Monday, February 9, 2009

Debt Relief and the Jubilee

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?


Nancy said...

Round #1 in "Let's Play Deception" goes to you...YEA Chris!

crossn81 said...

I think your Biblical thoughts are pretty sound, but I think to understand the issue you have to understand what is happening in Africa and how the Biblical ideas of Jubilee do apply.

I don't know how you can criticize something without understanding it. For many countries the debt they accrued (many during dictatorship or corrupt governments) requires servicing payments that by far exceed their entire Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Countries are having to choose between critical infrastructure and debt servicing. So in a sense they are slaves to the West.

Yes debts should be repaid - when possible. But these debts are impossible for many countries to repay, nor should they have to repay them. I mentioned the corruption - many of the loans taken out by corrupt governments never made it past the national government. What organizations like Jubilee USA are doing is saying that these loans should be forgiven so that countries are able to meet the basic needs of their citizens.

Trust me there are other projects being undertaken to focus specifically at the local level to meet local needs but the national governments need assistance as well.

I would recommend looking deeper into the issue and fully understanding it before making generalizations.

ChrisB said...


As I said above, the question of whether debt relief for poor countries is a good idea is separate from the question of using the term "Jubilee." There are good arguments on both sides, and I think it should definitely be done on a case-by-case basis (some governments have no interest in taking care of their citizens and would only misuse the money).

But just because debt creates slavery "in a sense" doesn't mean this is a real parallel to the biblical concept.

The more I read and thought about this, the more it seemed like this terminology was used in a deceptive manner. This is from JubileeUSA:

"Texts in both the Hebrew Scriptures and throughout the New Testament call for debt cancellation and the righting of relationships every seven years with a super Jubilee every 50th year."

No, I'm sorry, that sentence is not true. Now they could be mashing ideas together out of an attempt at economy of words, or they may simply be mistaken, but they're still wrong. And given the times I've seen a "how dare you oppose the Jubilee" attitude, I really think this is intended (by some) to stifle debate. That's an improper use of the Bible.

If they want to invoke the Bible in this discussion, reminding people of the commands to love your neighbor and be generous to the poor is totally appropriate. Pretending that this is simply carrying on the Jubilee is not.

Will Shetterly said...

If the Jubilee idea makes you uncomfortable, try John the Baptist instead: "The person who has two coats must share with the one who doesn't have any, and the person who has food must do the same." (That's the International Standard Version. The wording is different in other versions, of course, but the meaning is the same."

And the answer to "Who is the original owner of the land?" is simple: That's God, who gave it to all of us to share.

ChrisB said...


The words of John the Baptist are important words we should all keep in mind, and that God made the land -- and everything else -- is important to remember as well.

What does that have to do with liberals misusing the term "Jubilee?"

Will Shetterly said...

Chris, two possibilities:

1. Liberals aren't misusing the word. After all, John, Jesus, Paul, and James all built on older teachings of forgiveness that can be seen in the Jubilee. Modern liberals may be simply following in that tradition.

2. Liberals are misusing the word, but even so, because forgiveness matters, they should be forgiven. After all, what they are calling for, forgiveness of debt, is what Jesus calls for, too. We know from the story of the young rich man what being perfect means. If we can't be perfect, we can at least go toward it. What the Baptist taught was the compromise: if you can't give up everything, share equally.

Anonymous said...

I'm guessing that "Jubilee" has become shorthand, or a metaphor, for the overall thrust of the gospel: generosity and forgiveness of sins ... and debts...

I doubt it's about a literal reinstitution of the Jubilee as specifically prescribed in the OT; rather, it's a re-calling to live according to the general biblical principle of granting freedom to people who are trapped.

Jeremy Pierce said...

I agree with most of this, but I think you've overstated one thing. You're trying to draw apart ordinary debt and the selling of land to pay debts. According to Jubilee laws, the land would eventually be returned. But keep in mind that the slavery provision would have covered ordinary debt. After all, what would have happened to someone who couldn't pay a debt and had no remaining land? Slavery was the only option, and that was temporary. So there was no allowance for permanent debt among Israelites.

But I don't think much will come of this, because the Jubilee wasn't given as a moral principle but as a way to exemplify in a particular covenant context how some deeper moral principles ought to have been reflected among God's people, in the context of land that God specifically intended to stay within the same tribes and clans, and in the context of slavery among God's people never being for life except by the choice of the slave.

Since the people you're criticizing haven't found an exact parallel in those ways and in the other ways you've pointed out, I think it's correct to say that they haven't found a morally obligatory application of the Jubilee passages, at least directly. But assuming that the moral principles that you're acknowledging do lead to this being a good idea (which you're open to, as am I, but we're probably both hesitant to endorse at this point), I think it's ok to use the word 'Jubilee' in the same way that we can call a year off normal work a sabbatical. We should just be clear what we're doing when we do that. We're using the term in an extended sense or perhaps even metaphorically.

ChrisB said...

Will: "John, Jesus, Paul, and James all built on older teachings of forgiveness"

Forgiveness of sin is not the same as forgiveness of debts even if the latter is often used as a metaphor for the former.

"what they are calling for, forgiveness of debt, is what Jesus calls for, too."


"We know from the story of the young rich man what being perfect means."

Yes, it means removing anything that stands between you and God.

Nancy: "I doubt it's about a literal reinstitution of the Jubilee"

In some cases, I'm sure that's true. But in some cases the word is used as a bludgeon against anyone who disagrees with the notion of canceling some people's debts. That's clearly not in the spirit of the Jubilee, so I am left with the more sinister notion.

Jeremy: "We should just be clear what we're doing when we do that."

Agreed, but see the above comment about the bludgeon.

Will Shetterly said...

Chris, look at the Greek words used in Matthew 6:12. "Debt" and "debtor" are accurate translations.

As for the rich young man, the obstacle was money. As Paul taught, greed is the root of all wrong-doing. Acts tells us the early Christians shared everything. Add Jesus's saying about the camel and the eye of the needle, and his teaching about sharing and forgiving seems clear to me.