Jubilee: Proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor

Internet Monk just celebrated “Jubilee Week: All Grace All the Time!

Jubilee is one of my favorite things. Debts are cancelled. Slaves are set free. Olly olly oxen free.

What could be better?

First thing that Jesus talked about in his public ministry? Jubilee. It pervades his parables. It’s right there in the prayer he taught us to pray — “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

Jubilee is rarely included in discussions of “theories of atonement.” My advice is to avoid discussions of theories of atonement (key word there: theories). But if you must speculate, then I suggest you start with Jubilee.

Jubilee seems like a pipe-dream, an idealistic religious fantasy. We’re not sure if the year of Jubilee prescribed in Moses’ law was ever actually celebrated.

But it’s not just a religious ideal. It’s more than just a sectarian notion from the Hebrew scriptures that was later reinterpreted and reworked as a sectarian notion in the Christian scriptures.

It’s also an immensely practical idea, all scriptures aside. It would be good policy.

It may even be necessary policy. Now. Today.

It’s necessary in Jefferson County, Ala., as Mary Williams Walsh reports in The New York Times,When a County Runs Off the Cliff“:

The county roads here need paving, and the tax collector needs help.

There is no money for them, either.

There is no money for a lot of things around here, not since Jefferson County, population 658,000, went bankrupt last fall. There is no money for holiday D.U.I. checkpoints, litter patrols or overtime pay at the courthouse. None for crews to pull weeds or pick up road kill — not even when, as happened recently, an unlucky cow was hit near the town of Wylam.

“We don’t do that any more,” E. Wayne Sullivan, director of the roads and transportation department, said of such roadside cleanup.

This is life today in Jefferson County — Bankrupt, U.S.A. For all the talk in Washington about taxes and deficits, here is a place where government finances, and government itself, have simply broken down. The county, which includes the city of Birmingham, is drowning under $4 billion in debt, the legacy of a big sewer project and corrupt financial dealings that sent 17 people to prison.

The county owes $4 billion — debt created by corrupt political officials in cahoots with corrupt lenders. The county doesn’t have $4 billion. It cannot repay this debt.

As with Greece, there will be talk of a bailout — but no one will really suggest “bailing out” Jefferson County any more than they are really talking about bailing out Greece. What they mean is a bailout for the creditors, not the debtors.

That’s the opposite of Jubilee. The creditors will be paid, but the debtors will never be freed of their debt.

That’s immoral. It’s also impractical. Greece and Jefferson County are not isolated entities. They’re part of an interconnected global economy and a network of mutuality. To satisfy their creditors without liberating or restoring them means that they will continue to limp along, and all those who are affected by them will continue to suffer as well.

David Graeber points to a different solution — a better solution — in a recent interview with David V. Johnson of The Boston Review (via zunguzungu). Graeber even uses the J-word:

Boston Consulting Group, I believe, ran a model recently and came to the conclusion that, while having a debt jubilee would cause great economic disruption, not having one would create even more. The situation we have basically isn’t viable. Some kind of radical solution is going to be required at some point; the question is what form it’s going to take.

This time around, they might consider doing it in a form that actually helps ordinary people. It would have been perfectly feasible to take the trillions of dollars that they essentially printed to bail out the banks and give it to mortgage holders, because what the banks had were mortgage-based securities that were no good anymore. If they just paid the mortgages using the same money, that in effect would have bailed out the banks.

… It would have had the same effect as a debt cancellation, because they would have printed money to pay the debts. The irony is that they chose instead to give the money directly to the banks and not bail out the mortgage-holders. Which is a pattern that you see over and over again in world history — one of the more dramatic consistencies I’ve noticed in the history of debt: debts between equals are not the same as debts between people who are not equals.

Debts between either poor people or rich people, that they have with each other, can be renegotiated or forgiven. People can be extraordinarily generous, understanding, forgiving when dealing with others like themselves. But debts between social classes, between the rich and the poor, suddenly become a matter of absolute morality. And that’s what we saw; it’s a very, very old pattern.

See also: “Student loan debt is approaching $1 trillion

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  • Should debt owed to the poor by the rich (who are perfectly capable of paying it but may not want to) be taken into consideration as well?

  • Matri

    Should debt owed to the poor by the rich (who are perfectly capable of
    paying it but may not want to) be taken into consideration as well?

    In a fair world, yes.

    In Rightwingland, that will be the only debts jubilee’d.

  • Guest-again

    Just a quick note about Greece, because a lot of people seem to get this wrong – the current bailout foresees a forced loss of 50% of the Greek debt principal, which a number of institutional investors arer opposing. So successfully that the odds of Greece defaulting on 100% of its debt repayment (when you have no money, you can’t pay – and Greece has no money unless it can borrow more) keep increasing.

    ‘Austerity’ means different things to different people. Like this –
    ‘Jubilation about the German deal to save the euro could prove short-lived if fresh news of Greek tax evasion gains wider currency. There are more Porsche Cayennes registered in Greece than taxpayers declaring an income of 50,000 euros (£43,800) or more, according to research by Professor Herakles Polemarchakis, former head of the Greek prime minister’s economic department.’http://articles.businessinsider.com/2011-11-01/markets/30344140_1_greece-evasion-telegraphGreece is a horrible, horrible example to use – fraud and corruption are the main points to the Greek debt crisis, along with a willingness to pretend that everything was just fine, even when everyone involved knew that it was a blatant lie. Greece is not exactly poor – the Greeks own the world’s largest merchant fleet (16% of the entire world’s merchant fleet is in Greek hands). And a Porsche Cayenne is just one specific model of German sports car – don’t think that it is the only one being sold in a country with so few people with a declared income that is even half the sales price for such vehicles.Living within your means is not ‘austerity’ – it is, over the long run, the only possible way to exist. As the Greeks are proving – because if the bailout doesn’t happen (and it might not), then the debts will be cancelled. And the Greeks will be in a bigger world of hurt. Unlike Iceland, the Greeks don’t have Norway to co-sign the bills. Instead, the Greeks will actually have to start paying taxes, along with being saddled with a government capable of collecting them.Want to talk about austerity in Europe? Please use Portugal as an example – they pretty much played by the rules, and things keep getting worse. (Spain and Ireland are complicated due to the property boom – immense speculative property bubbles going spectacularly bust are a separate issue, while the upgrading of infrastructure in two previously poor countries is on the plus side.)

  • Anonymous

    I used to live in Jefferson County. :(  None of this news about the county surprises me, but it still saddens me greatly.  Corruption, thy name is Birmingham: one of the primary reasons that Jefferson County is fragmented into numerous tiny school districts
     is because the Birmingham City and Jefferson County boards of education are so notoriously corrupt, and have been so for so long, that nobody actually wants to deal with them if at all possible.

  • Graeber’s book “Debt: the first 5000 years” is definitely worth reading.

  • Eric

    I recently finished reading David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years. At the same time, I was reading early Christian writers, including the church historian Eusebius and Augustine. Oh, and I had recently finished the Wikipedia article “Sexuality in Ancient Rome” (a topic which is equally horrifying to modern conservatives, liberals and feminists alike).

    You would not believe how well things started to click together—Roman debt slavery, imperial expansion, Augustine’s attitudes towards sex, vows of poverty and chastity in the early church, and even stuff I learned years ago translating Catullus and Trajan.

    Graeber has two great gifts. First, he appears to know everything ever written about debt. He quotes fascinating passages from the Norse sagas, from early Second Temple Judaism, and from interviews with the Inuit. He can talk about debt as a religious metaphor in Vedic theology, and the role of secret societies and debt bondage in the African slave trade. To say that Graeber’s knowledge of debt is encyclopedic rather understates the reality; neither Encyclopedia Britannica nor Wikipedia contain so much material.

    Graeber’s second gift is more subtle: He can make all these cultures seem real and human. Despite years of studying Latin, I never really understood the whole system of the paterfamilias, of clients and patrons, of house slavery and mine slavery. But in Graeber’s hands, it all makes sense. And so does the Christian rebellion against that world.

    The Christian bible was written in a world where people could be property, where your daughters might be ripped from your family by angry creditors. But it was also a world where Paul’s Roman citizenship would make his physical person sacrosanct in the eyes of a centurion (Acts 22:25–29).

    And if you’re interested in salvation via grace, and how it relates to the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31–46), you might enjoy Graeber’s discussion of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21–35). The servant owes an immense, impossible debt, once which could only be forgiven via grace. And the servant is indeed forgiven, completely, but only on a condition: He must offer the same forgiveness to others. Grace may be necessary for salvation, but works of forgiveness are still required.

    And along the way, Graeber points one mystery of Christianity in the Dark Ages: How was a world built around debt slavery—and slavery via conquest—utterly replaced by a world of reciprocal feudal obligations and customary duties? 

    Anyway, if you’re interested in this sort of stuff, buy Debt. Even if you disagree with some of Graeber’s conclusions, it’s a great book.

  • Lizzy L

    Looking forward to reading Graeber’s book: I’ve got it on Hold at my local library. (Cheers for the local library system! It’s something my county government does splendidly right!)

  • Anonymous

    “It would have been perfectly feasible to take the trillions of dollars that they essentially printed to bail out the banks and give it to mortgage holders… If they just paid the mortgages using the same money, that in effect would have bailed out the banks.”

    Wait a minute wait a minute wait a minute. Are you saying people spend money, and corporations and institutions end up with it in the end anyway, but that in turn- if these businesses, corporations and institutions want more of the money people now have to spend- need to spend much of it themselves to meet the demand of the people spending the money they now have to spend, meaning they have to hire and pay more people more money that they in turn can spend on these same businesses, corporations and institutions, and so on and so forth forever and ever amen? I don’t know, it sounds like it’d be easier just to hand all the money to the corporations and institutions now and focus our efforts on what’s really important, which is, um, hold on, let me check with Rush and my pastor to see what that is this week- but it’s probably ladybits. /sarcasm

  • Anonymous

    Be careful what you wish for.

    No more debt ==>> No more loans.

  • Lori

    Oh goody. aunursa is here to once again demonstrate that he has no idea how things actually work. 

    aunursa, don’t you ever get tired of this? Is being wrong some kind of hobby for you? Do you just like it when people pay attention to you? What?  

  •  It’s not shutting down the computer, it’s rebooting it. Which is sometimes the right thing to do.

    And as proof that I’ve been reading too much Homestuck, it also occurred to me to think of it as a Scratch.

  • Cathy W

    And yet in all the discussion of Greek debt, for some reason or another, “Crack down on tax evasion” never seems to come up. This is mystifying to me.

  • Considering that mostly rich people engage in tax evasion to the extent of faux registering expensive cars outside the country, one suspects that the Greek people are being punished by rich people for the acts of other rich people which the Greek government has been complicit in.

    The Greeks could easily have restructured their tax system to make it harder to evade taxes, and thereby capture more revenues, but they didn’t.

    Why the Greeks haven’t abandoned the Euro yet is a mystery to me, since a country that actually executes its threat to leave would probably get a lot of leeway in exchange for keeping the currency.

  • P J Evans

     Possibly because some of the bigger tax-evaders are those who would be doing the enforcement.

  • Banks aren’t loaning now—with debts at record highs—because they poisoned the well getting overfat lending out cheap federal money, creating all that debt that now spooks them.  Too much debt ==>> no more loans.

    It will be entertaining to listen to your explanation that the converse is true: that less debt results in fewer loans.

  • Slightly off the general way the comments have been going, but this is one of my favourite songs ever  Jubilee by Eden Burning

  • Anonymous

    Greece is Mississippi.  It has got it’s (rather large) share of problems, but if California or New York, or one of the other states that pays more in taxes than it receives suddenly decided that everyone in Mississippi could starve, we’d be in the exact same situation here.  The Euro turns out to be a really, really, terrible idea for sovereign countries without any kind of political union, as the US could have told them from our experience with the Articles of Confederation among other ill advised things we’ve tried.

    Making everyone in Greece take their medicine isn’t going to fix the Euro.  You could fire every nepotistic state appointee in Mississippi, and it wouldn’t fix Mississippi (but it wouldn’t hurt.)  This is really a perfect confluence of stupid and incompetent (the Greek government) and evil and greedy (the ECB and bankers.)

    Austerity won’t help, and neither will kicking the Greeks until they get their tail end in gear.  Basically, the ECB and Germany are going to have to decide whether they want to teach the Greeks a lesson or provoke a global fiscal crisis.  It’s a crisis because the levers of politics are locked up – they can’t do EITHER of those things.  Until one of those levers moves, there is no solution.

  • Anonymous

    BTW, the US solution to avoiding this problem is basically the US Congress (particularly the Senate) where poor, rural and incompetent hold a disproportional amount of power by DESIGN.  Well run (well… run better anyway) states like New York and Illinois can’t dictate to Mississippi or Arkansas the way the cow ate the cabbage because they have a disproportionate amount of power.  That’s frustrating when the the smart people have a good idea that can’t get done because dumb people don’t want it, but it’s good in that it short-circuits the crisis created by underachieving regions like Greece.

  • Anonymous


    Lori, I don’t comment for your attention or approval.

  • Lori

    So you just like being wrong? Note that other people have also pointed out that you are not correct. 

  • Of course not.  If you were doing that then the lies you told would be things you thought she’d approve of instead of the opposite.

    I think that the larger question is why you do choose to keep the truth at arm’s length in non-Left Behind related matters.

  • Amaryllis

    And they can’t even “vote the bums out.”

    Jefferson County has even canceled municipal elections scheduled for
    this August. It seems that there’s no money for voting booths, either.

  • B

    Eh, I’ve posted my opinion here before that, while I think debt relief is necessary and important at this juncture (and the fact that the government conducted the bailouts by baling out banks instead of homeowners is a sin), I think idea of an actual jubilee — literally canceling all debts everywhere — is akin to trying to repair the house by burning it to the ground and sowing the ashes with salt.

    However, in an interesting coicindence, I have a copy of “Debt, the First 5,000 Years” waiting for me at the library, too.  I would even have it in my hot little hands if I hadn’t forgotten my card when I was over there on Saturday.  So I’ll read it and see if I’m convinced. :-)

  • Mary Kaye

    I have to agree with B.

    When my father did estate planning he found that the house he owned in Seattle, in which I had been living for some years, was much more than 1/3 of the estate.  My two siblings and I therefore came to an agreement in which I pay them rent for 10 years each and then own the house free and clear.  We are currently 12 or 13 years into this deal, which is essentially a sort of 20 year mortgage.

    I am having some financial problems, but so are my siblings.  If I stopped paying due to a Jubilee, my brother would have serious trouble meeting his family’s needs.

    There is no way to tell, from the fact that I am a debtor and my siblings are creditors, where the real need is.  If someone has to get hit, sometimes the just solution is to hit the debtor, and sometimes it’s to hit the creditors.  The current societal climate puts too  much of the onus on the debtors–when they are individuals; the reverse is true when they are corporations.  But turning it around is going to be unjust too.

    I think just and sane debt relief is going to have to be done on a case by case basis.  I think Springfield’s recent ordinance which requires bank and homeowner to enter into mediation with an external arbiter is a good approach.  (It also has toothy penalties if the bank doesn’t cooperate, which is all to the good.)  Indiscriminate solutions are likely to have unwanted side effects–just as an example, consider my elderly employee whose retirement savings are invested in real estate.  If those debts are forgiven, he will be destitute when he retires.

  • Anonymous

    Disgusting and un-American.

    Besides, didn’t the county already HAVE voting booths?  I remember there being some during the ’04 elections… >.>

  • Anonymous

    There’s always a lot of moral hazard hand-wringing when debt-write downs are discussed. Above all there is the sense that somehow the debtors got away with something.
    Here’s the thing, debtors and creditors made an identical economic calculation. Both assumed that the debtor would be capable of paying back the loan under whatever terms were agreed to. And in both cases their calculation was wrong. The debtor can’t pay it back and everyone agrees that’s true. The biggest problem then is that creditors actually are insisting on living in a fantasy world where the debt will be paid back somehow, someway even if the debtor needs to starve to do it. Creditors insist that they never, ever, ever take the hit no matter the circumstances. More to the point, they start threatening that if they are made to take the hit, the entire structure of the financial system will collapse. They said the same thing when the 80s debt crisis throttled Latin America.

  • I don’t want to presume about your brother’s situation, but it seems as though if he’s having trouble, under a real Jubilee there’s probably some money that he owes to someone else that would be forgiven, correct?

    Sure, on net some people would come out winners and some people would come out losers. That’s kind of baked into the cake.

  • This goes without saying. What remains unclear is why you do, given how many of your comments are nonsense.

    Actually, given your emphasis, the obvious question becomes “Whose attention or approval are you doing it for?”

  • Wait, what? They can’t afford democracy? How is this in any way constitutional? Or is it just that, despite all their blathering about the Constitution, the almighty dollar actually comes first for the plutocrats?*

    *Yes. Yes it is.

  • Anonymous

    That’s… that’s madness.  (It’s definitely not Sparta.)

    I don’t get it.  How can they do that and not get pilloried?  No matter what politics the townsfolk are, who wouldn’t get up in arms about that?  How do you ‘Cancel Elections’ and not get a visit from the DOJ? or your unfriendly neighborhood militia?  Is the voting populace THAT apathetic?

  • I bet Dubya Bush is roundly cursing his lack of foresight in not having a “sudden lack of funds” necessitating cancelling federal elections.

  • Jenny Islander

    OT: I’m fasting from posting for Lent, so I’ll wander back in after Easter.  (It’s still Fat Tuesday here.)

  • *looks at calendar*

    Good lord, that’s a month and change. Well, have a good month off, and see you when you get back :)