Call for a Jubilee at Walmart

Walmart marks the 50th anniversary of its first store opening in Arkansas this month. In the midst of its celebrations, advocates for the retail giant’s employees are calling for a Jubilee.

In the world of ancient Israel, five-decade cycles of Sabbaths culminated with the Jubilee year. Just as the seventh day was Sabbath, in the seventh year people rested from cultivating crops, granted remission of debts and set slaves free, as detailed in Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15. After seven Sabbath years, horns accompanied proclamations of a time of restoring right relationships and recognizing God as the source of all sustenance.

The Lord commanded that “you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants” (Leviticus 25:10).

In the spirit of Jubilee, Interfaith Worker Justice (a nonprofit advocacy organization) is planning prayer vigils at Walmart stores to call for just treatment and safe working conditions. At Walmart, “the majority of its 1.4 million workers still earn poverty wages with very limited access to insurance and benefits,” according to Interfaith Worker Justice.

Prayer and action aimed toward changing Walmart’s policies is a worthy effort, given the company’s size and influence. While there are other stores with poor labor practices, improvement for Walmart employees could spark reforms elsewhere.

Yet Walmart is not solely responsible for our economy of buying more for less, where savings for consumers come from the pockets of people who grow or make products as well as those who are stocking and ringing them up. The need for a Jubilee in our culture goes beyond any one company.

Jesus began his ministry by quoting Isaiah, inaugurating God’s reign and the year of the Lord’s favor — the year of Jubilee. He proclaimed release to the captive and oppressed (Luke 4:18-­19).

Our society is captivated by convenience and low cost. We see it in our food produced by industrialized agriculture and processed in factories. We see it in our clothes made in sweatshops. We see it in household items that damage the environment and wear out quickly.

Mennonites and similarly minded Christians have been in the forefront of alternative economic efforts such as community-supported agriculture programs and fair-trade stores. Yet hard work remains to more fully engage in right relationships in all our economic doings, as the Jubilee year commanded.

Sabbath, the root of Jubilee, means not merely resting from work but taking time to focus on God. We honor Sabbath when we silence the more-is-more buzzing in our ears and listen to the voice telling us that the wide-open hands of God will satisfy the needs of all in due season (Psalm 145:15-16).

A spirit of Jubilee would lessen our desire for cheap and convenient shopping. A Nicaraguan brother in Christ, after visiting the U.S., commented to members of his sister church about how many possessions we have in our homes. He wondered whether those possessions surround us like a cloud of perfume, distracting us from our relationship with God.

When we focus on relationships — whether in farms or gardens where we or others grow our food, in stores where we buy household goods or in advocating for just treatment for low-income employees — we see the face of God in the faces of our brothers and sisters. And we remember that God provides for all of us.

Celeste Kennel-Shank is a minister and community gardener in Chicago.