The Poetry of a Movement to Change This Country
The word jubilee comes from the Hebrew “yovel,” meaning a “trumpet blast of liberty.” It was said that, on the day of liberation, the sound of a ram’s horn would ring through the land. These days, I hear the sound of that horn while walking with my kids through the streets of New York City, while protests continue here, even amid a pandemic, as they have since soon after May 25th when a police officer put his knee to George Floyd’s neck and robbed him of his life. I hear it when I speak with homeless leaders defending their encampments amid the nightmare of Covid-19. I hear it when I meet people who are tired, angry, and yet, miraculously enough, finding their political voices for the first time. I hear it when I read escaped slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass’s speech on the eve of the Emancipation Proclamation.
I also feel Frederick Douglass’s sharp reminder, from that same speech, of the need for eternal vigilance when I learn of the death of leaders in the movement to transform this world of ours -- like Pamela Rush, who lived in the Mississippi Delta with raw sewage in her yard and died from Covid-19 complications, the closest hospital being nearly an hour from her home. (She leaves behind a daughter who needs a continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP, machine to breathe and a son.) These are, after all, times of staggering danger, but also enormous possibility, moments that should be met with unbridled imagination, absolute seriousness, and the music of those jubilee horns. Above all, in a world distinctly stacked against us, we must believe that we can succeed.
¡Sí, se puede! Yes, we can!
How to Heal America
On June 20th, I distinctly heard that sound of the jubilee horn, when nearly three million people tuned in for the Mass Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington to express the untold stories, demands, and potential solutions of a growing social movement to a host of injustices. Alongside social media, radio, and TV (in English, Spanish, and American Sign Language), toll-free numbers broadcast the program to homeless encampments and other places abandoned by much of this society long before Covid-19 hit, and 300,000 listeners sent the agenda of the Poor People’s Campaign to their governors and Congress.
Meanwhile, that very day in Tulsa, Oklahoma, President Trump was speaking at a rally in which he trafficked, as he always does, in explicit racism and hate even as he denied the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis it has induced. Only about 6,000 people sat largely maskless and shoulder to shoulder in that auditorium, which could have held 19,000. They nonetheless seem to have helped spark a surge in coronavirus cases in that city about two weeks later.
This Jubilee Platform, as we call it, affirms many of the truths discovered by freedom-fighters across the ages -- including the well-kept secret in America that there is actually enough for everyone and that all of us are deserving of our nation’s abundance
Also on June 20th, the Poor People’s Campaign (of which I am a co-chair) launched a “Moral Policy Agenda to Heal America: The Poor People’s Jubilee Platform.” It detailed not just a list of demands, but a blueprint for the moral reconstruction of a society that now looks to be failing fast. It’s meant to remind us all that ending poverty and systemic racism, working to mitigate climate change, and halting this country’s ever-growing militarism, at home and abroad, is not only possible, but that we essentially know what it will take to get us there. Among the policies needed are universal single payer healthcare, quality and free education through college, debt relief, a guaranteed income, the right to a living-wage job, true environmental protections, indigenous and immigrant rights, and an adequate standard of living for all, including the poor, in a country with a Congress and president focused mainly on the rich and on funding the Pentagon at ever more staggering levels.
This Jubilee Platform, as we call it, affirms many of the truths discovered by freedom-fighters across the ages -- including the well-kept secret in America that there is actually enough for everyone and that all of us are deserving of our nation’s abundance; that when we lift from the bottom up, everyone rises; that our society desperately needs a moral revolution of values for which we’ll have to depend on the leadership of those most impacted by injustice; and that, as Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., once suggested, we truly “can force the power structure to say yes when they may be desirous of saying no.”
There Need Be No Poor Among Us
Many people have said that this platform is far too ambitious, that such demands are both politically inconceivable and ridiculously too expensive. Don’t believe them. Instead, believe me that the benefits of investing in life, not death, far outweigh the costs, whatever they may be.
After all, child poverty already costs our country, at a minimum, an estimated $700 million annually; voter suppression in just one state, Florida, added up to at least $385 million annually in administrative and court costs; failing to adequately address climate change and create a genuine green economy could, in the end, cost an estimated 15.7% of our gross domestic product a year, wiping out the equivalent of $3.3 trillion from our economy -- and, if the effects of climate change arrive more quickly than expected, it could be worse. Meanwhile, endless wars, not to speak of the 800 U.S. military bases scattered across the planet, cost hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars a year without making our country or the world any safer.
Instead of bankrolling war and the military-industrial complex, Americans could swiftly cut $350 billion from the annual Pentagon budget, use it to enhance genuine security at home (particularly during this pandemic), and still have a larger military budget than China, Russia, and Iran combined. The government could raise the federal minimum wage to a living one and experience a ripple effect as that money circulated back through the economy, both faster and further than the billions Congress has given through tax cuts to the already immensely wealthy and corporations. And the U.S. could gain $886 billion in estimated annual revenue from fair taxes on that 1% of Americans, the most powerful corporations, and Wall Street.
Imagine a society that truly began to invest in public infrastructure, creating ever more and better jobs not related to the military-industrial complex, while accelerating a clean energy transition (and the jobs that went with it). Imagine what that would do for our country and the planet. In the process, the United States could provide health care, housing, and education for everyone. In the richest country in the world, there are, in reality, abundant resources, even if for far too long our public policies have funneled far too much to far too few.
Jubilee and Justice
The inclusion of jubilee in that policy platform is not meant as just another rhetorical flourish. It is meant as a rallying cry, a word that captures in the best possible way a future economic and social vision of justice, a political roadmap for our moment, and an expression of the moral heart of movements of the oppressed in this country. Indeed, jubilee has often been invoked as a shorthand for the promise of freedom in this country, from the pre-Civil War abolition movement to today.
On December 28, 1862, on the eve of the moment when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves, Frederick Douglass gave a speech, “The Day of Jubilee Comes” that he began this way: “This is scarcely a day for prose. It is a day for poetry and song, a new song.” He then warned, however, that it was unwise “for the friends of freedom to fold their hands and consider their work at an end. The price of Liberty is eternal vigilance.”
Two and a half years of death and struggle later, on June 19, 1865, the Union Army arrived in Galveston, Texas, and the enslaved people of that city -- the last to do so -- learned that they had been emancipated. The memory of that day has since held special meaning for many Black communities, as well as others seeking freedoms of various sorts. Some know it as Juneteenth. Others call it Jubilee Day.
In my 25 years of grassroots anti-poverty organizing, from homeless encampments to welfare offices, we’ve declared jubilee countless times, whether from crushing debt and family separation or inadequate housing and healthcare systems. An understanding of what jubilee means, and the hope it represents, has always been grounded in a study of history and theology.
I’m a minister and teach in a theological seminary, so I couldn’t be more aware that “jubilee” appears throughout the Bible, including in the law codes of Deuteronomy, the most cited Old Testament book. Those codes established a covenant with God in which there was to be an unbroken cycle of jubilee years when debts were cancelled, slaves manumitted, wages finally paid, the poor and hungry given provisions, and farm land allowed to lie fallow (an early form of ecological conservation). Together, those codes served as sacred law and the people were told that, if they were followed, “there need be no poor people among you.”
None of those laws were meant to be about charity, but about the responsibilities of a land and a people. They amounted, in fact, to a call for a radical reconstruction of society. It was no accident, in fact, that the first mention of jubilee came two books earlier in Leviticus in a similar set of liberatory codes handed down by God after the Jewish people had been freed from Egypt. They were to provide a clean break with the hellish world those Jews had just escaped and the first building-blocks of a new, more just one.
What does all this have to do with the United States today? For one thing, even before Covid-19 hit, there were 140 million poor and low-income people in the richest country in the world, the richest country, in fact, in history and one in which inequality has risen to levels not seen in a century. Meanwhile, wages for most workers have been stagnating for decades and, in the Covid-19 moment, historic rates of unemployment hit, along with the threat of a massive wave of evictions amid a widening economic crisis. In addition, over the past few decades, poverty has become an increasingly endemic and permanent fixture of American life.
In that context, it should be obvious that the United States is in dire need of a new vision.
The Day of Jubilee Is Coming
The problems of 2020 clearly demand a jubilee vision for the nation, something that, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, feels more possible now than it has for generations. Reverend William J. Barber II, my Poor People’s Campaign co-chair, often says that we are on the cusp of a Third Reconstruction (after the post-Civil War one and the Civil Rights Movement). In each of those previous periods, monumental social, political, and economic changes were birthed by movements in the midst of insufferable conditions and in the face of regressive governments.
The last few months offer evidence that growing segments of society -- if not the Trump administration and various Republican state governments -- are willing to imagine bold solutions to issues like poverty and systemic racism and are prepared to organize what could be a new reconstruction to make them a reality. Six months into the pandemic, tens of thousands of Americans are continuing to go on rent strikes and engage in the struggles of low-wage workers and the unemployed demanding both immediate relief and permanent rights to housing and decent work at a living wage.
Those in a revitalizing labor movement are taking increasingly militant action, including the national Strike for Black Lives on July 20th by low-wage workers. Meanwhile, this summer’s racial justice uprisings have awakened one of the largest protest movements in American history, while transforming the conversation on previously untouchable institutions like the police and the military. An unprecedented debate has now opened up about how society spends its resources and why politicians have invested so much money in social control and violence, while gravely underfunding the cornerstones of a healthy society: education and environmental protection, healthcare, housing, infrastructure, and food and water supplies, among other things.
The nation’s misplaced priorities are not only damaging the social fabric, but moving us toward a fundamentally unstable economy in which only the truly wealthy will truly prosper. Beneath the often-detached waves of the stock market is a roiling ocean of troubles: more than 80 million people uninsured or underinsured, for instance, within the most expensive healthcare system among developed countries. In 2019, 137 million Americans faced financial hardship thanks to high medical costs and rising debt. Meanwhile, the Pentagon awarded Boeing roughly the same amount in annual military contracts as it would cost to expand Medicaid in the 14 states that have yet to do so.
In America, scarcity is a myth and nothing more. The money is there to be found and, during a pandemic, it needs to be. Last summer, the Poor People’s Campaign and the Institute for Policy Studies released a “moral budget” outlining where this country’s abundant resources have been so disastrously funneled and how they could be redirected toward the rest of us.
Where would such moneys go? Toward making a reality of what the Constitution has always promised: establishing real justice (the right to democracy and equal protection under the law), promoting the general welfare (the right to an adequate standard of living), ensuring domestic tranquility (the right to work with dignity), securing the blessings of liberty (the right to health and a healthy environment), and providing for the common defense (reprioritizing our resources to defend life over profit and our real security over that of the national security state).
To do this, the nation would need to enshrine education, healthcare, housing, and welfare as universal rights; raise wages, while creating new labor standards and encouraging the right to unionize and organize; demilitarize the economy and our communities; protect the vote, not the gerrymander, while investing in democracy, not incipient Trump-style autocracy; forgive debts, rather than improving the ability of banks to collect them; declare climate change a national emergency; and invest in infrastructure while building a fully green economy.
Social movements, especially when first gaining ground, are often told to be “practical,” to make their demands few and modest. It’s worth noting, though, that the same is never asked of the super-rich, of the 1%, certainly not in the financial crisis of 2007-2008 when Wall Street was bailed out to the tune of nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars, nor in the current crisis when Congress’s stimulus package to date has largely amounted to an even greater giveaway program. A jubilee platform is not a proposal to tinker around the edges. It is a plan for reconstruction that hopes to address the pain and hope of millions fighting every day simply for the right to live. The project of reconstructing society around the needs of the poor and dispossessed requires a movement led by those most impacted by the economic and racial disasters of our time.
When We Lift from the Bottom, Everyone Rises
I have been engaged in a movement to reconstruct society led by the poor and dispossessed for more than a quarter of a century. In that time, many have come forward to claim that ending poverty is impossible, that this is as good as it gets, that the costs of addressing inequality are simply too great. Especially in my role as a member of the ordained clergy and a biblical scholar, rarely has a week passed that I haven’t heard someone quote a line from Jesus in the Bible -- “the poor will be with you always” -- to make the point that humanity has always known poverty to be eternal and that its mitigation is best reserved for charity or philanthropy. Indeed, that biblical passage has become yet another tool wielded by supporters of the wealthy to deflect attention from systemic failures in our country and help them further consolidate their power -- to reinforce that social uplift is far too costly to imagine and change of that sort inconceivable.
In a blistering new report on the growing crisis of global poverty, Phillip Alston, the former U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, explained the consequences well: “The overwhelming success of the ideological campaign that supports neoliberal policies is that it has succeeded in convincing people that those in poverty have no one to blame but themselves, while supporting the notion that trickle-down policies will address it.”
We may live in a time that essentializes poverty, but the irony of that line from the Bible on the poor is that Jesus was actually critiquing it (and the rich) by cleverly referencing the law codes of Deuteronomy. In his time, the Roman Empire had created a society rife with suffering and death, as well as its own predatory regime of wealth accumulation. Jesus references perhaps the most powerful prescription for justice in the Old Testament with the message that “there need be no poor people among us” and instructs nations to forgive debts, pay people what they deserve, abolish slavery, and organize society around the needs of the poor. That jubilee passage of his was never actually saying that poverty was inevitable, but that the “poor will be always with us” as long as we cater to the rich rather than build a society that cares for everyone. That’s no less true today.
May we choose another way.
Liz Theoharis, a TomDispatch regular, is a theologian, ordained minister, and anti-poverty activist. Director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, she is the author of Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor.
Republished with permission from TomDispatch.