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The Revolutionary Nature of Biblical Jubilee

Wednesday, June 24, 2009 at 05:38 AM EDT

We’re not talking about the Silver and Gold Jubilees here, but of Social Justice Jubilee. If you’re not a Christian, I hope this is still a useful examination of active wealth redistribution with some secular benefit. This is mostly based off a random thought popping through my head and perhaps its not the most biblically correct or politically astute post ever, but here goes.

In the books of the laws, God tells the Israelites his plans for how they should run society and their lives. Most of what we remember is the deeply personal 10 Commandments, that set out a relationship with God and with fellow people, but in very individual terms. And these are, to be honest, not exactly exciting laws, even if they’re really basic stuff and we’d all accept at 6 of them as good principals (tell the truth, don’t take for yourself, never betray your closest relationships, don’t kill people, don’t spend life wanting stuff from others, be good to your parents).

But then God also gives another 600 commandments. And quite a chunk of these are actually more boring, but a few are real gems, and concern concepts of limited retribution and a curtailment of power over the weak. But the very core of the Social Justice laws is the law of Jubilee. In these, God tells the Israelites that every 7th year they must leave their fields fallow, and after every 7 cycles (49 years) there will be a “Year of Jubilee”, in which they will hand over any lands that they have come by to the original owners.

So what does this actually mean? And perhaps more importantly, why is it discarded by every government, even the ones claiming to want to rule by God’s standards? It is exactly because it is a threat to those who hold dear their gains and a comfort to those who have been forced out through competition. It ensures the sharing of the dignity of land ownership amongst all people. It maintains a kind of stability, but further more, it provides a sort of continuous process of land redistribution.

Of course, for most people, this was a once in a lifetime scenario, but it did make the passing of land from generation to generation work better, and more than this, it made land less of a commodity: you would lose everything you bought sooner or later. At the end of the day, who wants to buy something they will lose back to the owner? Only when this mechanism is removed can individuals really aim to accrue the land holdings we see today.

Furthermore, this reinforces an idea that exists in many religions and faith groups, one of external land ownership. In Judaism and Christianity, the idea is that the Earth belongs to God, as its creator, and will ultimately be passed back to him. In more Earth-spirituality based faiths, the Earth belongs to itself, and we are guests, or a subset of it, but in all cases, the land owns us more than we own the land. For the aborigines, this becomes even more stark: they are owned by the land. In many people’s minds, a secular viewpoint has arisen, which says that the Earth is merely on loan to us, and that we must give it back for future generations to use.

But how do we put this into practice? Besides, too often death results in land being passed to a central land owner (i.e. through war). And very often people find themselves living their entire lives on land borrowed not from God or Earth, but from other people’. How do we correct this intrinsic power imbalance? I’ve seen few better ideas than that of “Biblical Jubilee”.

And what of today’s society? We don’t own land, so the saying goes, because its part of development that a few people own land and farm, and most must settle with a house in a city, earning money to buy the food from the farm they no longer live on. I find this results in the assumption that growing your own food somehow transgresses the rules of economic development. But for many, the inability to grow their own food is a part of a problem that is plunging them further into debt, and closely tied to the “wealth creation” of others.

This considered, how revolutionary is it? Well, any system that says people have a right to land, but not to accumulation of land is pretty revolutionary. In fact, most revolutions in poorer countries have had some kind of land redistribution. Sure, some have had really bad land redistribution concepts, like in Zimbabwe. But some have done much better, for example South Africa, and in Brazil the Landless Peasants Movement (Movimiento Sem Terra) has appropriated thousands of hectares’ of disused land from owners who have hoarded it as a defence of their power.

Indeed, this is not just a one-off “Seizing the Means of Production” ideal, but a planned, regular, and theoretically peaceful passing round of the means of production, and through its links to tribal and familial structures, remained one of very practical community ownership. It represents a continuous process of intervention to prevent power accumulation in a nation. It represents a powerful call to revolution against mass-land ownership and the economic and political disparities this will inevitably involve.