The nature of jubilee and its origins in the scriptures whose edicts underpin our culture, are those of celebration through restoration. It is, in its original formulation in Leviticus 25, an economic restoration of land to those who originally owned it; an undercutting of the principle that something is mine because I currently own it; a structural feature of the economy that governs economic relationships, such that prices and debts were calculated on the basis of ‘years until jubilee’; an agricultural policy to protect and enrich the soil; and a fundamental economic expression of God’s care for the poor, the dispossessed, the land and those who live on it and gain their livelihood from it. It would, had their been such a thing, been a form of justice reflected in the tax system. And this was a celebration, a renewal of the reality that Israel was not dependent on its own wit or strength, but on God.

This last feature is something that our capitalist economy, based on mercantilist roots and the exploitation of, rather than care for, the land, has nearly eradicated. Jubilee is a root of social justice that has been violently secularised in Marxism and agitated and fought for by socialists in every continent. It motivated the chartists, the early trade union movement and legions of those fighting against dispossession. As Robert Mugabe said, when he was a dynamic young revolutionary: ‘The only right by which you hold this land is the right of conquest, and is one right that can be easily reversed’ – his disastrous policy of seizing white farms was simply a violent Marxist expression of Jubilee.

And here we are, celebrating the long reign of the last Christian monarch we are likely to have in the UK. Apart from the trappings of state in posh churches, I have heard little in the media about the deep Christian motivations to Elizabeth Windsor’s service, though yesterday’s Platinum Party got close to the strong sense of the spiritual that is at the heart of her leadership, and I could watch her having tea with Paddington Bear for hours…. But this was, as Martin Kettle has pointed out in the Guardian yesterday, a jubilee about Elizabeth Windsor. It had nothing to do with empire, very little about commonwealth, not much even about recent history. It was about a graceful, much loved, elderly lady who took seriously the gift of God that had allowed her to serve her country for a very, very long time. A wonderful, popular celebration of her life and impact, but not, in any biblical sense, a jubilee.

Many of the commonwealth countries, more Christian than Britain, have an ambivalence about the royal family, given our long and devastating commitment to colonial policies and the slave trade. And of course, the Queen, like all of us, is not simply formed by the work of Jesus: she is subject to the cultural expectations of class, history, constitutional position and birth. And within these constraints, she has acted wonderfully and consistently in her commitment to service, working tirelessly and without complaint with a series of more or less uncouth Prime Ministers eager to co-opt her to their political vision. The current incumbent, living in his shadow-world of lies, selfishness, incompetence and ambition, must tax her patience most of all. He remains the single most potent argument for having a sensible monarch as head of state.

The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (LICC) has published two useful celebrations of Elizabeth Windsor’s life as queen. The first, published at the time of her 60th year on the throne, was called The Servant Queen and the King she Serves. It was witty and enjoyable and did a great deal to remind Christians and others of the roots of her service.

This year’s sequel, recently arrived in the post, is called The Queen’s Faith. This is written as an exemplar of Christian public service, in keeping with one of LICC’s main focuses. There are plenty of Christian voices in similar vein, and they are to be celebrated.

But I was alive in 1977 and remember that first ‘Silver Jubilee’ well. The mugs still exist somewhere! 25 years later, we had the 2002 ‘Golden Jubilee,’ overshadowed by the Afghan war and deteriorating relationships with the Arab world. And then there was 2012, overshadowed by the Olympic event in London. And now platinum. But including this one, four of these ‘jubilees’ have come and gone, and economic justice for farmers, for migrants, for the poor, for people of colour and for women (and how many of these categories intersect!) is as far off as ever.

And then the big elephant in the room, brought to light again by the Black Lives Matter campaign of 2020, has been slavery and the issue of reparations. We have, since 1837, found the money nationally to pay off slaveholders for their ‘property losses’, but we have yet to pay any money at all to slaves. The black nations of the western hemisphere remain among the poorest on earth, whilst the slave-holding and slave-trading nations that gained untold wealth from slavery through the tax system – the US, the UK, France – remain the richest of the large democracies.

Under an equitable jubilee, one true to its Judeo-Christian roots and understanding of jubilee, this would not be so. A jubilee would be a good time to restore into our tax system a recognition that much of the shared wealth in the UK, and certainly the strong economic base that helped Britain rise to power in the 18th century, was entwined completely with slavery. That way, all would contribute, and it could be structured like income tax, as a progressive tax so the richer paid more, whilst bringing back into public ownership and use, as and when they became available, those assets that were wholly derived from the slave trade.

Politicians have said that this is too difficult, but reparation to slave owners has worked. What better mark of jubilee than to commit ourselves to renewed economic justice and begin the process of repentance and reparation now?

About Huw Humphreys

I am a teacher and school leader by calling, now working as a lecturer in a large London university, where I have been since January 2021. I am also an educational researcher, seeking to help make education effective for the whole child. I tend to keep a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, amateur printmaker, pretend linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for children. The views on this blog are all my own and (hopefully) do not represent those of anyone I work for or with!

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