Monday, July 02, 2007

Jubilee! A Judeo-Christian basis for economic populism

Maybe it's time for a Jubilee?

While in Kerrville, I was pleased to spend quite a bit of time talking with Dr. Virgil Wood, a pastor and civil rights leader who was on the national board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for the last decade of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life. Virgil was promoting an "African American Jubilee Edition" of the King James Bible. It contains a thoughtful 16-chapter foreword by Wood and various scholars articulating the most relevant stories and concepts from the Bible in the traditions of black Americans.

Viewed in context as a moral document, and ignoring certain historical anachronisms, over the years I've found the Bible a great source of ideas for improving the justice system. After the Tulia episode, the idea to respond by requiring corroboration for testimony of drug informants came partially from the Bible, where both Old and New Testaments require two or three witnesses, never one alone, to sustain a criminal conviction. Wood's opening essay highlights another biblical concept that's to my mind worth rejuvenating: the Jubilee.
And he shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family (Leviticus 25.10, KJV)
This passage, Wood points out, actually is the verse transcribed at the top of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia! In addition, he writes, "the British and American legal systems of bankruptcy laws come out of the Jubilee tradition."

In the New Testament in Luke Chapter 4, Jesus himself endorsed the Jubilee tradition, identifying six primary elements, writes Wood:
(1) to preach the gospel to the poor; (2) to heal the broken-hearted (3) to proclaim liberty to the captives; (4) to restore sight to the blind (5) to set at liberty those who are oppressed; and (6) to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.
Isaiah 61 ordained a similar set of prescriptions, says Wood, but the command to "set at liberty those who are oppressed" in Luke was stated in Isaiah as "the opening of the prison to them that are bound." Free the slaves. Set the prisoners free. These were not metaphors - these were requirements in Mosaic Law expected to be fulfilled in the real world once every five decades. Wood knows that attaining Jubilee may be a painfully slow journey," but
As a Church, as a nation, as a people, the whole polity, the whole family, the whole of humanity, we will remember to the profit of ourselves and our common future that Jubilee is a universal mandate for a civil world and a civil society. ...

As we explore its practices we will discover that Jubilee is the guarantor of the Good Society, with its provisions for self-adjudication of every kind of injustice and hostility that builds up in individuals. Skeptics say that Jubilee cannot work. But it can also be said that whether or not Jubilee can work, we will not know until we have put its principles into practice.
He's certainly got that right - you'll never know until you try.

In his book, "What's the Matter with Kansas?" Thomas Frank scratched his head over why self-avowed religious populists in the Kansas GOP promoted economic policies that damaged their constituencies and even themselves. Maybe they just need to read more from Dr. Wood, Leviticus and Isaiah, because within the Jubilee concept lies a powerful economic populism that matches the zeal usually reserved today for arguing over abortion and the culture war.

It's easy to understand why a tradition to free slaves once every 50 years might be precious to a people enslaved for 400 years in America without such a respite. But it doesn't take much thought to see that the Jubilee concept could enjoy modern applications - it's become a relic, but it needn't be.

If it found the right messengers and audience, Jubilee could become a powerful biblical basis for broadening the scope of religious populism in 21st century America to include millions of religious folks (if not a silent majority, then a large, silent faction) who're turned off by culture war squabbles. That'd be a fascinating turn of events, wouldn't it? As Dr. Wood says, nobody will know until somebody tries.

To order a copy of the Jubilee Bible call toll free 888-670-4797.


Anonymous said...

Before cherry-picking the bible as a source of ideas, I suggest you read all of Leviticus, including the both the horrid parts and the crazy parts.

Horrid: 20-9: For every one that curseth his father or his mother shall be surely put to death: he hath cursed his father or his mother; his blood shall be upon him.

Little Billy curses his mommy or daddy, so he must be murdered? With what, a sword or axe?

Crazy: 25-21: Then I will command my blessing upon you in the sixth year, and it shall bring forth fruit for three years.

So Farmer John is promised a regularly scheduled super bonus bumper crop? Umm, this would be all cases of Farmer John, so this would glut the market and all the farmers would go broke at once. This is a kindness? No.

Are you sure you want your name attached to a train wreck like Leviticus?

I read Ted Kaczynski's 'manifesto'. He was crazy, but he wasn't as psychotic as the writer(s) of Leviticus.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and the Bible more often than that. The "horrid and crazy parts," to me, fall under the category I labeled "anachronisms" in the post.

If your reject every religion whose base text includes "horrid and crazy parts," basically nobody gets to have one. But people do. They engage in spiritual seeking and the religions of the world for most are the vehicle through which they define and understand those ideas.

Maybe that's cherrypicking, or maybe its reading a thousands of years old text seeking to identify what's relevant today and what's no longer applicable. There's a reason you couldn't convict under Mosaic Law on one man's word - sometimes people lie, and they still do, so corroboration is a good idea, e.g., then and now. Does that mean I endorse every horrific act or mentality described? Of course not, just as it doesn't mean I (or Wood) endorse slavery, though Leviticus does.

Does it REALLY have to be all or nothing? Really?

Anonymous said...

It works on immigration, too. How do you say "Jubilee" in spanish?

Anonymous said...

Actually, English law is not based on the bible. Check the history of English and Scottish Quarter Days, based on pagan traditions.

Anonymous said...

The roman catholic church celebrated Jubilee as part of the milenium. My wife and I considered the idea during 2000 and how we could participate. At that time we lived in L.A., but still owned a house in Austin, TX. While talking with our tenants in Austin, we learned they wanted to purchase a house of their own. We decieded to give them 3 months rent free to help with a downpayment.

In that same spirit, in 2004, before returning to Texas, we sold our CA house $35,000 under-appraisal to a poor family. This gave them instant 20% equity They didn't have to pay PMI (mortgage insurance) and they could obtain a conventional loan, rather than an ARM. Today they are using some of that equity to put a son through college.

Equity is probably the hardest thing for a poor family to obtain. We got the idea from an interview with a Harvard economist on Tony Brown's Journal, PBS.

Anonymous said...

"You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes. Remember -- all I am offering is the truth, nothing more."

~Morpheus, "The Matrix"


Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure "Jubilee" in Spanish is "Amnesty"