Debt Amnesty Now: The Heart of Jesus’ Good News

Readings for the third Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 61: 1-2A, 10-11; Luke 1: 46-48, 49-50, 53-54;       I Thessalonians 5: 16-24; John 1: 6-8, 19-28

As most are aware, U.S. students currently owe bankers and creditors more than $1.5 trillion. Progressives like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren want that debt written off. Their opponents however wonder what would be the economic impact of such debt forgiveness? Wouldn’t it spell disaster for the nation’s economy and for banks “too big to fail?”

Economic historian and ex-Chase Manhattan analyst, Michael Hudson answers those questions in ways intimately connected with the readings for this Second Sunday of Advent. He does so in his magisterial study, …and Forgive Them Their Debts: lending, foreclosure and redemption from Bronze Age finance to the jubilee year.

Written in the face of massive worldwide indebtedness far beyond that of U.S. students, the book’s basic thesis is that debts that can’t be paid won’t be paid. So, the only solution is to write off those obligations.

Far from spelling disaster for the world’s economies, Hudson says such amnesty would rejuvenate them. completely.

How does he know?

Because debt amnesties were standard procedure throughout the history of the ancient Near East from 2500 BC in Sumer to 1600 BC in Babylonia and its neighbors. During that long period, it was the common practice for new rulers to proclaim debt jubilee on the day of their ascension to the royal throne. As seen in the Bible’s Book of Leviticus 25, Israel adopted that practice when its ruling class returned from their “Babylonian Captivity” in the 6th century BCE.

And the result?

Uniformly, Hudson says, it was shared prosperity and the prevention of huge wealth differentials between rich and poor. According to Hudson, the same result can be expected if debts were forgiven today.

The Bible & Debt Forgiveness

And that brings us to our readings for this Third Sunday of Advent. They’re all about a central pillar of Jewish social organization and profound spirituality. I’m referring to debt forgiveness and its “preferential option for the poor.”

As seen in Leviticus 25 and in the words of the prophet Isaiah in today’s first reading, the very word “gospel” (“good news” in Isaiah’s words) is assigned to the proclamation of “Jubilee” – the Jewish Testament term for the periodic practice of wiping debt slates clean every 50 years. That custom borrowed from the Babylonians (and others) prevented oligarchies from using debt as a lever to pry land ownership and other forms of wealth away from impoverished debtors.

In other words, Jubilee was an expression of a divinely structured economy whose ideal (unlike our own) prioritized the welfare of widows, orphans, and resident foreigners. That bottom-up arrangement is what I mean by “preferential option for the poor.”

Yeshua & Debt    

Such preference constituted the emphasis in the work of the prophet, Yeshua of Nazareth as well. As a populist leader in the 1st century CE, he made debt amnesty (Jubilee) a central focus of his public platform. Mainstream scripture scholarship has identified such focus in what it terms Yeshua’s “programmatic” declaration in the Gospel of Luke 4:16-30. Quoting our first reading directly, he is remembered as saying:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
             because he has anointed me
            to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. . .”[a]
 20 “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” 

Yes, the Master’s principal concern was about the economic and social welfare of the poor. The words “the year of the Lord’s favor” are synonymous with Jubilee.

Today’s Readings

To get a better idea of what I’m saying, please read today’s liturgical selections directly as found here. My “translations” run as follows:

Isaiah 61: 1-2A, 10-11: A Jubilee year! Debts forgiven! Interest payments written off! Here is good news for the poor whose captive hearts are broken in their miserable debtors’ prisons – reminiscent of their ancestors’ captivity In Babylon. It is all a matter of divine justice, salvation and overwhelming joy – like a wedding celebration where both bride and groom, once poor, are now adorned with splendid jewels.

Luke 1: 46-48, 49-50, 53-54: Jesus’ mother shared that nuptial joy. Though dirt poor like her husband and son, she thirsted for the promised Great Reversal. There the hungry would be well fed, while the rich would at last experience a well-deserved famine. What happiness for the vindicated poor in God’s New Order of justice!

I Thessalonians 5: 16-24: Paul shared Mary’s happiness revealed in her son and by the prophets before him. While the rich despise prophetic proclamations of God’s reckoning, the poor cherish them word for word. They know the prophetic arc of justice bends in their direction.

John 1: 6-8, 19-28: Such was the message of John the Baptist too. Justice at last, jubilee for the poor! The light surrounding the man was so bright that even corrupt religious leaders mistook him for the reincarnation of Elijah himself –or maybe the promised messiah. But no, said John; he was merely a voice proclaiming God’s just path that all are called to trod. His baptism of mere water would be displaced by Yeshua’s social and spiritual revolution of raging fire. Jubilee for the poor at last!!

Conclusion

All of this might seem like ancient history. However, it’s really common sense that is extremely relevant to the issue of writing off the world’s unpayable debts in general and student loans in particular. These considerations also tell us a lot about distortions of Christianity to the point of complete irrelevance.

Regarding loans, Hudson teaches that periodic debt forgiveness (as in Jubilee) is absolutely necessary to correct the dynamics of borrowing and lending. It’s a matter of simple math. Compound interest grows exponentially; incomes increase linearly. As a result, debt will always outrun income.

Consequently too, debts that can’t be paid won’t be paid. Requiring the impossible hamstrings any economy. It robs consumers of spending power. They can’t buy homes and other goods that keep markets humming.

(This was demonstrated in post-WWII Germany. There, in contrast to the aftermath of WWI, German debts were for all practical purposes forgiven. An economic “miracle” followed.)

As for Christianity in relation to all of this . . .  Scripture scholars tell us that the lives and concerns of Yeshua’s people were principally three: (1) foreign (Roman) occupation, (2) land reform, and (3) debt forgiveness. That the Master addressed all of these problems directly in accord with the divine “preferential option for the poor” accounts for his wild popularity among the peasant farmers who constituted his audience of focus.

In this he separated himself from Rabbi Hillel and the Pharisees who rejected wealth redistribution through Jubilee. His separation eventually led to his arrest, torture, and submission to a form of capital punishment reserved for rebels against the Roman Empire.

This, however, is not the picture the Christ that most of us carry around in our minds. There, as Hudson points out, Jesus’ resonance with the material concerns of his people has been transformed into insipid spiritual platitudes that would never have made him a threat to the religious leaders of his day, much less to the Roman Empire.

Restoring any relevance to Christianity in our contemporary world hinges on recovering the radical Jesus of history and his connection with issues like debt forgiveness of student loans. It also hinges on our willingness to stand up for the debt-impoverished (ourselves!!) – despite empire’s vile threats.    

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

3 thoughts on “Debt Amnesty Now: The Heart of Jesus’ Good News”

  1. I would be happy if student loans could be revised in 3 ways —
    a) No more capitalization of back interest (where overdue interest is added to the principle, so that interest is charged on both principle & interest!);
    b) At the borrowers’ initiative, the loans — both private & govt– could be refinanced at current rate of new loans +1% more, no more than once every 12 months; &
    c) Student loans would be eligible to be included in bankruptcy filings again!!
    I think that this would encourage more people to go into lower paying careers, such as teaching, social work, etc…
    My 2 cents worth…

    Like

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