“Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance,
our sheer restlessness and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we’re being brainwashed to believe.”—Arundhati Roy
Living Differently: Wilson Street as a Covenant Community in Context
I had already left Rochester before the sun rose. Now I am out of coffee and the Rochester NPR station is fuzzy with distance. But I am almost there, almost at Lloyd and Susan Stephens’ place in Buffalo, New York.* I can’t wait to see them again. I first met the Stephenses at a farming conference where I heard about their founding of the Wilson Street Urban Farm and Community on the East Side of Buffalo. I’ve wondered for a long time what it would look like to live “differently”—faithfully from my point of view—around matters of economics and community relations in America. So when I heard from Lloyd Stephens about the Wilson Street community, I had to see it—what he called their “Sabbath Economics” in practice.
For many years Lloyd and Susan Stephens volunteered through their church with Habitat for Humanity in the East Side of Buffalo, an area severely under-resourced and blighted by poverty. No longer content to volunteer in the neighborhood, six years ago the Stephenses moved to the East Side from their farm in rural Wyoming County. Attracted to the grit and artsy spirit of Buffalo, they bought a house on Fairview Street in the Wilson Street neighborhood—to live in solidarity and community with their low-income neighbors. Soon three other families from their church bought houses on the same block. Together they tore down the fences and created a large open commons. Then they created a community land trust, placing the open space under conservation easement, so that the land is protected from development and housing prices will stay below market value.
Soon these four families were joined by sixteen others, adults and children, who live together in the Wilson Street community. And very soon there will be a seventeenth, Lloyd’s elderly father Vern, for whom the community as a whole has agreed to help care. Not everyone farms – just Susan, Lloyd and their two kids. Some work in non-profits in Buffalo; two folk work at the University; one mom home-schools her kids as part of a coop with others in the neighborhood. Community members share much of their financial resources to purchase food and make land and housing improvements (and of course to save for the future). Recently an artist joined the community, transforming an old shed into a sculpture studio. Soon, the first installation is going up, hopefully in time for the local urban artists guild’s “First Friday” art-tours. There aren’t any art galleries in the Wilson Street neighborhood, nor on the largely forgotten East Side. Poverty breeds not only depression and pain but also (among those outside) forgetfulness about the need for joy. Large-scale kaleidoscopes and other colorful sculptures add much needed creativity, life, and whimsy to Fairview Street.
I join some of them at breakfast. Most of their food is from the farm. But almost all of what’s not (eggs, goat milk, vegetables, honey) is sourced from other local farms and cooperatives, usually within a three hundred mile radius. They tell me they also just built a greenhouse to extend the growing season, which they are keeping warm during the winter with intensively managed compost piles (Lloyd is particularly fond of spicy foods and hasn’t been able to grow the habaneros and birds eye peppers he loves in Western New York State. He hopes now to succeed.). “It’s an experiment,” says Susan.
Much of life at the Wilson Street Farm and Community is an experiment: The large-scale urban organic community supported agriculture project frees the Stephenses from having to worry about marketing their produce because farm-members pay for a share at the beginning of the season. A Community Land Trust model of ownership keeps housing prices low and preserves the land for agriculture and open space. A commitment to ecological transportation and car sharing means that they carpool, bicycle, and take busses rather than drive in individual cars. They moved their money out of PNC Bank, a national banking corporation that also funds coal mining and mountaintop removal, in order to bank at the local credit union. They welcome folks from the neighborhood onto the farm, encouraging them to harvest produce for their own use for free, and they have a weekly farm stand where they sell produce at cost. The community is committed to making decisions by consensus and to reviewing agreements regularly. Quarterly workdays involve their church and the neighborhood and feature local musicians, games for kids, and art-making. The hope is that the “experiments” they undertake as a community will encourage others to live differently: by opening their community regularly to neighbors, church members, and curious passers-by, like me, they will lower the barrier for others who might also feel called to question society’s systems of unlimited production and consumption that exist at the cost of intensive resource use, structural poverty and racism, and pollution of the planet.
All of this grows out of their commitment to shared spiritual practice. Wilson Street members worship together and practice regular community Sabbath. On three out of four Sundays the farm is closed, phones are turned off, and cars stay put. They sing, cook community meals, and enjoy each other’s company. It is part of what they call their commitment to Sabbath Economics.
Modern Jubilee Economics
Scholar and Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries co-founder Ched Myers describes “Sabbath Economics” this way:
The word from which economics comes is the Greek oikonomia, “management of the household.” Economics means nothing less than how we handle our money, our work, our energy, and our time. Sabbath means, in the biblical tradition, the re-centering of human life on being, rather than on doing. That is hugely important in a culture like ours where we get our identity from the work we do, from the stuff we buy, from the technology we consume. The Sabbath tradition attempts to set concrete limits on human activity. We now have a culture of smartphones and laptops where we can work 24×7 or consume 24×7 – there are no limits in time and space of the productive activity. We are compulsive doers and when we stop, we become confused about who we are. Sabbath suggests that who we really are is who we are when we stop doing: it is who we are before God, aside from our production, aside from our consumption.
In short, Sabbath Economics is grounded in the goodness of human thriving, joy, and community rest.
Modern Jubilee Economics, also called Sabbath Economics and Biblical Economics, has its origins in the Bible – both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament. Ched Myers describes much of the Bible as an economic document:
The standard of economic and social justice is woven into the warp and weft of the Bible. Pull this strand and the whole fabric unravels. At the heart of this witness is the call to observe “Sabbath economics.” At its root, Sabbath observance is about gift and limits: the grace of receiving that which the Creator gives and the responsibility not to take too much, nor to mistake the gift for a possession. The economic implications of this tradition can be summarized in three axioms:
- the world created by God is abundant, with enough for everyone – provided that human communities restrain their appetites and live within limits;
- disparities in wealth and power are not “natural” but the result of human sin, and must be mitigated within the community of faith through the regular practice of redistribution;
- the prophetic message calls people to the practice of such redistribution, and is thus characterized as “good news” to the poor.
Biblical scholar Richard Lowry concurs, and focuses that “good news” on the present:
Biblical Sabbath and Jubilee traditions provide a lens by which to focus theological reflection on the spiritual, ecological, and economic challenges that face us in this era of globalizing economy. By celebrating a divinely ordained cosmic order built on natural abundance, self-restraint, and social solidarity, Sabbath critiques the oppressive consequences of a royal-imperial system built on tribute, forced state labor, and debt slavery. In the modern context of globalizing economy, Sabbath can serve a similar critical function. As individual alienation increases and a sense of social solidarity declines, as the boundaries of time and place that once defined the world of work disappear into cyberspace, Sabbath speaks a word of proportion, limits, social solidarity, and the need for rest, quiet reflection and non consumptive recreation. 
Modern Jubilee economics is built on this Sabbath model. A socially, economically, and environmentally just life practice rooted in a preventative and corrective Biblical program, it offers whole communities a pathway out of slavery, debt, and the humanly constructed systems of empire and lack in a global economy peopled by modern consumers in highly individualized relationships of scarcity and slavery. More than just an idea, Jubilee Economics is an international movement of individuals, organizations, and faith communities who have come together to reform international financial institutions so that less developed countries can be freed from the burden of national debt. This debt often forces developing nations to become agricultural or manufacturing economies geared for export rather than sustainability, draining those nations’ economic resources to pay debt, economic resources that could instead fund systems of health care, education, and sustainable development.
Recognizing the need for Jubilee debt forgiveness of poorer nations is critical to sustainable and just human relations, especially in the two-thirds world. But Jubilee Economics is just as essential as a practice of faith for communities in a globally developed, domestic context like the US, which is peopled by folk living at the extremes of wealth and poverty and which too often sets the terms by which the two-thirds world will live.
The Practices of Jubilee: Biblical Origins and Theological Implications
Sabbath day, Sabbath year, and Jubilee practices include a variety of practices and structural recommendations that share a common foundation in the culture of the community household of ancient Israel. References to them can be found primarily in the Hebrew Scriptures. Both Lowery and Myers trace the origins of the Sabbath practice and its standards of economic and social justice to the heart of Israel’s identity as a people redeemed by Yahweh from slavery in Egypt. The first place we encounter Sabbath is in the Genesis creation narrative. God completed his “good” work and culminated the work by resting. Sabbath was, in essence, the final creative act of God. Lowery points out that “in a delightful twist, ‘rest’ is signified as a verb in this passage and ‘work’ as a noun.” The purpose of Sabbath is therefore not “resting in order to work more”; the purpose of the Sabbath is to enjoy the world. God blessed the Sabbath, just as God blessed the creation.
Both scholars point to the emblematic Exodus story of hunger and bread in the wilderness as the next encounter with Sabbath as an illustration of God’s economy of abundance.
Hungry people need food. As Gandhi said, “there are people in the world so hungry that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” Myers underscores that this story–in which God delivers bread to the hungry–is a morality tale about trust in a time of fear: God instructs the hungry not to gather more than they need. Can people gather the gift of “manna in the wilderness” and accept it without hoarding? And can they circulate the wealth of food to each other rather than concentrate it in storehouses?  Finally, can they rest? Crucially, the Exodus story offers instruction not to gather the manna on the seventh day. Even before the Decalogue is issued to Moses at Sinai, Yahweh instructs people in a desert that the seventh or Sabbath day must be for rest, even here. Myers describes this account as a lesson to Israel about the goodness of dependence—on God, on the land, and on the sharing of gifts. Lowery notes that, “Sabbath observance requires a leap of faith, a firm confidence that the world will continue to operate benevolently for a day without human labor, that human life and prosperity exceed human productivity.”
Exodus 23 extends the justice code of the Sabbath to a full year. During the Sabbath year “You shall let the land rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat.” (Ex 23:10-11). Further Deuteronomy 15:1-81 provides very specific instructions for the remission of debts and the freedom of slaves held in the household during the Sabbath year. Ultimately, instructions in Leviticus for the seventh Sabbath year describe the Jubilee year – the coming of which is to be heralded by the sound of the ram’s horn. The Jubilee instructions (Lev 25) provide rest for the land, cancel contracts and debts, restore ancestral property holdings, and release slaves to return to their clan of birth.
Ulrich Duchrow and Franz Hinkelammert offer a slightly different Biblical context for Sabbath and Jubilee social and economic justice injunctions. Using contemporary scholarship about the history of the Israelite people combined with historical-critical theories about when the books of Hebrew Scripture may have been authored (and redacted) they date the codes found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy to the post-exilic period, suggesting that the reforms in the Book of the Covenant and Deuteronomy were probably introduced by Josiah (622 BCE), long after the Exodus from Egypt and the dynasties of David and Solomon. As Duchrow and Hinkelammert understand it, the purpose of these stories was to correct the concentration of wealth and power that occurred during the Monarchical period in Israel’s history. And, along with instructions for gleaning and tithes, the codes ensured economic redistribution and assistance for even the poorest citizens. What is most suggestive here is that the economic codes can be fruitfully read against both backgrounds–that of need and that of greed–and the moral message is the same: at the heart of Israelite covenant ethics is the covenant commitment to free slaves, cancel debts, rest the land, animals and people, return captives to their families, reject absolute private property, feed the hungry, not concentrate wealth, and trust in God.
Examples of Sabbath and Jubilee economics are hardly limited to the Hebrew Scriptures. In fact, according to Luke 4:16-21, Jesus’ first act of ministry was to proclaim the Jubilee Year:
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, 17and 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.Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’
Menonnite theologian John Howard Yoder asserts that Jesus was a Jubilee practitioner whose work embodied the prescriptions of “1) leaving the land fallow, 2) remission of debts, 3) the liberation of slaves, 4) the return to each individual of his family’s property.” Indeed the gospels are full of stories of Jesus turning systems, structures, and status on their heads. Yoder points, as example, to Jesus’ address to the anxious disciples in Luke 12:29-31, “do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them.Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.” Myers reminds us that “Discipleship means forsaking the seductions and false securities of the Debt system for a re-communalized economy of generalized reciprocity of sharing and cooperation.” And indeed the communities of Luke-Acts seem to achieve a kind of Jubilee economic system of redistribution of wealth, land, and power, with both men and women serving in ministry. The poor were cared for and, “there was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4-32-37). Finally, Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann reminds us that Jesus’ fundamental invitation is to, “…come to me and rest! [Jesus] becomes the embodiment of Sabbath rest for those who are no longer defined by and committed to the system of productiveness.”
One could easily point to a post-Constantinian church and say that Jubilee or Sabbath Economics was a failed experiment that was never repeated. But variations of Biblical Economics recurred in some of the earliest monastic impulses, and they are seen again in communities like the European Beguines and the Levelers and the Diggers later in the English Reformation. In fact, both the Anabaptists and the Religious Society of Friends established heterotopic communities as attempts to build communal Kingdom societies within the shell of the wider, corrupted world.
However, the widespread practice of Biblical Economics, per se, seems to have ended within the institution of church once it collided with (and some might say, colluded with) Empire. Duchrow and Hinkelammert point out that John Locke’s equation of human rights with rights of property led to the enclosure of the commons and the defense of property rights, by the Bourgeoisie, with force. Property became a foundation for human rights and (as was the case in the US Constitution) of participation in the political system. Locke even turns human rights against human rights to legitimate forced labor and slavery. In other words, the Western notion of private property is not a universal “given,” but it has become the hegemonic cultural norm, like “water we swim in,” and few are questioning the “fundamental truth” of this concept. Contemporary economists (and more than a few corporations) are even trying to quantify ecosystem services, so that they can effectively price carbon credits and water. Westerners as a group have seemingly forgotten that the “Earth exists and can survive, only in its integral functioning. It cannot survive in fragments any more than any organism can survive in fragments. Yet the earth is not a global sameness. It is a differentiated unity and must be sustained in the integrity and interrelations of its many bioregional contexts.”
Biblical Economics Today
Contemporary examples of Jubilee Economics are few and far between. The kind of creativity and revision of ingrained notions around private property and ownership is a shift of worldview best supported by intensive community. However, forming and sustaining community is fundamentally challenged in a world with a cultural emphasis on individualism and acquisition. Even most churches come together only weekly. Still, notable examples of “Jubilee” practice can be found in the New Monastic Communities like The Simple Way in Philadelphia. Jonathan Wilson, formerly of The Simple Way wrote: “the restoration of the church will surely come only from a new type of monasticism which has nothing in common with the old but a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ.” Other examples can be found in secular projects that are part of the EcoVillage International movement (though likely not based exclusively on Biblical principles they do practice a kind of radical community). An organization called Jubilee Economics Ministries uses the internet, a podcast, and publications to promote principles of Jubilee living among its member houses and individuals who are interested. Some of the most recent conversation combines Biblical Economics with a place-based, ecological reading of scripture outlined in a call to “Watershed Discipleship” promoted by Ched Myers, and others (see his Sojourners article from May, 2014).
The Spiritual Significance of Jubilee Economics
Jubilee economics is critically transformative, socially and ecologically; it teaches us that we cannot and should not live on a finite planet with an economic system that is based on infinite growth. People suffer and the planet suffers. We are beginning to experience the effects of global climate disruption. Jubilee programs and practices point a way forward to a kind of living that is local, sustainable, and just. But Jubilee living means more than living “sustainably.” I began this essay with the proposition that Biblical economics is a critical, communal faith practice. The spiritual significance of Biblical economics as faith practice is to understand it as a discipline that places us before God to be transformed.
To live in the current economic/ecological system of greed and extravagance does damage to our spirit. The pain of people and the planet around us are all too obvious. Only by intentionally blinding ourselves can we avoid it. Worse, the actions we take, the food we eat, the things we consume render us complicit in causing that pain. Often our reaction is to deepen our commitment to consumption, in what Walter Brueggemann calls the “numbness and blindness” of empire. As a practice of faith, however, what is required is a kind of prophetic imagination in regard to patterns of living—a commitment within small, ecumenical spiritual communities to creatively experiment with modes of living in the world that engender liberation rather than slavery and debt.
Because the “powers and principalities” that enslave people are strong and seductive, we need to engage in this communal Jubilee practice to keep us centered in worship and focused on God rather than money. Small communities founded on a shared practice of Biblical Economics—like that in Wilson Street—are not only possible, they are a realizable aspect of faithful living critical to move us from the religion of industrial growth toward what Father Thomas Berry calls the Ecozoic Era: “a time of mutually enhancing relationships between humans and the larger community of life.”  Like the Biblical Exodus, this present-day Exodus story is one that refuses the brainwashing of empire and its pursuit of commodity. Ultimately, that refusal is more than a refusal of “mammon” over Spirit. It is the journey towards God’s Shalom: the collective move toward abundance and deep peace for all of creation.
* Lloyd and Susan Stephens are pseudonyms.
** None of the photographers/image authors are associated with BPC.
1 Richard H. Lowery, Sabbath and Jubilee (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2000), 3-4.
2 Ched Myers, The Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics, First Printing. (Washington, DC: The Church of the Saviour – Tell the World, 2001), 6.
3 Lowery, Sabbath and Jubilee, 23.
4 Lowery, Sabbath and Jubilee,93.
5 Myers, The Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics,11.
6 Myers, The Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics, 11-12.
7 Myers, The Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics, 13.
8 Lowery, Sabbath and Jubilee, 93-94.
9 Lowery, Sabbath and Jubilee, 67.
10 Ulrich Duchrow and Franz J. Hinkelammert, Property for People, Not for Profit: Alternatives to the Global Tyranny of Capital (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 2004), 17.
11 Ulrich Duchrow and Franz J. Hinkelammert, 19.
12 John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), 60.
13 Myers, The Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics, 27.
14 Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 11-12.
15 Ulrich Duchrow and Franz J. Hinkelammert, 47-63.
16 Thomas Berry, “The Ecozoic Era” in People, Land and Community / Collected E. F. Schumacher Society Lectures. (New Haven:Yale, 1997), 197.
17 Jonathan R. Wilson, Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World: Lessons for the Church from Macintyre’s After Virtue (Harrisburg, PA: T&T Clark, 1998), 10.
18 Ched Myers, “A Watershed Moment,” Sojourners, May 2014, 21-24.
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Kristina Keefe-Perry, MA is by training a geographer, farmer, and Food Systems Organizer. Currently, she studies at Boston University School of Theology where she is working toward a Masters of Divinity with an emphasis on chaplaincy – energized by the possibilities for chaplaincy in the public square. Kristina is a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), and a founder of Quaker Voluntary Service – which embodies a vision of small faithful communities living together in service, formation, and accountability. Her hardest work is keeping up with her 4 year old daughter.