The original 'jubilee' referred to a movement for social justice
One of the most remarkable achievements of Queen Elizabeth II’s courtiers on the occasion of her diamond jubilee is the way in which a thick curtain has been drawn between the patronage, power and unaccountable wealth embodied in monarchy and the deepening inequality and injustice felt by those living at the sharp end of “austerity Britain”.
It is as if the two naturally live in parallel universes. This is nowhere more clearly demonstrated than in the misuse of the term “jubilee” itself. In the colourful symbolism of the past week’s celebrations, the word has become synonymous with the pageant of inherited privilege.
People are called on to the streets to laud and honour those who will forever live in opulent isolation.
But there is an entirely different meaning, history and narrative of “jubilee”, one buried beneath the flotillas and bunting. It not only predates modern royal usage by many centuries, it also encourages the very opposite of obeisance to celebrity riches. It is the ancient Hebrew tradition of seeking the equalisation of land, property and ownership rights through seven cycles of “sabbatical years”.
This biblical jubilee also shaped the commitment of Jesus and the early Christians to stand alongside the poor and dispossessed rather than with the representatives of empire.
“Remit our debts, as we remit the debts of others” is at the core of what we call the Lord’s Prayer. The phrase was later sanitised into “forgive us our sins”, turning wrongdoing into a purely personal matter removed from the harsh realities of economic and political injustice.
That switch, as much as the burying of the subversive demands of the Torah, which set out the original demands for a jubilee of sharing, suited those who wanted to turn Christianity (and, indeed, all religion) into a tool of the establishment and the status quo.
So the royal jubilee was invented as a rationale for accepting, personalising and ritualising the most spectacular political and economic divisions in British society.
This represents not just a denial of its original, subversive symbolism, but also a massive reversal of expectations. Inequality is now seen as the norm, regardless of how much harm it does to our shared humanity.
In historical terms, there are extensive disputes about how far original jubilee injunctions on land reform and the redistribution of wealth were implemented. In ancient Israel, too, there were those whose sole business was to thwart the equalisers.
Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann talks of “two trajectories” in the Hebrew scriptures. One is a centralising, wealth-accumulating, monarchical tradition. The other is a radical, popular and prophetic movement, one that leads Mary to celebrate the birth of Jesus by singing about how God “throws the mighty from their thrones”.
The original jubilee is not obscure history. Nor is it something to be dismissed under the rubric of “religion”. In recent times, few in many faiths have picked up the levelling language of jubilee to campaign for debt cancellation and poverty elimination.
The current Jubilee Debt Campaign continues to turn the spotlight on tax evasion, speculative finance and unaccountable corporate capital.
Interestingly, churches in Britain tend to hide their roots in the radical jubilee, falling instead for a collective, choreographed curtsy to royalty. They forget that in their Bibles the monarchy was established in defiance of the divine will expressed by the prophets. They warned that it would lead to the false worship of power, expropriation of wealth, standing armies and oppressive taxation. Rightly, it would seem.
But there is always the opportunity to stop and head in a new direction. At a time of massive financial crisis, the “jubilee economics” of making wealth accountable to ordinary people rather than the other way round is precisely what is needed. That and pageants that celebrate the need to build a common life rather than one that benefits only the few. – © Guardian News & Media 2012 Simon Barrow is co-director of the Christian think-tank Ekklesia