A Biblical Proposal for accomplishing Russell Brand’s revolution

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past two weeks, and this blog is the first thing you’re reading since you crawled out from under it, welcome back! Now watch this interview that you, and only you, missed whilst you were under that rock:

Jeremy Paxson hints in the interview that he thinks Russell Brand’s critiques are valid (and has since said he thinks Brand is “absolutely right”), but still seems to dismiss Brand’s call for revolution on the basis that Brand can only say what an alternative political system shouldn’t do, without specifying how it would work.

This is the classic hic Rhodus, hic saltus taunt that any critics of the status quo (whether political, economic, cultural, etc) face.

Brand’s three criteria for a poltical alternative (which he repeats several times in the interview) are:

1. Shouldn’t destory the planet

2. Shouldn’t create economic disparities

3. Shouldn’t ignore the needs of the people

I want to posit here that a system which satisfies these three criteria can be found in one of the books of the Old Testament that even most Christians would quietly brush off as one of the more backward: Leviticus 25.

I won’t quote the whole chapter here because it is lengthy, but there are two major components that are of note:

1. Every seven years, there was to be a “Sabbath rest” for the land, during which fields were to lie fallow (i.e. crops would not be sown)

2. Every fifty years, all debts would be forgiven, and all land acquired during those fifty years was to be returned to its original owners.

Although many of us struggle with the violence, misogyny and occasional homophobia in the Old Testament, it’s undeniable that there are some good ecological and socio-economic principles here.

Allowing the land to rest for a year was a way of halting the degradation of the land that occurred through intensive cultivation. We now know that over-irrigation of rivers in the Ancient Near East was causing salinisation as early as six thousand years ago, and this was causing yields to fall, and land to be abandoned (it’s also why some parts of the region which were once called the Fertile Crescent are now barren desert). Allowing the soil to rest helped to halt this process and to restore the land.

What saline soil looks like

Requiring debts to be forgiven every 50 years was a way of preventing the concentration of wealth and breaking the cycle of poverty that was common in peasant societies.

Prohibitions against the concentration of  wealth are a recurring theme throughout the the Old Testament. The prophets are particularly scornful of those who accumulate wealth, with Isaiah 5:8 one of the most demonstrative examples:

“Woe to you who add house to house
and join field to field
till no space is left
and you live alone in the land.”

The semicentennial forgiveness of debts was to be a way of rebalancing society and allowing those who’d fallen on hard times several decades prior — and were still struggling under the burden of debt — to have a chance of starting anew.

Returning land to everyone who’d been forced to sell it in the years between each Jubilee year broke the cycle of poverty wherein families that took on debt had to sell their land to repay it; having lost access to the means of production , they’d have nothing else to sell but their labour, which made them bond-slaves; once you were a bond-slave you had no way of earning enough to buy back your land (it was as much a dead-end job as working at McDonald’s in 21st-century America); the Jubilee broke this cycle of poverty.

Faith communities, Russell Brand fans and anyone else similarly dissatisfied with the current politcal and economic system could advocate for the Sabbath/Jubilee alternative:

Banks and credit card companies could be required to write off households’ debts after a certain number of years (and, in line with the provisions laid out in Leviticus, prevented from charging higher interest rates in the years leading up to the Jubilee year)

Farmers could be given subsidies for allowing their land to lie fallow in a given year, rather than saturating it with petrochemical fertilisers and crop monocultures (This isn’t that far-fetched; the US government already gave about $24 million last year to “farmers” who didn’t grown anything)

These policy proposals are radical. Wall Street (in the US) and the City (in the UK) would fight against them tooth and nail, as, presumably, would Monsanto, Cargill and other agribusiness suppliers who would stand to lose a lot if farmers used time-honoured methods of replenishing the soil rather than cutting-edge, ever-changing technologies developed in the laboratory.

But there is a precedent for this: Around the turn of the century, activists around the world called on rich countries to forgive the debts of poor countries, who were straining under the burden of massive debts that in many cases had been incurred by despots seeking the patronage of the West or the Soivet Union during the Cold War. The activists appealed to the biblical concept of Jubilee. The World Bank and rich country governments told them they were full of it, and that Jubilee just couldn’t work in the modern financial system.

In 2005, the activists won. If impoverished countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and Central America –the international Davids — can win Jubilee from the global Goliaths, there’s no reason the citizens of the rich countries can’t demand their own Sabbath and Jubilee.

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One response to “A Biblical Proposal for accomplishing Russell Brand’s revolution

  1. ReasonableStudent

    I think that this system, while may be decent in theory, would go horribly wrong in practice. First of all, if you wish to continue crop production on it’s current scale, letting land go fallow every one in seven years is not nearly enough to atone for the soil loss and nutrient depletion. Instead, a crop rotation and permaculture techniques would be much more effective. The goal of production should be to build soil and replicate natural processes … not use the same land as much as possible (even 6/7 years) by applying a bunch of artificially made fertilizer. In fact, proper permaculture farming can actually restore ecological function to desert areas (just search “greening the desert”). Instituting a 7th year rest may just cause farmers to try to force the land to be more productive during the 6 years of use. To put it bluntly, it is naive to think that a year of rest can restore an ecosystem.

    As for the semicentennial debt forgiveness, I’m afraid that this would be taken advantage of too often and would cause lenders to be extremely cautious when offering loans. If you think it’s hard to get a mortgage now … I shudder to think about how hard it would be if this caveat were added. In fact, this would, in my opinion, cause more economic disparities and possibly create more neglect of people’s needs.

    Yes, reform is needed but I respectfully disagree in thinking that these two conditions could be core aspects of that reform.

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