The Lord Sayeth – "Take the Year Off" – an invitation to recognize Jubilee

Churches recently convinced enough Californians that gay people getting married will ruin marriage for straight people that they were able to amend the state constitution to prohibit gay marriage. The exact mechanisms were not exactly diagrammed, but the church people seem to feel that they invented the institution of marriage in order to make sex not sinful, but according to their doctrines, gay sex is always sinful, so gay marriage is wrong. A lot of reasonable people have challenged this line of reasoning, because there is a lot of hypocrisy and bigotry guiding it, but the battle lines have been drawn and it is hard to reach the hearts and minds of the faithful with reason. Instead I advocate revolution. Bring back the jubilee!

A little known fact outside of bible study circles is that God had quite a lot to say about how people should run their political economies, and our modern capitalist system is far from what God intended. Perhaps if we adopted some of God’s principles on political economy, without being dogmatic, sanctimonious, or absolutist about it, the faithful would be so confused that they would forget the great importance of God raining on gay parades.

There are only one or two lines in the entire Hebrew Bible, and only a few more in the Christian scriptures calling gay sex an abomination, but there are two entire chapters and a commandment calling for a complete cessation of all industrial and agricultural labor every seven years.

In Exodus 23:10-11, right after Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai, right after he gives the “10 Commandments”, he gives a few more, including, “For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, but during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what they leave. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove.”

Chapter 25 of Leviticus, and Chapter 15 of Deuteronomy are entirely about how to observe the sabbath and jubilee years, which occur every seven and fifty years respectively.

In my humble opinion, you may credibly doubt that God really intended to make gay people miserable, but there is no room for doubt that the Supreme Being really did want people to give it a rest from time to time.

Rest is a big theme in the Bible’s recommendations for a healthy economy. People should take a rest day once a week, something like Muslims do on Friday, Jews do on Saturday, Christians do on Sunday, and anarchists, atheists and communists should do on Monday. But also, according to the Hebrew bible books Leviticus and Exodus, every seven years, all agriculture should cease. The owners of the fields can eat whatever grows, but they should share it with whoever else needs it, for instance wage laborers and slaves, the poor, our neighbors, and animals, both domestic and wild. The purpose of this rest year, the “sabbath year”, is to give the land a rest, the laborers a rest, and to give the poor a break. (Ex 23:10-11, Lev 25:5-7)

There is no land ownership in God’s political economy — you can only hold land for a fifty year lease, then you have to give it back to the original owner. These rules don’t apply to people’s homes, which the bible calls “houses in walled cities”, but only properties used for production or agriculture. “And when you make a sale to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor, you shall not cheat one another.” (Lev 25:14)

That fiftieth year is the Jubilee year, and everyone observes it together as the ultimate sabbath year. As part of the observance, indentured servants and slaves should be set free forever and all debts should be erased (Lev 25:8-54). Today that might be equivalent to erasing student loan debt, mortgage debt, and debt to the World Bank to set all the world’s debt slaves free.

Even though it seems like blasphemy to our modern capitalist world economy, it’s in the Bible, almost exactly as I am saying. Of course now we have an industrial economy, not an agricultural economy, so instead of fields we should be thinking of factories, mines, and customer service centers. What if corporations could only lease them for fifty years, and had to let whoever wanted to use them every seven years? Would that be enough to slow the flow of capital into corporate hands, so that people had the chance to use all the high-end sewing machines, type-setting equipment, fast computers and Internet connections, and other fancy stuff that corporations hoard? Would it give energy companies a chance to rethink the absurdity of mountain-top removal and oil extraction from tar sands? Would it give people all over the world a chance to see what the world is like without industrial pollution of our air and drinking water every seven years? What if industrial agriculturalists had to let the pigs and chickens out to roam free in the fallow fields once every seven years? What if they had to give back all of the land they siezed up to grow monocrops?

As far as we know, no country or sizable community has ever put God’s political economy into practice in a consistent and enduring way, so we actually have no idea how this would work out. What I like about it is that it resembles in some ways the Marxist notion of continuous revolution, so that no one group can sieze enough of society’s resources to have permanent, coercive control.

If you heard about sabbath and jubilee years in Sunday school, you may have been told that they are irrelevant, because when Jesus came he freed people from cumbersome Mosaic laws laid out in the last three books of the Hebrew Bible (except the stuff about gay sex being a sin, the disciples of Jesus say ‘keep it’), so we don’t need to do all that stuff any more. If you heard about it in Hebrew school, someone may have patiently explained to you that the counting of the sabbath and jubilee years would resume when the moshiach comes. But in the interest of religious plurality, since not all of us have accepted Jesus as our lord and personal savior, and since even the faithful do not seem immune to trampling the rights of the poor and downtrodden, maybe it’s time to take all of the Bible seriously, instead of just the parts that justify our silly crusades.

I understand there might be some resistance to my suggestion that we enact God’s schemes for political economy, since cultural norms and civic laws derived from biblical laws have historically been repressive to the max and their adoption has caused lots of suffering, and since crazy right wing organizations like Focus on the Family will stop at nothing to make simplistic notions of morality based on bible verses into laws that would persecute women and gay people. So please don’t lobby your legislatures. The thing to do instead is to refuse to work periodically, and encourage your friends and religious leaders to do the same. Let’s create social movements out of communalism and anti-capitalist exchange. Let’s boycott banks that profit enormously out of impoverishing people and keeping them in debt. Oh wait, you say, we already are doing those things. It’s called the anti-globalization movement. Right. Well then continue with the blessing of God. Go fourth with new notions of what religion endorses instead of letting bigotry and hypocrisy spoil the whole world.