The PelicanWeb's Journal of Sustainable Development

Research Digest on Integral Human Development,
Education for Sustainable Development,
and Related Global Issues

Vol. 6, No. 1, January 2010
Luis T. Gutierrez, Editor

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It Is Time for the Churches to Declare Jubilee

Rev. Britton W. Johnston
Ph.D. Candidate in Practical Theology
Fuller Theological Seminary
This article was originally published on
3 December 2009

The time has come for the church to declare jubilee. Every 50 years, according to the Book of Leviticus, God’s people are commanded to have a year of jubilee, in which those who have lost their homes and lands because of indebtedness will be able to return to them with their debts forgiven. The year of jubilee is a pivotal idea in the prophetic traditions of Israel, picked up from Leviticus in Isaiah’s declaration of "the year of the Lord’s favor." Following in this tradition Jesus declared himself to be fulfilling Isaiah’s vision of jubilee (Luke 4) and also taught us to pray in a way that alludes to the jubilee: "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors."

We live in a time that cries out for jubilee. For the past three decades at least, the working people of America have been systematically plundered by financial elites. Economic inequality has increased dramatically, as the investing class has seen its income tower like Babel, while wages have stagnated. For thirty years, working people have been forced to "borrow their wages," as Michael Moore puts it in his recent film. As became abundantly clear in the past two years, financial elites have led Congress to privatize profits and socialize risk. This grew to the absurd proportions of a multi-trillion dollar bailout for the financial institutions by the working people of America. These institutions have taken this money without turning it into new lending, the purpose for which it was originally given.

This plunder has reached a breaking point. The investment bankers are using the bailout money to generate a new speculative bubble, one that will be beyond even the capacity of the U.S. government to repair, if it is allowed to continue. And it is being allowed to continue: oversight of the banks’ use of bailout money is pathetically weak. Any move in Congress to break up or re-regulate the banks is met with a perfect storm of lobbying to stop it dead. As Senator Dick Durbin said, "the banks own the Senate."

What do the people of the United States need? We need jobs, but the financial system as currently configured doesn’t produce jobs. Instead, it de-industrializes the country, sending good paying jobs overseas. It drives down wages and it inflates the cost of everything from housing to health care. That’s another thing we need, health care. But health insurance corporations (a sector of the financial "services" industry) block any effort to make it widely accessible and affordable. We have the most expensive health care system in the world, and the least effective (by 1st world standards) in terms of aggregate outcomes. The recent effort at health care reform in Congress has degenerated into yet another massive subsidy to financial corporations. We need housing, but the cost of housing has risen out of reach, driven by speculative bubbles, which in turn are fueled by an investor class flush with cash from tax cuts. We also need a climate that supports life. But again, the investor class threatens this most basic of needs, by standing in the way of needed regulation of greenhouse gases and change in our sources of energy.

We elected a charismatic new president with a record of empowering working people as a community organizer. But no sooner did he take office than he was fenced in by "experts" from the investment banking houses, who have led him to do their bidding. Even with a 60-vote majority in the Senate, the non-Republicans (the Republicans are utterly subservient to investors against workers) are unable to make any move that seriously challenges the investor class. We can no longer count on our government to do what is necessary to provide our people with what we need. The government is now in no other business than that of aiding and abetting the plunder of working people. Political activism has been rendered almost completely impotent. We demonstrate, we send letters to Congress, we register voters – but the corporations always get what they want.

The situation might be completely hopeless, politically, except for a unique set of historical conditions that have the potential dramatically to turn the tables in favor of working people. Conditions are ripe for a declaration of jubilee – a debtors’ strike. Because the working classes have been borrowing their wages for the past thirty years, they have become indebted to the bankers at a level unprecedented in history. In 1929, just before the Great Crash, average household indebtedness was around 30% of annual income. Today, that average is at 120% of annual income! These debts are treated as assets by the investment banks, which use them to leverage loans for their speculative alchemy. A vast proportion of the wealth of the financial sector rests on the faith that these debts will be paid. A loss of that faith would devastate the power of the bankers. A working class movement to repudiate these debts could radically overturn the power structure in our society. The irony is that debt, the tool used by the owning classes to plunder the workers, could be turned into enormous power to restore equality and democracy to our society. The conditions that exist right now to accomplish this are unusual in history, perhaps unique.

The churches would have to play a significant role in this movement. One of the biggest obstacles to a movement of this sort is the moral constraints on debt repudiation. Americans view the refusal to pay a debt as a form of stealing. But the church is uniquely positioned to release this constraint by issuing a declaration of jubilee. The same God who commanded "thou shalt not steal" also commanded the jubilee year. It is only the church (and the synagogue) that can make this claim with real authority. This declaration may not open the floodgates for a widespread debt revolt, but it can very likely put a hole in the dike. Human nature would take its course from that point.

Biblical scholars have often dismissed the concept of the year of jubilee as an idealistic principle that was never actually put into practice. It was too obviously unrealistic to believe that creditors would agree to forgive debts so comprehensively. But this view misses the point. The Year of Jubilee is not a divine command to the creditors, but for the debtors. It is in effect a tradition of a debtors’ strike. The biblical command provides legitimation for debt repudiation, to encourage solidarity among the debt-ridden poor and to undermine the moral claims of the creditor class. It didn’t matter what the creditors agreed to; with a declaration of jubilee, the power shifted to the debtors and the creditors had to grin and bear it.

According to the U.S. constitution, the refusal to pay taxes is punishable by imprisonment – but not the refusal to pay private debt. In fact, debtor’s prison is explicitly prohibited in our constitution. This gives added leverage to the call for jubilee. According to a recent report by Arizona attorney Brent White, there are real financial and legal advantages for underwater homeowners to "walk away" from their properties (LA Times, 11/29/09). He encourages them to discard the moral inhibitions that keep them from defaulting on their loans. So from a legal as well as a theological and ethical standpoint, the time is ripe for a debt revolt.

Such a movement may seem difficult to start. Political activists in the present climate know how hard it is even to get a few hundred people to show up for a street demonstration, let alone a massive national movement. People are discouraged, they don’t have the time or energy, and the media for communication of the message are taken over by corporate interests. All this may be true, but there is an important social force that movement leaders can have on their side in this: the power of panic. Stanford philosophy professor Jean-Pierre Dupuy has done some interesting writing on the topic of panic, which shows that panic among humans is not at all like a stampede among animals. A herd of bison might stampede if they get spooked by a loud noise, but human beings are gripped by panic through a combination of desire and competition. Dupuy is a disciple of René Girard, who has shown that humans get their desires from each other. We want what we see other people wanting. Panic sets in when the crowd is gripped simultaneously by the desire for something, and the fear that the supply is limited. Each person feels compelled to hurry and get some before the rest of the crowd takes it all. Dupuy argues that the stock market is a (barely) controlled form of panic.

A proclamation of jubilee can be structured so that it generates a kind of panic. Underwater homeowners might be persuaded that if they don’t walk away from their mortgages, they will be left paying for the financial system while the rest of the crowd sticks them with the bill. That kind of panic can spread without any help from expensive public relations campaigns. No demonstrations in the streets will be necessary – although a few examples of crowds blocking the eviction of foreclosed families would help. By employing the principle of panic, the jubilee debtors’ strike will organize itself.

Is this idea ethical? Absolutely. First of all, it is completely nonviolent. No one is directly injured, no physical property destroyed. Second, it has biblical warrant, enough to overcome the ordinary injunction not to steal. But what about the disaster that this will visit on the economy? If the financial system collapses, much suffering will result. To that I would argue that we have reached a point where if we do nothing, there will be much suffering anyway. The investor class has near total control of government at this point, making rational reform impossible. Without rational reform, the government will become steadily less democratic, more tyrannical and even violent. There will be no avoiding the "ultimate financial bubble" from which no taxpayer bailout will be able to save us, but by then the working class will be in tatters, beholden to a feudal system of corporate gangsters. The burning of fossil fuels will continue virtually unabated if we do nothing to stop our casino economy; by 2050 there will be massive flooding, drought, agricultural disruption, and internal displacement of populations. So, by declaring jubilee now, we bring about the inevitable disaster a little sooner, but with better empowerment and solidarity for working people, perhaps heading off a nuclear-armed version of feudalism. (For equally gloomy apocalyptic views of our future, see the writings of our fellow Presbyterian Chris Hedges).

By resetting the financial system through jubilee, we can bring about many improvements in the global situation. A decline in economic activity will be good for the environment, reducing the production of greenhouse gases. It would reduce the exploitation of fisheries and forests, perhaps giving them a chance to recover. People who can’t afford cars tend to walk more, and this makes them healthier. It would make the rich countries poorer, something that the world desperately needs to happen. At our present rate of consumption, we are using up the life-supporting resources of the planet faster than the planet can replace them. People in rich countries use up ten times more resources, on average, than people in the rest of the world. Ecologically concerned people in the North are often heard declaring that something must be done to reduce the planet’s population; what we rarely hear them say is that the most efficient way to save the planet is to reduce the population where they live. Or – we could just make them live less well. A declaration of jubilee is one way to make that happen. This would be much less violent than embarking on some horrendous culling project "for the sake of the planet."

Finally, this strategy might be just the thing that’s needed to reinvigorate the church. The church can be relevant again. In this process, the church would have at least two functions to play. The first one was stated above, the declaration of jubilee itself. The second function is to step in as the renewed basis for social solidarity as the financial consumer society, which is the organizational basis of secularity, begins to collapse. Once there is no longer a mall to go to, people will return to the church. The church will once again resemble the ark of Noah, a life boat amid the deluge of a collapsing old order.

So the time may be just right for a declaration of jubilee. The Bible recommends one every fifty years, but it has been at least two thousand years since the last one. We have some catching up to do; lately, look what stars have fallen, and what a bloody tinge has the moon.

Copyright © 2009 Britt Johnston

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Britt Johnston and his wife Danna Larson are living in Pasadena, California, where Britt is working on a Ph.D. in Practical Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He's also part-time Pastor at Occidental United Presbyterian Church in northeast Los Angeles. They participated in the Witherspoon "Dancing with God" conference on mission at Stony Point in September, 2005, and have served in Colombia as accompaniers.


Fuller Theological Seminary

Witherspoon Society

What is practical theology?

Association of Practical Theology

International Academy of Practical Theology

"When you lock the world out,
you lock yourself in."

Lerner & Loewe's Camelot (Musical, 1960)


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