There is a movement attempting to convince Western governments to forgive the debts of poor countries, particularly in Africa. Religious supporters of this idea often invoke the biblical Jubilee as an example and also as justification for large-scale debt relief.
I’ll let other people argue the merits of African debt relief. I’m more concerned about the references to the Jubilee. Is it appropriate to use the term in this way?
What is a Jubilee?
The Jubilee first appears in the Bible in Leviticus 25. The Israelites were to celebrate the Jubilee every 50 years:
“Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. … Each one of you is to return to his family property and each to his own clan” (Lev 25:10).
The Jubilee year was to be a Sabbath for the land (v11), but more to our point, in that year all land that had been sold reverted back to the original owner (v28) and all Hebrew slaves were freed (v41) – which is interpreted by many as the forgiveness of debts.
But it is obviously forgiveness of very particular debts. Specifically, if you’ve sold your land or yourself to pay your debts, you get that back. If, however, you simply borrowed money from someone, that does not appear to be mitigated by this passage (or any other I can find).
This concept was built into their society. The sale (or more accurately, lease) price for land was based on the length of time until the next Jubilee (v15). Everyone knew when the Jubilee would come and what would happen.
Liberty for All
Another notable feature of the Jubilee was its universality. Everyone’s land reverted back to the original owner, even the land of the rich (c.f., Ez 46:17). You may recall the biblical injunctions against favoring the poor over the rich (Ex 23:3, Lev 19:15); every single person was supposed to have the exact same rules to follow.
Is This a Jubilee?
Given the above, does this concept of debt forgiveness for poor countries correspond to the biblical Jubilee? I don’t think so.
First, we’re talking about general debts, not the specifics mentioned in the Bible. Second, this, like bankruptcy, involves someone eating the debts as opposed to the graduated system used as the Jubilee approached. Third, to be a “Jubilee,” it would have to involve everyone, not just the poor; no one is suggesting the US be forgiven its debts.
So Why “Jubilee?”
Why do people use the term when it clearly doesn’t apply? I think there are two possible reasons.
The first is simple intellectual laziness. Some say, “Forgiveness, forgiveness, we got a match, let’s go.” They simply don’t look that close. Some of those who use this term are not generally associated with intellectual laziness, but it can happen to anyone, especially when they step out of their usual field of study.
The second is a bit more sinister. Biblical language can get the faithful to listen to you when they might not otherwise. Moreover, it can get the faithful to go along with you when they might not otherwise.
Is the use of “Jubilee” an attempt to get people to accept the notion of debt forgiveness without critical thought? It may well be.
“I’m not sure I’m comfortable … oh, it’s biblical; ok.” It can be a very effective way to cut off debate.
Is this what’s happening? I’ve seen this term used to stop disagreement – the implication being that if you’re not on board you’re disobeying God.
Am I over-reacting? Is there another explanation? Is this nothing? Or are people coopting biblical language to stifle debate? Of course, I’m assuming that’s bad; is it ok to give new meaning to biblical terms like this?