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What Would a Debt Jubilee Mindset Look Like in Our World Today?

Published:
March 5, 2024
March 4, 2024
Read this article to find out how adopting a debt jubilee mindset could change our modern perceptions of competition and forgiveness.

Last year, a church in North Carolina went viral for a surprising reason: The congregation raised more than $15,000 and used it to buy $3.3 million of medical debt belonging to 3,335 local families. (The church partnered with a nonprofit that buys up medical debt for pennies on the dollar to help low-income people crushed by our healthcare system’s high costs.)

Then, with bells ringing and confetti flying, members of the church held a debt-burning ceremony. Yes, they literally burned a list of names of those whose debt had been erased, symbolically representing the elimination of those families’ burdens.

Why would a church do this? Where did the idea come from?

It might seem like a strange event to host, but the gathering has deep roots in an ancient, biblical practice. The debt-burning ceremony was part of this particular church’s Debt Jubilee Project, and it’s that middle word I want to focus on in this piece: jubilee. That’s the key for understanding the church’s special night. And it’s a concept that might be able to fundamentally alter our own perspectives on debt and ownership and capitalism today.

Jubilee is a biblical regulation concerning land ownership, debt forgiveness, and freeing indentured servants.

The Book of Leviticus, the third book of the Torah in Hebrew Scriptures (and part of Christians’ Old Testament), is full of laws and regulations that governed ancient Israel. In Chapter 25 of the book, the regulation of jubilee is introduced: Every 50 years, the people are instructed to release certain indentured servants, forgive certain debts and to return to their own family’s homeland. The word “Jubilee” itself comes from a Hebrew word that means “ram’s horn,” which was used as an instrument: a blast from the horn would mark the beginning of this special year.

Why jubilee? First and foremost, writes the late biblical scholar James A. Sanders, the law is a reminder that “the land and the people belong to God.” Ultimately, the people didn’t “own” or “possess” anything permanently, no matter how hard they worked for it. They were only stewarding what God had given them.

Jesus references jubilee at the beginning of his ministry and reveals how important it is to God.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus begins his public ministry by reading aloud from the Prophet Isaiah at a synagogue in Nazareth: 

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set free those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor."

The words anyone uses to introduce themselves are worth paying attention to. How do you lead? What first impression do you want to give? Here, in that last phrase — the year of the Lord’s favor — Jesus makes a direct reference to jubilee. Jesus tells those gathered that he has been sent to proclaim a jubilee, and not just for a single year out of 50. God’s very way is jubilee — mercy, forgiveness, wiping away sins and debts. In the Acts of the Apostles, which tells stories of the very first Christians, Sanders writes we see a community “observing Jubilee with their very lives, not only forgiving each other’s debts but sharing what wealth they had (Acts 4:32) knowing that their debts to God (their sins) had been forgiven.”

For the church in North Carolina, erasing their neighbors’ medical debt fell squarely in this tradition. “It’s a perfect real-world parable for what God does for us,” the church’s pastor, Rev. John Jackman, told the Winston-Salem Journal.

What would a jubilee mindset mean for us today?

I’m wondering how living my own life in the spirit of jubilee might change things. I can’t call up my college loan processors and say, “Sorry I can’t pay you back, I’m living in jubilee right now.” But I can try to look at my own money and possessions with a jubilee mindset. What is my relationship like with my money and material things? Do I give to others generously? Do I hold too tightly onto grudges? Do I really see everything I have and everyone I know as a gift?

On a societal level, advocating for policy changes like a more affordable healthcare system that doesn’t crush those experiencing economic hardship with debt, international debt relief for the poorest countries, and student loan forgiveness for low-income individuals might be ways we can build jubilee into our systems and structures. I can imagine some objections: “But you have to pay back what you owe! It’s the right thing to do!” Yes, certainly. That’s our own human logic. 

But God’s logic — the logic of jubilee — flips that vision on its head. In the inimitable words of essayist and farmer Wendell Berry, “Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.” We humans can act in godly ways when we choose to do it. We could replace competition with jubilee, at least in some small ways. What’s stopping us?

Creators:
Mike Jordan Laskey
Published:
March 5, 2024
March 4, 2024
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