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OPINION - A jubilee for debt justice

Tim Jones, from Debt Justice, explains the original meaning of jubilee, and argues that now is the ideal time to cancel debts.

Read time: 5 minutes and 31 seconds

This year is the 70th Anniversary of the Queen’s accession. These regular anniversaries have come to be known as a “Jubilee”, which means “celebration”. However, the original biblical meaning of Jubilee had nothing to do with monarchs, leaders or the powerful, but was actually a time to turn the world upside down and restore it closer towards God’s vision of a just society.

A Jubilee year in the Old Testament and Jewish tradition was a time when fields were left fallow, debts cancelled, slaves set free, and land returned to its owners (Deuteronomy 15, Leviticus 25). Jubilees were supposed to happen following seven sets of seven years, in the 49th or 50th year. This periodic resetting of land and wealth was to ensure that inequalities did not persist over time.

the original biblical meaning of Jubilee... was actually a time to turn the world upside down and restore it closer towards God’s vision of a just society.

All the reasons to celebrate a Jubilee were linked. If a peasant’s crops failed they had to borrow from the rich to get by, then exploit the land to attempt to pay the debt. If the debts could not be paid, the lender could take possession of their land, and then take the borrower and their family into slavery. Times of crisis, such as drought, caused huge injustice, and increased inequality. Jubilee righted these wrongs – freeing slaves, cancelling debts, returning the land and giving it time to recover from overexploitation.

This concept of Jubilee is set out in the Old Testament but it was also integral to Jesus’ mission and message. Luke’s gospel records that Jesus started his ministry quoting from the prophet Isaiah:“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4)Many scholars have suggested that to people at the time the “year of the Lord’s favour” would have meant the year of “Jubilee”. And Jubilee is all about good news for people who are marginalised and oppressed and righting the injustice that the powerful have inflicted. In fact, the verb Jesus is most often quoted as using, aphiemi, means to “cancel, send away, liberate, forgive a debt”. Across the Gospels there are frequent challenges to existing inequality and poverty, both of money and power.

The economic system we live in today is very different to 2,000 years ago. But there are also huge similarities. Ridiculous amounts of wealth are owned by a few people, while billions of others become indebted to pay for basic needs. Crises such as global pandemics or war intensify this concentration of power and wealth. With energy and food prices soaring, this is as true now as ever.In the UK, recent polling by my organisation Debt Justice found that 25 million people are now in debt or concerned about falling into debt, as incomes stagnate and living costs rise.

But it is not just an issue for people in the UK, or just for individuals and households. A wave of economic shocks, including the Covid pandemic, have led to staggering levels of government debt in lower income countries. Debt Justice says that 54 countries around the world are now in debt crisis, with debt payments preventing governments from adequately funding basic needs such as healthcare and education.

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Christianity OPINION - A jubilee for debt justice

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has joined the call for Debt Justice, saying:“The mounting cost of living crisis will undoubtedly drive more and more people into crippling levels of debt - in a world where debt is coming to seem more and more the normal state of affairs. Our campaign challenges the idea that debt is the natural solution to the effects of poverty and privation. On the contrary, it tightens the grip of privation, disables public services, and prevents people and societies from taking charge of their lives. We are pressing for a radical rethink of all the assumptions that lie behind this situation, in the hope of seeing that future of justice and human dignity which our faith sets before us as our task and calling.”

Debt Justice was founded in the 1990s, with the idea of Jubilee as its heart. Its origins are in the Jubilee 2000 campaign, which called for the debts of 52 countries to be cancelled as a true way to celebrate the millennium.

In the 1990s and 2000s people of all faiths and none, but with large involvement by Christians and Churches, took to the streets, signed petitions and lobbied MPs. Eventually in 2005 powerful countries agreed a scheme which led to $130 billion of debt being cancelled for 36 countries, massively increasing the amount those countries could spend on services like healthcare and education. But nothing was done to prevent the recurring cycle of debt crisis. Which means that twenty years on the campaign continues and debts in many lower income countries need to be cancelled again, while at the same time fighting for systemic changes to prevent debt crises in the future.

Jubilee is about righting the injustices created by an unjust system.

Jubilee is about righting the injustices created by an unjust system. God’s demand for social justice throughout the bible means it should not stop there, but the system itself should be changed so injustice is not created in the first place.

Debt Justice today is calling for debts to be cancelled for households in difficulty in the UK, and countries around the world. It is also calling for systemic changes. At the country level these include changing trade, tax and finance rules, regulating lenders, making lending transparent and accountable, democratising governance of global institutions, reparations for colonialism and compensation for the climate emergency. At the household level in the UK these means higher wages, strengthening trade unions, improving social security, regulating lenders and investing in useful jobs such as through a green new deal.

Cancelling unjust debts, improving people’s incomes and enabling lower income countries to keep more of the resources they produce would be a true way to celebrate the Jubilee.

Tim Jones is Head of Policy at Debt Justice, a campaign to build power in the hands of people to end unjust debt and demand a fair economy.

Read more: ‘Jubilee Economics: Biblical teaching and financial crisis’