What’s a “jubilee,” exactly? Over the millennia, the term has been worn down to the point where many people just think of it as meaning any occasion for celebration; but it’s a word with a rich and deep history that deserves to be remembered. The concept of a cyclical time period at the end of which debts would be forgiven, slaves and prisoners freed, exiles returned to their homelands and property restored to its original owners is ancient indeed, dating back at least to First Dynasty Egypt. The Heb Sed or Royal Jubilee marking the 30th year of an Egyptian king’s reign began as a religious ritual intended to restore his youthful vigor and virility, so that the land would remain fruitful (and presumably so the priests wouldn’t have to sacrifice him, as in earlier eras).
No one knows exactly how, where and when the custom associated with the Royal Jubilee of “remission” for slaves, debtors and so on got started, but we know that it became common throughout the ancient Near East. As early as the second millennium BCE, Babylonian kings were issuing such blanket decrees, in what may be the earliest recorded instances of what today is described – often scornfully – as “redistribution of wealth.” The problem, then as now, is that economic forces tended to concentrate too much wealth in the hands of a banking class, until they reached the point of saturation where monarchs had to pass the Bronze Age equivalent of antitrust legislation, lest the starving masses rise in revolt.
It was the Hebrew civilization that gave us the name “jubilee” – from yovel, meaning a blast on the shofar or ram’s horn announcing the start of the festivities – and the tradition of a 50-year cycle. The ancient Jews celebrated a shmita or sabbatical every seventh year, allowing the fields to lie fallow, and the end of every seventh sabbatical cycle was considered a particularly sacred time. So the year following the 49th became the Jubilee Year, in which piety demanded a return of property to its previous owners. This held true even for lands fairly purchased; like Native Americans more recently, our ancient forebears in the Cradle of Civilization thought of the acquisition of real estate as a matter of temporary stewardship rather than outright ownership.
The Biblical injunction to honor the Jubilee Year first appears in the Book of Leviticus, and the original trigger for the cycles appears to have been the Levites’ overthrow of the Canaanites. Jews abandoned the practice after the Diaspora, when returning to their homeland was no longer an option. But the Roman Catholic Church started its own Jubilee tradition in 1300, during the reign of Pope Boniface VIII. Catholic Jubilees of various descriptions now occur more often than every 50 years, with a variety of different events cited as the start points.
By the time preceding the American Civil War, Old Testament references to the Jubilee had become powerful metaphors of future freedom for Christianized African slaves in the New World. You may not know it by name, since it’s most often performed as a sprightly banjo instrumental, but you’d certainly recognize the famous minstrel-show tune called “The Year of Jubilo” (a/k/a “Kingdom Coming”). Predating the Emancipation Proclamation, its cheerfully subversive lyrics anticipate the liberation of the plantations of the American South by “de Linkum sojers.”
Fast-forward to the present: Slavery is illegal in most countries now, but millions of people still feel chained to their mountains of indebtedness as the gap between rich and poor grows ever-wider. There’s no longer any official or religious sanction for debt forgiveness, beyond some feeble government incentive programs for banks to restructure interest rates and payment plans on mortgages that have gone underwater. Having abolished monarchy in these former English colonies, we’ve got no king in a position to abolish all debt every so many years by mere fiat; and most Americans seem to be in a suspicious frame of mind, at best, about governmental solutions to our problems.
So what’s to be done? How can we free ourselves? How can this once-effective ancient Jubilee tradition be “repurposed,” to use today’s trendy sustainability jargon? Enter those cheerful subversives of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Their insistence on ruling by consensus at the various occupation sites was notoriously unwieldy, but their brainstorming sessions came up with some amazingly creative solutions to some of society’s most pressing problems. One of these was a social initiative called Strike Debt: Rolling Jubilee.
Here’s the premise: On a strictly voluntary, grassroots basis, people contribute whatever they feel they can afford towards a fund that bails out people who are drowning in debt from medical expenses not covered by insurance, or from mortgages that went sour when the housing bubble burst or when they lost their jobs. Here’s how Strike Debt organizers describe their approach: “Wall Street financial institutions ‘bundle’ individual debt into ‘packages.’ which are then sold on an open market at a fraction of the value of the original loans. Buyers normally seek to collect on the debt or some profitable percentage of it. Rolling Jubilee purchases these packages and abolishes the debt! Nominal contributions from liberated debtors, as well as donations from supporters of the initiative, make it possible for more loan packages to be purchased and more debt abolished – hence ‘rolling’ jubilee.”
The beauty of this strategy is the universality of its appeal. While many on the left would like to see solutions that hold predatory lenders’ feet to the fire a bit more, even Tea Partiers and others who blanch at the specter of “Big Government” should be able to get behind a movement that is driven solely by individual contributions.
Intrigued? You can find out much more about the Strike Debt: Rolling Jubilee campaign at a public forum this Sunday, June 30 at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck. From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Andrew Ross, professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University, and filmmaker, author and former SUNY-New Paltz Sociology instructor Astra Taylor will speak on the Rolling Jubilee initiative, how it works and its successes so far. The event will include live music from Mikhail Horowitz and Gilles Malkine, a film screening and audience discussion.
“Again and again in history when debt has threatened the general well-being and normal functioning of society, the forgiveness of debt has been a way for society to regain stability and protect itself from falling into chaos,” write the event organizers. “Today’s global corporate and financial elite, with the facilitation of politicians, have both manufactured and sought to exploit the debt crisis rather than turn to this time-honored practice.” Maybe it’s time for us peons to take matters into our own hands – and wallets, however lean.
Occupy Northern Dutchess is organizing this event; Occupy New Paltz and Occupy Poughkeepsie are co-sponsors. Admission is free, but a donation of $15 is suggested; proceeds will go toward the Strike Debt: Rolling Jubilee initiative. Bring a dish if you wish. For more info about the Rolling Jubilee campaign and how it’s manifesting locally, visit https://rollingjubilee.org, https://strikedebt.org and https://occupynortherndutchess.blogspot.com.
Strike Debt: Rolling Jubilee forum & fundraiser with Andrew Ross & Astra Taylor, Sunday, June 30, 11 a.m.-2 p.m., $15 suggested, Upstate Films, 6415 Montgomery Street, Rhinebeck; (845) 876-2515, https://upstatefilms.org, https://rollingjubilee.org, https://strikedebt.org.