I was part of a movement of "dinosaur moms" when I lived in Maryland (Astrodon Johnstoni is the Maryland state dinosaur.) Which is nothing more than this -- dinosaur moms delight in the half-feral nature of the beasties they parent, even as they whisper Shakespeare and Kierkegaard in their ears at night.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

What Part of "Illegal" Didn't the Patriarchs Understand?

This month, we have been talking about the theme of “Formation:”  formation of the self, formation of the family.  In this talk, I will be focusing on formation of the community, the system of laws that make us a nation.  And our relationship to those laws.

Our congregation approaches our 50th year from our first meetings in the back of the pizza parlor.  And so, as is fitting, there is much talk of this being our “jubilee” year, a milestone; a time, according to biblical tradition, of celebration, of looking back, of looking forward, of taking stock, of making note -- a sort of ecclesiastical “victory lap.”  We’re here; we made it.  Time to party like it’s 1399 (B.C.E.)

This makes an interesting juxtaposition with the other place in my life where I used to hear talk about “jubilee,” which was in the anti-consumerist, ad-busting, debt-smashing circles of the early heady days of “Occupy Wall Street.”  Anarchist anthropologist and general agitator David Graeber, who is famous for, inter alia, coining the term “The 99 percent,” makes frequent reference to the concept of jubilee.  For instance, his book, Debt:  the First 5,000 Years, culminates in a call for a “Biblical-style Jubilee.”

Ooh, biblical-style jubilee.  That’s gotta be good, right?  He’s not talking about coffee and sheetcake, I’ll just bet.  He makes it sounds like something much more radical.  How radical was it?  Well, turns out, pretty utopian visionary stuff.   Let us read from the New International Version, Leviticus 25:10, which states (ahem):  “Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan.” 

How radical is that?  Did you catch it?  That is:   trumpet blows (okay, shofar blows) and- just like that- all debts are paid.  All leases are paid, all mortgages are cancelled.  All slaves and indentured servants and other debt prisoners are free. 

Imagine.  It blows my mind to think that our spiritual forebears built into their society what looks from here to be one great big emancipation proclamation/ discharge in bankruptcy/general amnesty once in every generation?  

What would it look like?  I can imagine the Warner Brothers cartoon where the wolf and the sheepdog are at each other’s throats and then the lunch whistle blows and they pause, mid-blood feud, to clock out, with a “Hello Ralph” and a “Hello Sam,” get out their lunch pails and have a repast. 

Here’s what I learned.  Jubilee is laid out in Leviticus.  Leviticus is one of the five books of the Torah, which the Christians call the Pentateuch, and tells the story of the Tabernacle and its first laws (That is, it’s the sequel to “The Ten Commandments” that picks up after the miracles, after the parting of the sea; after Charlton Heston comes down from the mountain and Edward G. Robinson is swallowed up by the earth.) 

Now, I am a sorry excuse for a biblical scholar and I don’t want to get caught trying to pass myself off as one, but what I am is a good structuralist. 

By structuralist, I mean that I dig this anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and I think he was onto something when he observed that all of the people of all of the cultures he studied have this in common.  They (and we) do the same thing with our brains.  They (and we) systematically process organized – that is to say, “structured” – units of information in the material world.  We take these units of information and we combine them and recombine them to create models that 1) explain the world we live in, 2) suggest imaginary alternatives to the world we live in, and 3) give us tools with which to operate in this world we live in. 

Structuralism gives us the paradigm --  And, now, don’t check out on me.  I promise I’m not going to say “paradigm” again.  OK, I just said paradigm again.  I’m not -- this is the last time I’m going to say “paradigm.”  As Unitarian Universalists we draw from the words and deeds of “prophetic” women and menStructuralism gives us a methodology to look at what comes down to us in holy books of these ancient societies, these prophetic peoples, not as the mysterious rites of an anointed but primitive people but as, essentially, “Us.”  Not just “kinda like us,” but “Us.” 

“Us” with less technology, less access to information – sure.  Us with some real hang-ups about eating shrimp and wearing blended fibers.  But us, with minds no less subtle, no less capable than our own.  Us, doing what we always do – creating structures that help us understand and get by in our world.

So, what did they do, these people who had been delivered out of slavery and had just settled in the promised land?  They began to establish rules for the new society.  And having just come out of slavery, you can imagine, the creeping possibility of falling back into slavery was much on their minds.  We know this, because, they then proceed to spend chapters and chapters laying out every stage of mounting spiraling debt on the slippery road to servitude with descriptive detail worthy of the most persnickety UU working group. 

In the first stage, a person is simply cash-strapped. This would be what the comedian Chris Rock means when he says “We were broke but we were never poor.”  This is broke but not poor.  The presumed scenario in an agrarian economy is:  farmer borrows money to buy seed but has a bad harvest; the proceeds from the harvest are not enough to repay the loan. He therefore must sell some of the land to a supplier in order to cover the debt from last year and plus buy seed for the next planting.  

If he still can’t get ahead, he eventually sells off more and more of his land until he becomes like a tenant farmer on his own land, then more like a sharecropper.  And on and on, until, as the folk singer George Davis once wrote about the coal mines, “Saint Peter dontcha call me ‘cause I can’t go/ I owe my soul to the company store.” 

Finally, if he can’t support his family, then he still has recourse to selling himself into bondage, either to another Israelite as an indentured servant, or to an outsider as a full-on slave. 

So, before they get to the utopian visionary part, these people of the tabernacle, they’re good naturalists, laying out a parade of horribles so relentless and seemingly inevitable that they seem to be saying, quite frankly, “Make no mistake, slipping back into slavery is a very real possibility.  Here is precisely what it would look like.  It just takes a run of bad luck.” 

This is a cold, bloodless accounting the likes of which you might find in Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath.”  It makes no moral judgments.  It does not vilify the creditors or weep for the debtors.  It’s just, this is how it is.  Debts are debts.  The law is the law.

But then they take a hard left.  They say, y’know the Sabbath?  Well, we need a super-sabbath, a whole year in every fifty where we’re going to take a break from business-as-usual.  We’re going to build into our society right at its foundation a safety valve, a re-set button.  And just as the Sabbath is a day of rest, so should the jubilee be a break, but from materialism, from competition, from domination and submission.  A break from these things, because, winner or loser, we all could use a break from these things.  Because striving and scratching and clawing might very well be good, even necessary, habits for surviving but they are disastrous habits for thriving.  So, take your boot off the neck of your neighbor and let’s just hang out.

And just as I might resolve not to take any work home and to dedicate the weekend to staring my family in their actual faces, so might a jubilee be a time to relate to each other in a different way.  Perchance to come to the realization that there is another way.  Perhaps, what they built into their society was the space in which to imagine a new way.

And here’s where I see parallels in American political discourse.  This attitude toward the law like “Whattayagonnado?”  It’s the law.  Zero tolerance.  Three strikes.  What part of illegal don’t you understand?  It crops up a lot. 

It was very present for me in the media coverage of the shooting of Michael Brown.  We couldn’t talk about Michael Brown without someone making a point of whether he was or wasn’t shoplifting a box of cigarillos or was or wasn’t jaywalking down the middle of the street.  We couldn’t talk about the outcry from the community of Ferguson, Missouri without talking about whether the riots turned to looting.   Mr. Brown’s relationship with the law is but one of many relationships at play in these events, and not the most salient.  To reduce human relationships to a system of laws is a failure of imagination.

It reminds me of Martin Luther King’s depiction of the white moderates in the Jim Crow South.  He describes them as being “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice”; as preferring a “negative peace which is the absence of tension” to a “positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

Dr. King makes no bones about his disappointment in these lukewarm allies.  “I had hoped,” he writes, scoldingly, “that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice.” For the purpose of establishing justice.  He makes justice not the happy by-product of law and order, but its raison d'être.  He goes on to write that when law and order “fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.” 

Dangerously structured dams.  This is a fun quote because UU’s don’t hardly get to say “dam” in church.  Dangerously structured dams.  So, not the dams that facilitate human progress.  Not the light-bringing hydroelectric dam.  Not the Hoover dam.  But an old beaver dam.  Law and order without aiming toward justice are like an old beaver dam, gumming up the works.

          Now, this is not a criticism of law and order.  I don’t want a world where a contract and a border and a license aren’t meaningful things.  I can recognize that they are arbitrary and still want them to be there.
          I am with Sir Thomas More in “A Man for All Seasons” when his lawyer son-in-law accuses him of “giving the Devil the benefit of law!”  “Yes!,” he affirms. “What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?”  Son-in-law takes the bait, “Yes,” he declares.  “I'd cut down every law in England to do that!” 
          And then Sir Thomas More knows he’s got him.  “Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law,” he concludes, “for my own safety's sake!”

There is no evidence that there ever really was a jubilee.  The sad reality may be that 50 years is all it takes for Jacobin revolutionary fervor to give way to the iron fist of concentrated wealth.  That in fifty years, the privileged managed to make of themselves new pharaohs in the promised land, to make their supremacy so unassailable that people didn’t even remember when the land used to be theirs.  It may be that by the time the shofar sounded, there was no great reckoning.  There was no super-sabbath.  There was a party and then back to the status quo. 

But we can still take the lesson, that we, when we’re doing it right, when we’re our best selves, we recognize that law is not some other thing. Debt is not some other thing.  It is us.  We make it up.  It answers to us.  It is one of many relationships to have with each other.  And we can choose others.

          David Groeber said it well.  He writes, “In this book I have largely avoided making concrete proposals, but let me end with this one.  It seems to me that we are long overdue for some kind of Biblical-style Jubilee: one that would affect both international debt and consumer debt.”  We could add, the border, the war on drugs.

          “It would be salutary,” he explains, “not just because it would relieve so much genuine human suffering, but also because it would be our way of reminding ourselves that money is not ineffable,” money is not ineffable, “that paying one’s debts is not the essence of morality,” paying one’s debts is not the essence of morality, “that all these things are human arrangements and that if democracy is to mean anything, it is the ability to all agree to arrange things in a different way.”

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