The idea of “Jubilee Economics” has been appearing in the public discourse more and more since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. But what exactly is Jubilee? Who does it help? Why should it be implemented?
Through this eight-part series, Heretic editor Ryan Lindsey gives an ethics- and faith-based case for the radical economic and social concept of Jubilee.
Why Some Debts Should be Unpaid
Imagine a linear spectrum drawn on the ground with these two statements at opposite ends:
- Debts should always be repaid.
- Debts should never be repaid.
If you asked everyone you knew to arrange themselves on that spectrum based on which statement they believed in more, where do you think the bulk of people would be? How do you think the spread of people would change if you clarified that you weren’t talking strictly about financial debts?
I imagine that at first, you would see a fairly even spread of people across the spectrum, but there would be a definite imbalance towards the first statement (that debts should always be repaid). However, after clarifying that not all debts are financial, I believe you would see the opposite imbalance form.
Not all debts are financial, but all debts are moral issues complete with ethical (and religious/spiritual) implications and considerations. To view the very idea of debt as something that can be solely isolated to the physical realm is wrong, because debt (of any type and any amount) creates and sustains a power dynamic between moral agents.
Just as it is dangerous to over-spiritualize the idea of Jubilee, it’s equally dangerous to over-materialize the concept of debt.
Palestine in the time of Jesus was a and occupied by a great foreign power, the Roman Empire. Debt was one of the chief tools that the Romans used to oppress the Jews. Rural farmers were forced to sell their land to pay taxes to the Romans and their puppet-king, and once they were saddled with debt, massive percentages of what they produced had to be given to their creditors in order to avoid total destitution. Much like in our society, the have-nots were funding the decadency and oppressiveness of the haves.
If unforeseen circumstances arose like a bad harvest, famine, drought, – a pandemic – then the debtors were in even greater trouble. Many of them were faced with the options of completely selling their land and possessions and selling themselves and their family’s into a form of indentured slavery. Many ended up in “debtors’ prisons” (Matthew 18:23-25).
These debts were forced on people through an unjust system and compounded by events beyond their control.
Given that context, this passage from the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke takes on a fresh light:
16 He came to Nazareth, where he had grown up, and went according to his custom into the synagogue on the sabbath day. He stood up to read 17 and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”
20 Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. 21 He said to them, “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”
This passage from Luke records Jesus quoting from the prophet Isaiah right at the start of His ministry. But what is the good news that He’s bringing?
Almost universally, Biblical scholars agree that the “year acceptable to the Lord” mentioned in that Isaiac passage is the “year of Jubilee”. As discussed in Part I of this series, Jubilee in the Jewish context that Jesus was speaking from is a time of debt forgiveness, slaves being freed, and land/wealth redistribution (Deuteronomy 15, Leviticus 25). Traditionally, Jubilee was meant to happen every seven years. This ensured that inequalities could not persist over long periods of time and that the culture could not long be out of a Jubilee mindset.
Considering how many of the Jewish people in Jesus’ time were literally trapped and enslaved by debt, Jesus’ call to cancel debt, free the prisoners, and return confiscated land would surly have been good – but radical – news.
The claim that all debt should be repaid is rooted in the idea that all debt is just. But that’s clearly not the case.
It is no good talking about the morality of debt without talking about the creditor’s responsibility… A great deal of what we have see is unethical, whether the international system since the 1970s, or sub-prime lending more recently.Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury
Over 80% of Americans live in debt. The average American’s debt amount in 2018 was nearly $38,000. Paying back on these debts often means cutting back on essentials, such as food, medical savings, transportation, or housing. By far, the main reason that most people get into serious debt is a change in circumstances, such as unemployment, a decrease in income, a separation or divorce, injury or illness, and quick rises in prices of basic goods and services.
At the same time, the average income in America has stayed flat at best, and often has fallen significantly when inflation and future inflation are taken into account. According to MarketWatch, as of 2018, 50 million American households could not even afford basic living expenses and nearly half of Americans could not cover an unexpected $400 emergency.
While the scale of the injustice is different (in good and bad ways), people in America and the rest of the world today are suffering from debts caused by forces outside of their control. Where is the moral justice in that?
This unjust debt trap isn’t just crushing non-elite individuals though. Powerful states across the world are also using debt to crush their weaker peers (just as the Roman Empire did to Palestine). Take the island nation of Jamaica for example.
Jamaica’s debts are massive. Around 33% of every dollar the Jamaican government collects is used to pay foreign lenders. The debts have resulted in price increases for all Jamaicans: when the prices go up, they are forced to borrow more in order to survive, thus compounding the national debt with high levels of personal debt. Many Jamaican’s income goes straight to their lenders, which they are never able to pay back in full. It’s a lose-lose situation for everyone – creditor and debtor alike.
Jamaica has had high debts for over 40 years, after their government borrowed huge sums of money to deal with an economic crisis caused by oil prices in the 1970s. The Jamaican government has since then continually received loans from Western financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. These creditors have insisted on massive cuts in public spending on services such as healthcare and education, all while ramping up the interest rates on the debts they loan out. According to the World Bank, since 1970 Jamaica has been loaned $18.6 billion, repaid $20.7 billion, but still “owes” $7.4 billion.
These cuts (while justified from a libertarian point of view, of course) were often poorly implemented and the services were replaced slowly, if at all. This has resulted in further devastation to the Jamaican economy and the pain that individual Jamaicans feel. In 1990, 59 out of 100,000 mothers died during childbirth. By 2010, that number increased to 110. In 1990, 97% of Jamaican children completed primary school. By 2010, that percent had dropped to 73%.
Furthermore, the island nation has been awfully impacted by forces totally outside of their control such as climate change, increasingly-strong hurricanes, and global economic crises. Ironically (and infuriatingly) climate change and the various economic crises are caused almost solely by the Western states and institutions that are already enslaving Jamaica in debt.
Success, true success, in Jamaica does not mean paying back all the money to the banks and institutions. It means restoring the economic dignity of the Jamaican nation and people.
The Bible says that the ministry of Jesus would be good news to the poor and enslaved. What is your role in fulfilling that good news?
Are the debt situations in first century Palestine comparable to the modern debt situation?
An insane amount of Americans and non-Americans are living in debt. Why? Some of it can be chalked up to personal irresponsibility, but obviously not all of it.
Why do so many people feel such a tremendous obligation to pay – and to collect – debts?