Skip to site content

Jubilee and Justice: Celebrating Sabbath Economics

When Abbie Hoffman and his “Yippies” did it 35 years ago, they did it inside. Stock brokers and activists alike will remember the scene from the New York Stock Exchange in 1967, dollar bills floating to the trading floor and traders scrambling to grab them. Hoffman called it a “money drop.”

When a group of evangelical Christians did it on October 21, 2002, they did it outside — in the street, where traders were hurrying past a crowd of nearly 100 homeless New Yorkers who had gathered for the event. Shane Claiborne, the bullhorn-toting spokesperson who announced the scattering of $10,000 in coins and small bills, called it a “celebration of Jubilee.”<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
In a flyer that was distributed after the celebration began, the group explained who they were: “Some of us have worked on Wall Street and some of us have slept on Wall Street. We are a community of struggle. Some of us are rich people trying to escape our loneliness. Some of us are poor folks trying to escape the cold. Some of us are addicted to drugs and others are addicted to money.”
 
Most involved in the protest were members of Christian justice-oriented groups such as the Catholic Worker Houses founded by Dorothy Day, Communality of Lexington, Kentucky, Mosaic Community of Omaha, Nebraska, and The Simple Way, the Philadelphia-based community that actually organized the event. The <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Simple Way invited others to join them by letter, stating, “A Jubilee Celebration will interrupt the usual activities of Wall Street. In the face of hoarding we will give money away to folks in need.” The $10,000 that were redistributed came from punitive damages paid by the City of New York in a wrongful arrest and police misconduct suit filed by Mr. Claiborne on behalf of the homeless of New York. Each invitation sent to other organizations was accompanied by a $100 bill with “love” written across its face in red magic marker. The money for those invitations was given by an anonymous donor.
 
Mike Brix, a member of The Simple Way, talked before the direct action about his hopes for the celebration. “We want to share love,” he said, “with homeless people living a tough life and stock exchange workers living a tough life and police officers with guns living a tough life.” Claiborne, also a member of The Simple Way, continued: “We don’t want to block the entrance or shut the NYSE down like Abbie Hoffman and those cats. We trust that the way of life we’re celebrating is simply more attractive.”
 
“Official invitations” to the celebration were distributed to homeless men and women on the streets of New York, inviting them to “join together with us as we declare the possibility (and necessity) of another way of life, a way that we call the Kingdom of God.” In his speech before the money was scattered, Claiborne further explained why the group had gathered: “From 1996 until 2000, eighty-six percent of the stock market’s advances went to the wealthiest ten percent of our world. Today, 358 people own the same amount of assets as forty-five percent of the world’s population. The richest twenty percent own eighty percent of the resources, while the poorest twenty percent own one and a half percent. Enough! Another world is possible. Another world is necessary.”
 
When Claiborne finished, there were cheers from the crowd as Sister Margaret McKenna of New Jerusalem, a recovery community in Philadelphia, sounded the beginning of the celebration with a shofar. This ram’s horn was the traditional instrument used by Jews to proclaim the Jubilee, a periodic redistribution of wealth commanded by God in the Torah, a tradition affirmed by Jesus in the fourth chapter of Luke’s gospel. “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,” Jesus declared, quoting Isaiah, “and he has anointed me to proclaim… the year of our Lord’s favor” — that is, many New Testament scholars contend, to proclaim the Jubilee. While this biblical tradition may not have been familiar to everyone in the Wall Street crowd, the cloud of cash and the clinking of change on concrete was clearly enough to draw attention.
 
“You’re not going to believe this, Honey,” one man said as he held a cell phone against one ear and stuck a finger in the other. “These people are throwing money everywhere.” Then, after a pause, “Oh, I hadn’t thought of that. I mean, we have enough money.” Perhaps greed was not as widespread as had been assumed. A trader going into the NYSE suggested otherwise, however, when asked what was happening: “I think they’re saying that the stock market is greedy. And they’re right.”
 
One observer noted that the greed of the stock market was not limited to the people in business suits. “I think those people scrounging for change are representative of what’s going on inside [the stock exchange].” Indeed, one man who emerged from the crowd with a fist full of change confessed, “I feel like we fell into the greed thing.”
 
Still, a number of people felt that greed was disarmed as it was exposed. James Taylor, a member of New Jerusalem, talked about how exciting it was to take a hundred one dollar bills in his hand — and then let them sail off into the wind. “I just stood there and watched them float for a few seconds. And then I bent over and picked up a few,” he added. “I mean, I ain’t got no money either.” One security guard gave a similar response. With pockets bulging he remarked, “Just another day in New York City,” reminding himself not be surprised by anything in this town. “We’re all just trying to get by.”
 
Unlike a conventional protest, the lines between those in the group and those outside were blurry at this celebration. A number of the organizers were in business suits while others were dressed as super-heroes (one wore a Christmas tree on his head and called himself Kid Christmas, “bringing the gift of justice year-round because Jesus has no season.”) Some looked like tourists and some more like bohemian types from Greenwich Village. Maria Kenny, a member of Communality from Lexington Kentucky, talked about the tension she felt within herself. “On the one hand we’re here saying that this system has to change; on the other hand, my salary is paid by a foundation that generates revenue by investing money in the stock market.”
 
Andy Peifer, a former Catholic Worker resident and experienced protester, said that he appreciated the spirit of this event. “We’re not holding signs and shouting at them. We’re celebrating a new world that is possible for all of us.” This new age that Jesus proclaimed is both coming and has already come, Christians confess. While we have been saved and justified before God, we know from experience that we are not yet perfect. Though we exist as a community called out of the world, we grieve that much of the world is still in and among us. We live “between the times,” as some theologians say. And we confess that God is with us in the in-between.
 
At its best, this is the good news of Jubilee — the hope that God is with us and that he is in Lord over all that he has made. Because of this we don’t have to worry; we can obey God’s instruction to rest. So the rich are encouraged to give without expecting anything in return — that is, they are called to give high risk loans. Likewise, the poor man is instructed to repay his debts faithfully — to even give the shirt off his back if his creditors ask for his coat. This notion is what theologian and activist Ched Meyers has called “Sabbath economics.” It is, he believes, the new economic order that Jesus proclaimed.
 
This does not, of course, mean that Christians do nothing in the world. “He who does not work does not eat,” Paul says. Grace is not a license for sin. Instead, the grace extended to us by our heavenly Father is cause for celebration, the pursuit of justice and the periodic redistribution of wealth that we learn in the ancient practice of Jubilee. To dump $10,000 on the street every day would be irresponsible. That this group of Christians has done it once, however, is cause enough for us to ask how the church might practice gospel economics more faithfully in this age of advanced capitalism. In our homes and in our churches, may the celebration continue.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is research and administrative associate at the Institute for Global Engagement. Used by permission.