Occupy DC demonstrators protest as they try to block the guest entrance to the Alfalfa Dinner at the Capitol Hilton in Washington on Jan. 28, 2012. An Occupy DC organizer says they have hundreds of protesters lined up outside a prestigious Washington hotel where President Barack Obama, other political leaders and business moguls are meeting.
“Jesus had an economic plan,” as I write in “#OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power,” my new book on how what Jesus really said about money, and on the power dynamics of what he did about economic issues in his own time.
Jesus’ economic plan is called the “jubilee.” Jesus starts his ministry (Luke 4: 16-19) by standing up in the synagogue in his hometown and reading from one of the key texts of his Hebrew scriptures that announces a jubilee, a time of debt forgiveness.
What Jesus thought needed to be done about debt in the first century is also what needs to happen for indebted Americans in the 21st century, at least that’s the view of some of the folks who brought us Occupy Wall Street.
By donating at Rolling Jubilee, individuals can give money to buy up distressed consumer debt that is normally sold to debt collectors for pennies on the dollar. But instead of acting like debt collectors, hounding folks for the full payment, you are giving to cancel the debt, that is, forgive it.
I believe what we do (or do not do) about money is the most pressing moral issue of our time. Our economic system is still only working for a few people in this country, and the rest are flat-lining or falling behind as the famous Congressional Budget Office chart shows. Income of the top 1 percent spiked 275 percent from 1979-2007.
Surely Christians who read the Gospels would be protesting that inequality, right?
Well, for several decades the Christian Right in this country has tried to make Jesus into a “free-market capitalist” who believes you just ‘let the market take care of it’ and there’s no need to worry about gross economic inequality and people falling into excessive debt. As Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council opined, “Jesus was a free marketer, not an Occupier.”
Nothing could be farther from the biblical truth.
One of the Jubilee texts in the Bible about the cancellation of debt and gets very, very specific. “Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts.” (Deuteronomy 15:1-6) It’s a pretty radical plan for how to get to economic equality in a community, not only in the early Hebrew history, but also in Jesus’ time, and even today.
But what Rolling Jubilee has done is take that biblical plan and help us realize we need a “reboot” of 21st century debt-ridden American economy.
Occupy “won” the debate on the economy in 2011 and into 2012 by changing the American idea of our economy. The contribution of the language of the 1 percent and the 99 percent simply entered American political discourse as a given. Suddenly, the huge accumulation of wealth by a very few in the last three decades became a scandal not an achievement in the United States.
We have built an economy on selling debt (and hamburgers). There is the 1 percent, the “megarich” who benefit from this debtor economy, and then there is the rest, the 99 percent.
That was a huge shift in American ideas on wealth and poverty in 2011-2012.
Rolling Jubilee works the same way, that is, to change our ideas of how economies should work. Rolling Jubilee turns the morality of “debt” upside down.
It used to be that it was considered “immoral” not to pay your debts. Now, Occupy has exposed the illegitimacy of debt production as an economic strategy. It also begins to shine a light on the institutionalized violence of debt collection including the harassing tactics of those who are usually the ones who buy up bad debt, and the related tactics of seizing assets, garnishing wages, denying employment or housing or even the revival of imprisonment.
Rolling Jubilee does both.
This “Jubilee” rolls because those who are now freed from debt are liberated to contribute to forgiving the debt of others, making this Jubilee roll on.
This is truly in the prophetic tradition, as “Justice shall roll down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24)
On Thursday, there is a telethon that you can watch live on streaming video on the Web site, to raise funds. Rolling Jubilee has already raised nearly $200,000 in donations, at last count on the website, and thus has “forgiven” nearly $4,000,000 in debt.
It is a testimony to the deep religious meaning of Rolling Jubilee that neighbors are coming together at places like Hope Central Church in the Boston area to watch, give and Strike Debt out.
Roll, Jubilee, roll.
But there’s a lot more in Jesus’ teachings on money and power in addition to the moral crisis of debt. There’s women and power, why greed leads people into temptation, and on the practical values of treating each other decently. I hope you will want to #OccupytheBible and check it out.
Former president of Chicago Theological Seminary (1998-2008), the Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is professor of theology at Chicago Theological Seminary and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress