Rolling Jubilee as a model of God’s grace

The Occupy movement is kicking off a new campaign this month they are calling Rolling Jubilee (the name, presumably, taken from the idea in Leviticus). The basic idea, summarized in their material, works this way: they raise money and use it to buy up “distressed debt” on the secondary financial market, at pennies on the dollar, and then forgive it. They estimate that for their goal amount, $50,000, they can forgive $1 million in debts.

I am really excited about the potential of this idea to reflect God’s economy. First, the very name is drawn from the debt forgiveness mandated by God himself in the Pentateuch. Jesus also used the cancellation of debt as a parable for his forgiveness of our sins.

I also like it because the way these debts are bundled, the forgiveness is indiscriminate and random. Commentator Matt Yglesias wrote in Slate that this is a source of skepticism: “Given two struggling families, one of which is indebted and one of which isn't, it's not clear why you'd think that the family that's borrowed heavily in the past is more worthy of assistance.” But from my perspective, this is another way it reflects the awesome unfairness of God’s grace. God offers it to all of us, no matter how bad our track record, no matter how likely we are to do bad things again, no matter how “worthy” we’ve been.

So some of the debts bought up by this movement might have been incurred through irresponsible choices: buying a house that was way too big, running up credit-card debt on unsavory activities or just too many toys. It might also be for more sympathetic reasons: someone who was deceived into taking on an unfavorable student loan, medical debt, debts from a long period of unemployment. The way the system is made up (as I understand it), you can’t just buy sympathetic debt, or even one person’s particular debt, you have to buy a whole bundle.

Rolling Jubilee, like many of Jesus’ parables, reveals the amazing, unfair truth about grace: it’s offered freely to everyone, and it’s not deserved by anyone. It is always unfair, in your favor.

It also strikes me as a satisfying, poetic way to redeem the shadowy debt resale market that contributed to the economic crash in 2007. The very system that made some of this mess possible is being used as a vehicle to release individuals and families from the weight of debt, and to help us all move forward. This isn’t a long-term solution to our financial problems (maybe God’s permanent Jubilee is the only real way out), but as a metaphor and a concrete action, it seems like a beautiful step.

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The things that Christ would do, if not done in the name of Christ, are ultimately done in vein. They have no real ability to do something important.

Is the occupy movement doing this for the glory of the Lord or for their own gain?
As a Christian, and as an Occupier, I'm doing this as a part of the gospel's mandate to love others and help the helpless.
I’m not sure how far you can (or should) carry the jubilee metaphor. The way I read the Bible, a true year of jubilee requires more than just forgiveness of some --or even all!-- of the debts, because when you buy up the debts the person who loaned the money still gets paid. Jubilee requires a more radical reboot of the economy, where you build your system around the expectation that once in a century everyone will go back to the original inheritance. Whatever income inequality you have, it would only be the kind that could build up in a generation or two. (It’s not socialism, btw; there’s still room for rewarding the successful - you just wouldn’t see the kind of inherited inequalities we get today.)

Don’t get me wrong, this is a great idea and I love the irony of using the market to heal the market’s harms. But I worry that by calling this a jubilee we downplay the real promise of the true jubilee. I’d say this plan has more in common with Christ’s radical love - he idea that a stranger would buy up your debt without any consideration of whether you deserve it or not. If I was deep in debt, that would be a powerful message.
Marta, I agree, the biblical jubilee is far more radical and systemic than this action. It's hard for me to imagine what it would mean today, because so much has changed in how the economy is structured, and some of us are very far from the original land of our ancestors.
I agree... and think we in the Church should really be doing a lot of thinking about what Jubilee would look like in 21st century America. What would it look like for us to "go back to the original inheritance"? I think there's a specific and a general way of looking at this—both of which need to be taken up by the Church.

The specific reading of "original inheritance"—particularly salient in this season of Thanksgiving, given the event that holiday supposedly commemorates—is to do right by the Native Americans for whom this land is, in fact, their "original inheritance." Native Americans are, on the whole, the most economically oppressed ethnic group in this country; we need a serious investment from government, the Church, and individuals in restorative justice that, while it can never quite repay the Native American people for the damage and theft Europeans and their descendants inflicted on them, at least represents the first steps of an effort toward restoration and reconciliation.

But in the more general sense, I think we have to realize that the Jubilee provisions in Torah were really about ensuring that with every second generation, every child of Israel (who had a stake in the "original inheritance") would have access to the only means by which wealth was really created in that culture—the land. Acknowledging that large-scale, massive democratization of the means of production—in other words, wealth redistribution—is a crucial part of God's Kingdom vision for the economy is the first step in reorienting our Church and our culture towards God's economic values.

 

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