An opportunity for reflection and action on the many forms of modern day slavery
by Luigino Bruni
According to biblical humanism every jubilee year is an anniversary of mercy, but it is above all social, economic-political mercy: it was a crucial element in the jubilee year of the Jews to free those slaves who had become debt slaves. If we want this jubilee year not to remain a private and intimate matter of individual Christians, we must seize this great opportunity that Pope Francis gives us to bring about major initiatives of forgiveness and mercy in the economic, banking and civil world. One possible way of doing this would be to question ourselves about finance and about the many debts and slaves of our times who have been enslaved by a bad system.
The real question that I pose as an economist of communion at the beginning of this jubilee year is: "Can we make sure that this great event will also become an economic, civil, political event that can change our economic and financial relations, one that may reform a financial system that produces slaves?" Have a wonderful Holy Year!
At the beginning of this Holy Year we are republishing the article written by Luigino Bruni for Avvenire on 16 November 2014, commenting on the establishment of the jubilee year in Exodus. Best wishes for a Happy Holy Year to all: may this be a year of economic and civil mercy, too!
The Treasure of the Seventh Day
published in Avvenire on 16/11/2014
In Montgomery, Alabama, in a small Baptist church, I heard the most extraordinary sermon ever: the topic was the book of Exodus and the political struggle of the black in the South. From his pulpit the preacher mimed the exodus from Egypt, and he expounded the similarities with the present; he bent his back under the whip, he defied Pharaoh, he fearfully hesitated in front of the sea, he accepted the covenant and the law at the foot of the mountain.
M. Walzer, Exodus and Revolution
The types of humanism that have shown themselves capable of a future have flourished thanks to non-predatory relationships with time and with the earth. Time and the earth are not our creation; they can only be received, kept, cared for and managed by us, as a gift and a promise. And when we don't act like this and use time and land for profit, the future horizon of all gets cloudy and smaller.
Biblical humanism had translated this dimension of the radical gift nature of time and land with the great law of the Sabbath and the Jubilee, with the culture of the fallow land: For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the beasts of the field may eat. ...Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your servant woman, and the alien, may be refreshed. (Ex 23:10-12)
We are not the masters of the world. We live on it, it loves us, nourishes us and gives us life, but we are guests and pilgrims here, residents and owners of a land that is entirely ours, and entirely foreign to us, where we feel at home and as travellers at the same time. The earth has always been a promised land, a goal that is in front of us and is never reached. And it is also the land on which we built our house, where our neighbourhood is, where the crops grow in our field.
At the roots of the biblical culture of the fallow there is only a wise and sustainable technique of the cultivation of the land. In the Book of Exodus we find the fallow along with the Sabbath and the jubilee year, and it is an expression of a deeper and more general law concerning nature, time, animals, social relations; it is a radical prophecy of human and cosmic brotherhood. You can use the land for six days, not seven; you can get help from the work of other men for six days, not seven. You can and you have to work, but not always, because we only worked always when we were slaves in Egypt. The domestic animals work six days for you, but the seventh is not for you. The stranger is not a stranger every day, on the seventh day he is a person of your house with and like all the others. There's a part of your land and your “stuff” that is not yours, and you have to leave it to the wild animals, to the stranger, to the poor. What you have is not altogether and only for you. It also belongs to another one who is never too “other” to be left out from the horizon of “us all”. All true goods are common goods.
But if there is a stigma of gratuitousness imprinted on things and on human relationships, then every property is imperfect, every dominion is secondary, no foreigner is really and only a foreigner, no poor is poor forever. Prophetically, Christianity has sent the ‘letter’ of the law of the Sabbath into crisis, but not to reduce the seventh day to the level of the other six. In the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ where the poor are called happy and the servants friends, the first six days are called to convert into the prophecy of gratuitousness and universal brotherhood enclosed in the last day.
Therefore the law of the seventh day tells us that the animals, the earth, nature are not only valuable in relation to us humans, they are also valuable in themselves. Land and lakes must be respected, and so left to rest free from our dominion and our acquisitive instinct, not only because their fruits shall be more healthy and good for us this way; they should be respected for their intrinsic value and dignity that we should recognize and never offend even when a land is not cultivated, or when there is no fish to catch in a lake. Because fields, lakes and forests are created and given as gifts, just as we humans, animals and the world is. It's the fraternity of the earth that inspired the law of the fallow, the Sabbath, the Jubilee.
The radical diversity of the seventh day reminds us that the laws of the six days, the asymmetries and inequalities are neither the only nor the most true ones, because the seventh day is the judgment over the justice and humanity of the other six. The degree of humanity and civilization of any concrete society is measured using the difference between the sixth and seventh day. The last day then becomes the perspective from which the other six days, as well as their ethical, spiritual and human quality can be viewed and judged. When there is no seventh day, work becomes slavery to those who work; it becomes servitude and lack of breath for the land and the animals; the stranger never becomes a brother and the poor remain short of redemption of themselves and the city. Empires have always tried to eliminate the very idea of the seventh day and the concrete utopia contained in it, thinking of eliminating the judgment on the injustices perpetrated by them throughout the six days – it's nice to think that while the Jewish priests wrote the Book of Exodus, or at least some pieces of it, they were slaves in Babylon, with no Shabbats. For this reason, they loved it and longed for it as a great hope and promise of freedom from all idols and empires, and as a judgment on their time: the prophecy of a different ‘day’ has always reappeared in the midst of suffering and slavery, and it can be born yet again in our time.
As long as we save the prophecy of the seventh day there might be hope for the poor and the oppressed and all those who are not happy with the slavery and humiliation of the six days of history. And let's say that we do not want those injustices to last forever.
The law of the seventh day challenges every aspect of life. As individuals it invites us not to consume and possess ourselves fully, to make room in our soul that is not occupied by our projects so that some seeds that we don't even know how to receive can shoot up and flourish in there. Without this dimension of gratuitousness and respect for the mystery that we are, life is missing that space of freedom and generosity which is the dwelling place of the spiritual humus that matures the “already” from the “not-yet”. It's the intimate and precious space for the most fruitful kind of generativity. It is there, in the land of the free that is not only a “source of income” for us, where the big surprises of life reach us that will change it forever, it is there that true creativity is born. It is from that piece of uncultivated and untapped land of the garden that we can see the top line of the horizon between heaven and earth, where our eyes so sickly fixed on the infinite may finally relax and find rest.
But the logic of the fallow (the Italian word for fallow is “maggese”, originating from the word “maggio” or May, the month in which fields were left to rest in the Roman world) has important messages also for communities and institutions. A community without fallow land has no time for feasts, is not a welcoming community, takes possession of people and goods, does not know fraternity, so the breath of the ‘breathing’ of the spirit cannot be felt in it. However, wherever its indicators are clear and strong: the hierarchies and power only last six days there the gratuitousness of the feast and the efficiency of work have the same dignity. The children and the poor always feel at home, because there are areas of unoccupied houses that are left free for them.
The culture of the fallow is not the culture of capitalism that we live in, which by its idolatrous nature builds on a permanent and totalitarian cult that needs consumer-workers seven days a week: Pay attention to all that I have said to you, and make no mention of the names of other gods... (23:13). And so a great need of our generation, perhaps the greatest, derives from the death of the seventh day, that was made to disappear from our collective symbolic code. Because the value of the seventh day is not only one seventh of the total: it is the yeast and salt in all the others, without it they remain unleavened and saltless. It is only the non-yoke of the seventh day that makes the yokes of all others sustainable, even easy and light.
We have let the seventh day be stolen from us, we bartered it with the culture of the weekend (where the poor are even poorer, the animals even more subdued, foreigners even more foreigners). And the night of the seventh day is inexorably darkening the other six. The earth has stopped breathing, and we miss its air. We have a duty to restore its breath to it and to ourselves, giving it back to our children who are entitled to live in a world with one day more that is different, to repeat the experience of the gift of time and earth.
But we can still hope. The prophecy of the seventh day is not dead – the Bible has preserved it for us. It also kept the judgment on our six days that have become seven identical days and has preserved its promise for us, too. The word is alive, it generates and regenerates us forever. It gives back time and land to us, it widens our horizons, it makes us feel and see the clearest skies: Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. (24:9 -10)
Further commentaries by Luigino Bruni in Avvenire are available through the Avvenire Editorial