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