immeasurably diminished.  A new ethic is required – a new attitude towards discharging our responsibility for caring for ourselves and for the Earth.  This ethic must motivate a great movement, convincing reluctant leaders and reluctant governments and reluctant peoples themselves to effect the needed changes.”  In an article in Atlantic Monthly, author Robert Kaplan called the environment “the national security issue of the 21st century.”  He argues that deforestation, pollution, soil erosion and water depletion will comprise the core thrust of foreign policy.  As the title of his article “The Coming Anarchy” infers, he predicts a terrifying array of problems. 

Dorothy Goldin Rosenberg, an environmental activist, has investigated links between environmental quality and health.  She contends that high rates of cancer, rapidly declining sperm counts, immune deficiencies and endocrine disruptions are linked to synthetic chemicals.  These synthetic chemicals are radioactive, persistent, bioaccumulative and hormonally active.  After I bone up on finance, I’m going to have to take a refresher in science!  She is not alone in her findings.  In 1964 the World Health Organization stated that 80% of cancers were due to synthetic carcinogens and in 1979 the US National Institute of Health concurred that environmental factors were thought to be major causes of cancer.

Health care statistics also reveal problems that are deeper than just physical well-being.  Manning Marable in Theology for Earth Community outlines what he calls “environmental racism.”  For example, in Houston, all of the city’s landfills and six out of eight garbage incinerators are located in the black community contributing to lower property values, physical deterioration of the neighbourhoods and disinvestment.  Those with money and influence pull out.

          Our students will face the consequences of our environmental choices: cities built on unstable sand cliffs in California, or on the flood plains of the Midwest, fertile farmland paved over for strip malls, rainforests destroyed and the seas fished to depletion.  How accurate Romans 8: 21: For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it …”  The creation which was given to us is in a state of bondage and decay.  And how prophetic Hosea 4:  1-3:  “ Hear the word of the Lord, you Israelites, because the Lord has a charge to bring against you who live in the land:  There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgement of God in the land.  There is only cursing, lying, and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds and bloodshed follows bloodshed.  Because of all this the land mourns, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the fish of the sea are dying.”

          Our students are already living under the cloud of the next millenium and it promises to be radically different from that in which we have lived and worked. From the admittedly sketchy picture I’ve drawn, the outlook appears grim rather than rosy.  I can see Henry thinking now: Cathy, not only have you not inspired me, you’ve depressed me!  I am not trying to be sensationalistic; far from it.  This is not an endtimes diatribe.  In good reformed fashion I count the endtimes as all the days from Jesus’s ascension until his glorious return.  I don’t buy the idea that mankind is getting worse.  There was plenty of brutality and hatred and environmental devastation in the days of Cicero and Charlemagne. But I do believe that there is a kind of exponential rate of increase in the scope and severity of the consequences of humanity’s sinfulness as the earth’s population grows and as our culture changes evermore rapidly.

          In the face of monumental international debt and virtual bondage for the world’s poor, in the face of an earth straining under the waste and ravage of human despoliation, in the face of a market-driven global society which devalues community and Sabbath rest, a coalition of churches, individuals and organizations have launched the Jubilee 2000 campaign.  This movement, which undoubtedly you have heard about, is focused on debt relief for the highly indebted poor countries of the world.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu declares, “Now that we have accomplished this extraordinary business of ridding the world of the spread of apartheid, the next moral campaign must be international debt.”  Pope John Paul II has also spoken out in favour of debt forgiveness along with a host of other Christian world leaders.  Some of this political and promotional effort has already produced fruit.  As reported in the August 2, 1999 issue of the Banner, a Christian Reformed Church publication, supporters of Jubilee 2000 convened on the G-8 economic summit in Cologne, Germany.  35,000 demonstrators linked hands around the city as a petition of 17 million signatures was presented to the German chancellor.  $100 billion dollars of debt relief was achieved.  Some viewed the event as a success; others went home disappointed.  The Canadian Ecumenical Jubilee Initiative participated in this effort and also has further plans focusing on environmental concerns and child poverty issues in Canada.

          What is this Jubilee 2000 movement?  Should we support it?  Our OCSTA Board and the Ontario Alliance of Christian schools considered the issues and information available and decided that this ecumenical coalition deserved our support.  A committee was formed to study the materials and propose educationally appropriate means for our schools and students to become aware and involved.  When I was asked to be on the committee, I didn’t know much about Jubilee 2000 or even about the concept of Jubilee.  I was initially resistant to the debt cancellation focus.  If I have to pay my debts, if Canadians have to pay their debts, why shouldn’t the people of Mozambique?  But, as I learned more about the issue, I came to understand the debt amounts have generally been paid, many times over.  What the highly indebted poor countries are now paying is basically the interest and debt servicing costs and they do this at the cost of literacy, health and education in their own nations.  My eyes are beginning to glaze over because I am dwelling too long on finance and numbers.  Let’s just say that the reading I did convinced me that the aims and strategies of Jubilee 2000 were more reasonable and defensible than I had originally thought.  Calvinist that I am, and Kuyperian Calvinist at that, I was sympathetic to the idea of Christians taking action in all social spheres, of Christians uniting to make a difference. 

But what was Jubilee, I wondered, was it Biblical?  The year of Jubilee is the name given to every50th year as described in Leviticus 25.  The Israelites celebrated many feasts throughout the year, but Jubilee was an entire festal year.  The word Jubilee comes from the Hebrew word for ram’s horn and refers to the joyful sounding of a trumpet to proclaim liberty from oppression, release from debts and renewal of the earth.  The God of justice and hope mandates a new beginning.  The slate gets wiped clean and the poor and needy get a fresh start.  A year of Jubilee would be predicated upon a complete trust in Yahweh who would supply the needs of his people even though they would let the land lie fallow.  The regulations for gathering manna in the desert foreshadow this emphasis.  Collect enough for the day.  Trust God for tomorrow. 

Brian Walsh says, “The Torah stipulations found in Lev. 25 about the Sabbath year, Jubilee, redemption of property and servants and the prohibition of interest-taking are concrete, historical and economic instantiations (I’m pretty sure he means examples) of what it means for humanity to image God in their stewardship of land, time, resources and relationships.”  Skeptics are quick to point out that there is no evidence that the Israelites ever actually celebrated Jubilee. The crux of the matter is not whether they practised Jubilee, (the Israelites were disobedient about any number of commandments they had received from Yahweh), but that this is the model of communal responsibility that God himself decreed, a picture of the shalom he intends for his people.  Jesus affirmed the vision when he proclaimed in the synagogue: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me; he has sent me to announce good news to the poor, to proclaim release for prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to let the broken victims go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”  In Jesus, Jubilee has been incarnated.  His sacrifice and resurrection have enabled us as his Body with the indwelling of his Spirit to proclaim the continuing year of his favour.  In his name we offer a cup of cold water.  In his name we do what we can to bring about a Jubilee reality.

          After much discussion and reading, our committee decided to create a resource package of Jubilee materials for you to use in your schools.  We did not officially endorse Jubilee 2000 and in fact we tried to steer clear of a political thrust.  There is definitely Biblical warrant for Christian political action, but we wanted to produce open-ended materials that would allow for your personal input and sensitivity regarding the school communities in which you teach.  Our hope is that you and your students will explore Jubilee as an appropriate and exciting image for the kingdom of Jesus Christ and as a clear and ringing call to discipleship in the new millenium.  When the resource package arrives at your school, sometime very soon, please take the time to review it and implement whatever suggestions you feel would work in your situation.

          Our students are affected by postmodern malaise even though they may not be able to articulate it.  Janet Reno has said, “Growing up as a child today in America is more difficult than raising children.  Clarence Page has coined the phrase “electronic wallpaper” to underscore the prevalence of the media in the lives of our children.  Because of its omnipresent force, our students all live in the same room and that room is the world.  In her book, A Feast of Families, Virginia Stem Owens, writes about this profound paradigm shift in the source of common memory and tradition: “My own faith,” she says, “is so intertwined with my early learning that I cannot imagine the sort of creature I would be today without it  Bible stories structured my personality from the start.  Abraham was hardly older or more distant than my grandfather.  The Good Samaritan lived on my block.  The Jordan River rolled through Walker County and angels hovered over my bed at night.  God loving me was no harder to understand than my mother’s lap.  I ate and breathed Scripture as easily and unconsciously as kids do Sesame Street today.

But I face a different kind of world now.  When I teach American literature to college students, I have to explain who Noah was.  Allusions to the Promised Land go right past them.  Their own culturally shared references are rapidly replaced media figures.  They recognize Mork and Mindy, but Howdy Doody has already faded from common memory.”  Owens goes on in her book to discuss the implications of a generation which has lost touch with previous generations and which functions only in an electronic “now”.  The cost is alienation from family and tradition. Community is replaced with an individualism which is touted as the highest virtue even as it is molded into conformity by worldwide advertising.  These individuals all want to do their own thing and that is they all want to drink the real thing – Coke.

          Other wellknown authors and thinkers have commented on the lack of rootedness our students will carry into the 21st century.  In Reviving Ophelia, Mary Pipher describes her childhood:  Everyone knew who was related to whom.  When people met, the first thing they did was establish a connection.  People on the street said hello to someone with whom they had a rich and complicated relationship.  My pottery teacher, Mrs. Van Cleave, was the grandmother of my good friend Patti and the mother of my next door neighbour.  Her husband went fishing with my dad.  Her son was the football coach and his children were in my youth group.”  Pipher goes on to explain that the majority of children today do not live in such an interconnected world.  Most will not have frequent contact with relatives and because of the multiplicity of divorce, many children will even experience separation from one of their two primary caregivers.

          Sven Birkets’s  book, The Gutenberg Elegies, makes a strong case for a fascinating premise.  He says that even as social analysts are trying to fathom what is happening in the electronic millenium, the mind of the next generation is already being altered in irretrievable ways.  This has critical consequences for us as educators.  The immersion in media experienced by our children, he says, will result in certain advantages and disadvantages.  They will have increased global awareness, but an estrangement from community and geography (as Owens and Pipher have also  suggested).  They will have expanded neural capacity, the ability to sustain a broad range of stimuli simultaneously, but will present an inability for depth and perseveration.  In classroom terms that translates into, you know it already, reduced attention span and impatience for extended inquiry.  Birkets outlines how his college students can devour a CD-Rom with its glossy sidebars and bits of interactive information, but are simply defeated by the complexity, time and intellectual rigor it takes to read a novel by Henry James.  The digital generation, he suggests, will have a relativistic outlook that promotes itself as tolerance. They will have a built in readiness for experimentation and acceptance of alternative lifestyles, but will lack strong personal convictions and commitment to societal obligations.

Then there’s the sex and violence in the media.  Even if Birkets’s theory seems farfetched – that the human brain is undergoing mutation due to electronic imprint — there can be little doubt that our children face a scary and sex-saturated world.  My mother did not find out what a homosexual was until after she was married.  I found out when I was about 18.  My daughter asked me about gays when she was nine and my youngest son asked me in Kindergarten what a faggot was because that was what the kids on the bus were calling each other.

 Mary Pipher discusses how our culture sends out conflicting paradigms about sex through the media.  Fashions emphasize sexuality at the same time as girls are told that they can and ought to have independent and self-actualizing careers.  At a time when women have never had greater opportunities for education and work, they have never been in more danger for sexual harrassment, sexual assault and rape, sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS.  Pipher lays the blame for anorexia and bulimia, diseases of the late 20th century, squarely at the feet of the media.  Beauty queens in the 50’s were attractive at a 150 lbs.  (I wouldn’t have made it even back then). Today pageant winners weigh in at about 110 lbs or less.

          Young men, too, receive contradictory messages from the media: from the idolization of the action hero who achieves justice through vigilantism to the self-aggrandizing swagger of a rapper like Puff Daddy to the teenage angst of the sensitive Dawson on Dawson’s Creek wondering if he should have sex at 15.  On the Internet, smacktalk verifies your machismo electronically just as trashtalking does on the street.

I discovered violence and evil for the first time at 14 when I read Lord of the Flies, a book I found on the shelf of none other than Jim Vreugdenhil for whom I was babysitting.   It was traumatic and emotional reading for me.  Just last week I saw a commercial for the Drew Carey show in which the head of his arch-nemesis Mimi explodes.  It was meant to be funny.  Most children will have absorbed hundreds of violent scenes on TV by the time they are enrolled in Kindergarten.

I want to personalize this for you.  Enough of statistics and trends.  Let me tell you about Patrick.  A good kid, a sensitive kid.  Intelligent.  Wide vocabulary and an interest in current events. Patrick grew up in a nurturing, loving and intact family.  He went to a Christian school and went to church twice on Sundays.  He had grandparents and relatives nearby who were interested in him and had frequent contact with him.  He was read to and taken to the library.  He was enrolled in a drama camp to help him foster his obvious dramatic talents.  He participated in  soccer, swimming, baseball and hockey.  His brother and sister loved him.

          Something happened to Patrick.  Something very frightening.  In grade 9 he changed.  He began to dislike himself.  He hated his body, which was slightly overweight and not the body a guy should have.  He turned away from his friends and became more and more drawn to the computer and the Internet.  His parents were not overly alarmed – teenagers go through moods, they thought.  But the computer games were horrifically violent, and the friends on ICQ were secret.  Patrick’s outlook grew morose.  His taste in music became darker.  Offspring, Korn, Limp Bizket.  Listen to these lyrics:

Jamie had a chance, well she really did,

Instead she dropped out and had a couple of kids.

Mark still lives at home cause he’s got no job

He just plays guitar and smokes a lot of pot

Jay committed suicide

Brandon OD’d and died

What the hell is going on,

The cruelest dream, reality.

Patrick always wore long sleeved shirts no matter how hot it was.  One day his mother walked in on him in his room when he had no shirt on.  She was shocked to see vicious red slash marks all over his arms.  He admitted they were self-inflicted, to relieve piercing emotions of despair and self-loathing.  His parents sought help and a doctor admitted him to a pyschiatric ward because of imminent risk of suicide.

          Perhaps you’ve guessed.  Patrick is my own son.  Today he is recovering. Our family is recovering.  As a measure of his progress, when I asked his permission to include him in this talk, he joked, “Sure, Mom.  Go nuts.”   How can a child so loved and nutured drift so far away in such a short time?  In Understanding Your Teenager’s Depression Kathleen McCoy lists all of the societal factors which I’ve talked about.  She reports that the stress level of teens has been systematically tracked since 1967 by the Fordham University Index Of Social Health for Children and Youth.  The finding?  A constant increase.  Today children feel less safe, less empowered and less hopeful than they did a generation ago.

           My worst day was admitting Patrick to the psych ward and facing the horror that my own beloved child was contemplating suicide, a crucible of guilt for a mother’s heart that is still hard to talk about.  Let me tell you about my second worst day.  That was the day of the shootings at Columbine High.  The assailants were described as alienated outsiders.  My son felt alienated.  They played Doom on the computer.  My son played Doom.  They listened to alternative music; my son listened to the same music.  I am not be able to put into words my sorrow that day as I grieved for the victims and the killers and for my own troubled son.  

          Why am I telling you this?  Only to convince you about how important you are.  What a significant and crucial task you have! These millenial children entering our classrooms this year are aching for an eternal word of peace.  They need to hear the call to Jubilee.  They long to know that there is another way.  You are the ones who can instill in your primary children a can-do attitude and a sense of self-worth.  You are Christ’s hands and feet to the vulnerable pre-teens and the wounded adolescents. You are the ones who can model an integrated life that is fully devoted to the Saviour.  In even the simplest things, in smiling a lot, in asking that sullen seventh grader about last night’s hockey game, in staying faithful to your spouse, in reading the Word with expression and awe, you are wrapping a cloak of trust and faith around these children of God that is woven with strands of Holy Spirit power and protection.  When you patiently explain long division for the fifth time, when you join in a basketball game on yard duty, when you firmly but emphatically disallow bullying and name-calling, you are crafting the cradle for the birth of Jubilee promise in the lives of these precious ones – Jubilee promise that will help them go boldly in Christ where no one has gone before – into the 21st century.

          We used to be called teachers until educators became more fashionable.  Now we are facilitators.  To which I say Balderdash.  Above all else in a Christian school we are story-tellers and faith –transmitters.  We tell Jesus.  We live Jesus.  And our telling and our living bring hope and meaning to their learning and to their lives.  The most important thing any Christian school teacher taught my son Patrick was that he cared about him – he was worthwhile as a person.  Ron Oppertshauser taught Pat math and Phys. Ed. last year.  Pat slept through math and goofed off in Phys. Ed.  He was moody and difficult for Ron, I’m sure.  Pat never got those credits and that’s ok he didn’t deserve them.  Some time after school was out, there was a retirement party for Wayne Drost, whom many of you know.   Pat had to meet me there for a ride home.  He was hanging about in the lobby and on the front lawn.  Ron noticed him, left his the party and went out to chat with him.  They sat on the steps engaged in conversation. Ron asked him how he was doing.  Joked with him.  At that moment Ron was more than a teacher, more than an educator, more than a facilitator.  Praise the Lord – he was a friend to my child.

          Listen once more to Virginia Stem Owens:  When a child, after bedtime stories of danger and deliverance, asks that inevitable question, “Is it true? What he means is: Is that the way the world really is?  Are Lassie and Black Beauty and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm a part of the structure of reality?  Can I count on the consolation of the final Happy Ending?  Will virtue ultimately be rewarded and evil made of no account?”  You and I as classroom teachers, as teacher aides, as administrators, as secretaries and custodial staff have that blessed and rewarding task of being Yea-sayers.  Yes, it’s true.  Yes, a life of Jubilee is possible.  Yes, Jesus Christ has won the victory over sin and death.  Yes, he loves you, too, child, and you have a task in the restoration of his kingdom.  As we enter those classrooms next week may we believe that walking humbly with our God we can love mercy, we can act justly and we can bring our little ones to him.  Amen and amen.

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