Will the Rolling Jubilee Really Work?

On the Occupy spin-off movementÍs new economy of inefficient forgiveness.

BY C. CHRISTOPHER SMITH POLITICS / CURRENT November 20, 2012

Occupy Wall Street is striking back—this time with an effort that New York magazine calls ingenious. This plan, called the Rolling Jubilee, aims to buy debt for “pennies on the dollar” on the same debt market that collection agencies purchase debt. But unlike the debt collectors, who hound consumers for whatever portion of the bill they can collect, the Rolling Jubilee will wipe the debts clean.

Last week, the group kicked off its new scheme by hosting a telethon in New York City that included appearances by Janeane Garofalo, John Cameron Mitchell, members of TV on The Radio, Sonic Youth and Neutral Milk Hotel. At press time, the effort had raised almost $300,000 which, according to Rolling Jubilee math, would abolish over $5.8 million of debt.

This new movement draws the “jubilee” part of its name from the ancient Israelite law (Leviticus 25) which instructed the Jews, in the 50th year, to let the land lay fallow, forgive all debts, liberate the slaves and return to the homeland of one’s family.

The “rolling” part of the name indicates that the group’s hope that people who are forgiven debts will be able to contribute to forgiving the debts of other— thus keeping the cycle of debt abolition rolling. This aspect of the plan reminds me of Jesus’s parable of the unmerciful servant (Matt. 18:23-35), which in essence calls us to forgive as we have been forgiven.

Indeed, the theology and basic concept of this plan have me practically dancing with glee. As John Howard Yoder explores in his classic book The Politics of Jesus, not only did Jesus launch his public ministry by proclaiming that the year of jubilee had come (Luke 4:16-30), but the jubilee was at the very heart of the Kingdom of God—in forgiving the debts of humanity. Rolling Jubilee is to be highly commended for creatively calling public attention to the practice of debt forgiveness—a deeply theological act.

However, the question remains: how well will the plan work out? How far will it roll once debts start to be forgiven? Some observers charge that many debts that can be bought for pennies on the dollar have already been written off by the banks as unrecoverable. Others have noted that consumers whose debts are forgiven will have still have to bear the burden of those debts in their credit scores, because scores are typically dinged for the overdue loans before they are sold on the debt market.

The larger question, is how willing and able will consumers be to contribute to the continuing cycle of debt forgiveness after their loan has been forgiven? I imagine that people whose debt was incurred as the result of a particular extenuating circumstance (e.g., a medical bill for a singular instance, the bursting of the housing bubble, etc.) might be able to contribute, but I’d wager that those who are trapped in consumerist cycles of spending would be less so.

Although the practice of debt forgiveness is a wonderful one that will loosen the binding chains of at least some American consumers, what we ultimately need is the transformation of our desires. If we are enslaved to the Western propaganda of an advertising culture that tells us we always need more, then forgiving our debts alone will be merely a reset before we fall back into the consuming slavery of our desires.

In the biblical narrative, Jubilee was intended for a people who had submitted themselves to a way of life together that would form and shape their desires in a very particular manner. Theologian William Cavanaugh has argued in his book Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, that we need practices that reorient our desires from wanting to consume stuff to wanting to be consumed by the reconciling love of God.

Foremost among these practices, I believe, is gratitude –seeing every creature and circumstance as a gift from God. Through gratitude, we learn contentment and as we come to understand and appreciate God’s generosity toward us, we learn to cultivate our own generosity toward others.

Let’s celebrate the Rolling Jubilee and the steps that it is taking to advance the cause of debt forgiveness. But at the same time, let us explore together in our churches our own complicity in Western consumer culture, and the ways that we are slaves to our own endless desires for stuff.

As we confess our sins of consumerism, God will be faithful and just to forgive us. And not only will be find forgiveness, but God will slowly and attentively form in the midst of our congregations a new economy—one that is founded on contentment and that is driven not by greed but by loving and preferring others.

C. CHRISTOPHER SMITH

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