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A Debt To Handel

The popularity of Handel's Messiah in the industrial areas of the north of England is legendary. Even in a so-called secular age many people still regard a performance of Messiah as a treat not to be missed, whether at the great venues with well-known orchestras or at smaller occasions with amateur musicians. Its glorious 250-year-old but still vibrant music is one major reason for its popularity. The dramatic choruses with their rippling semiquaver runs echoed by different voices never fail to exhilarate, as do the great solos associated with past names like Heddle Nash, Isobel Baillie and Kathleen Ferrier. The tradition has continued to thrive through a later generation of fine singers associated with the Royal Northern College of Music, like Joan Rodgers, Amanda Roocroft and JohnTomlinson.

Obviously, for devout believers, Messiah at Christmas is an act of worship as well as an entertainment. Yet all those reasons do not explain its association with Britain's northern industrial cities. Surely it can be argued that its message of hope, of better times tocome, of rejoicing in the birth of a new ruler bringing peace and prosperity on earth, must have cheered the hearts of many people. For those of our ancestors whose daily lives were unrelenting hard work, with the threat of unemployment and poverty always round the corner, those mighty choruses were promises of a time of justice and of reconciliation.

Such sentiments are hardly surprising. The first Messianic prophecies were to Jewish people under threat of invasion in the eighth century BC. They were echoed by the gospel writers about Jesus, who knew that burdensome Roman taxation had fuelled renewed Messianic hopes, taxation recently estimated at 65% of GDP in a subsistence economy.

"Let us break their bonds asunder, and cast away their yokes from us" is an inspiring manifesto for any age. In fact the text of Messiah, all carefully selected Biblical stuff, has the ring of imminent revolution about it. The kingdom of God is already here in essence, and its fulfilment is to come on the earth. It is a travesty of the faith that this message has become spiritualised and robbed of content, so that pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die, originally a wicked satire of eternal life, has become accepted as a picture of the future.

A glance at the text of the Messiah shows that such a view is profoundly mistaken. Christians especially need to realise that what they call the Old Testament is also the Jewish Bible. Those ancient people, in their demands for social justice, wanted it now, for they had little concern for life after death. The idea of resurrection is a late arrival in the history of religion. Nor are the ideas of economic justice found in the Jubilee laws all that new. Recent research has confirmed hope of economic justice as having ancient roots in Babylon, where periodic debt remission preceded the Bible by many centuries.

For example, the text of Handel's aria "I know that my Redeemer liveth", is taken from the book of Job, but the idea is much older. The Hebrew word translated as Redeemer is go-el, originally a next of kin whose task it was to exact revenge for murder, or to buy up the property of a close relative forced to sell in time of economic hardship.

American scholar Michael Hudson takes the idea much further in his book The Lost Biblical Tradition of Debt Cancellation. He says "Under Christianity, the idea of redemption became an analogy for salvation from bondage, extended to cover worldlysuffering in general - a suffering, which, at the turn of our era, was still caused mainly by debt pressures. Given this background we can see how appropriate was Handel's Messiah, embodying the image of Christ literally as Redeemer by using the proceeds of the oratorio's first performance (in Dublin in 1742) to redeem Irish debtors from prison.

Probably the most familiar part of the Messiah is the great Hallelujah chorus. The word hallelujah itself, for thousands of years an expression of affirmation of good news can be traced back to its Babylonian source, 'ululu, the word that was chanted ceremonially on the occasion when debt bondsmen were redeemed by anointing the manumitted individual's head with oil." Anointing with oil was a symbol of kingship, in fact the word Messiah itself comes from a Hebrew word meaning anointed one, and the name Christ comes from the Greek equivalent.

Imagine then, a new king coming to deliver people from debt-slavery now. William Temple, one-time Bishop of Manchester and later Archbishop of Canterbury, protested to the end of his life about the power of the financial system to enslave millions in poverty. Perhaps, at a time when Jubilee 2000 has failed to make any significant impact on Third World debt, when the levels of unpayable public and private debt worry the politicians of the First World, we can learn something from ancient wisdom. What, you may ask? Cancel all unpayable debt as part of a programme of monetary justice? Now there's a proclamation to fill every church in the land this Christmas.


Kevin Donnelly is Press Secretary of the Christian Council for Monetary Justice. A life-long Mancunian, he was a scholarship boy at eleven, a high-school dropout at fourteen, then variously a toolmaker, clerk, sales manager, then unemployed, before resuming education at 38 and becoming a teacher. Seeing the link between under-achieving children and economic insecurity of their familiesled to interest in the future labour market, guaranteed incomes and monetary reform. Contact: Kevin Donnelly, 20 Nan Nook Road, Manchester, M23 9BZ Tel /fax: 0161 998 4791