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Take Three: Back In Washington

A week later, back in Washington. It is late in the summer of 1975, and two sets of people are planning Bicentennial celebrations for the coming year:  officials, who plan fireworks and galas; and populists, modern equivalents of Sam Adams, who see the global corporations as modern equivalents of George the Third.

One group of these new populists, the People's Bicentennial Commission, is meeting at the research center where I work. As they talk about anti-corporate "tea parties" and "economic democracy," a piece of arithmetic leaps out at me: 4 x 50 = 200. The American Bicentennial should really be the fourth American Jubilee, but there has never been even one.

Wait, yes there was,"Hoo-rah, hoo-rah, we bring the Jubilee...Hoo-rah, hoo-rah, the flag that makes you free!...And so we sang the anthem from Atlanta to the sea, As we were marching through Georgia!"

Freeing the slaves, that was our one American Jubilee; yes, that was part of the ancient Jubilee too, all the slaves were to be freed when the Jubilee year came. But in 1865, America never did the other part, never shared the land. That was what "forty acres and a mule" meant: It was the slaves' demand that the land be shared. It was their proposal for a Jubilee.

We never did it, and now look where we are.

I returned to the present with a jerk. The populists want a protest/ celebration in Washington on the Bicentennial Fourth of July. They are calling together the labor unions, food co-op organizers, environmental activists, feminists, antiwar people, Blacks, Hispanics, the religious who believe in social justice, to demand the end of the corporate oligarchy and the beginnings of an economic democracy.

They are brainstorming about the early morning of July 4, 1976. Should there be a sunrise service? A memorial service for those who died in the Revolution and those who fought for freedom since then?

I spoke up: What about the Jubilee? The religious traditions not only mourn the dead, they command us to do what the dead had in mind: Free the slaves and share our wealth.  They call on us to make a Jubilee!

From that moment to the celebration at Mr. Jefferson's memorial was no straight and simple road. There were many twists and turns and disappointments. And since July 4, 1976, there have been even more disappointments. We have not yet found a way to sound the ram's horn that will call forth "liberty throughout the land, for all the inhabitants thereof." Who Owns the Earth?

Indeed, the years that followed the Bicentennial saw the most sweeping redistribution of wealth in all of American history -- but in the opposite direction from what the Torah called for. Far more wealth was concentrated into the hands of far fewer people, leaving the rest of us to become either Overworked or Disemployed (some actually jobless, others working at far lower levels than our ability and education made possible).

Yet, the deeper our disparities in wealth, the more shattered our families and neighborhoods, the more we fear falling off the career ladder, the more despoiled our earth and water, the more I am convinced that the Jubilee has much to teach us.

In 1976, we asked religious officials to join our call for an American Jubilee. One ruefully wrote back that the church laity were not "well enough schooled in the Bible to make the Jubilee alive for them." Another wrote that it seemed like a great idea, but his was the wrong organization: "Our lay trustees are exactly the factory owners whose property would be shared out in the Jubilee. You'd better start somewhere else."

But we also got some unexpected affirmations: A Black preacher remembered his granddaddy's telling him there was a Jubilee in 1865.  He had already organized his own conference on applying the Jubilee to American society. A rabbi proposed that in honor of the Bicentennial/ Jubilee every family in America be offered a small homestead of country land to garden and preserve. The same rabbi suggested asking groups of ten or a dozen to do "Jubilee dreaming" as a way to work out what kind of community they would like to live inĂ³at the neighborhood or even the continental level.

A Catholic priest told us that in the Holy Years that used to come every fifty years, each diocese forgave the debts owed it by the poorer parishes. A Reformed Churchman was organizing a church education project for the Bicentennial year, with the Jubilee at its heart. A Mennonite wrote that when Jesus quoted Isaiah on "the acceptable year of our Lord," he was proclaiming the Jubilee, and was run out of town not for claiming to be Messiah but for demanding that the rich give up their wealth.

This was a new kind of long-distance Godwrestling, not face-to-face like Fabrangen but just as real. And I began to hear the Jubilee in a deeper way, as a great Shabbat.

By now I had been making Shabbat for about four years. I discovered it was not just a set of rules about what I couldn't do, as my neighbor up the street had yelled at me when I was growing up in Baltimore. It was not even just a chance to sleep late, take a nap, rest from my work. After all, I loved my work: working for justice and peace; healing the fractured human race. Why rest from work like that?

I discovered that was just the point. Even from the best work in the world, I needed rest. Shabbat had brought me a new kind of freedom: liberation from anxiety, sorrow, guilt that I was not doing even more to heal the wounded world. Shabbat brought not merely sleep, but peacefulness. For on one day of every seven, the world was already healed, already perfect. That day was a day of song and neighbors, playful reading and unhurried eating, feeling loved and making love. It was a return to the home of my soul.

I began to see that the Jubilee was about more than redistributing land or money. It was about a longer, deeper Shabbat in which everyone would share. Just as Jewish communities have always known that on Shabbat there must be food for the hungry. Otherwise, how could they stop working? So on this Great Shabbat there must be land for the poor.

And there must also be rest for the land. Odd. Very odd. No reformer or radical I had ever heard of said that if land and wealth were redistributed, the poor should wait a year before beginning to work.

I recalled that the ice-skating rink at Rockefeller Center was shut one day a year. Why? Because under common law, if land is totally devoted to public use, the owner may lose legal title to it. Closing the rink for a single day established that its owners were still the owners, with power to control the property. How to assert Divine Ownership of the earth in the face of all the human uses of it? Shut down the rink. Close down the harvest and the sowing-season. The Owner reminds us: All the earth is Mine.

But what does it mean for God to own the earth?

It means that the spiritual and the political, the ritual and the practical, are fused.

How different this is from our "multiple choice" way of thinking about the world! Tongue in cheek, I began to imagine an exam in Anthropology 101, with a multiple-choice question: Check off the category of cultural behavior (priestly ritual; prophetic pursuit of social justice; governmental economic planning; monkish contemplative meditation) that is exemplified by the following practice:

  • Rhythmic seven-year event, followed by seven-times-seven year event, initiated by blowing a ram's horn. Answer: Ritual.
  • Redistribution of land. Answer: Social Justice.
  • Moratorium on organized agriculture. Answer: Economic Planning
  • Celebration, study of sacred texts. Answer: Contemplation, Meditation
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