How to make a difference II

by Heather

Not a loan

The opposite of rich is not poor; it’s free. The more weighed down we are, the harder it is for us to move when the Spirit says move. When were encumbered by baggage such as credit-card debt, we are unable to follow the Spirit’s lead. –Reverend Lynice Pinkard

Taking on debt indentures you to do future work in order to pay for past purchases. –Cynthia Eells

And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family. … Ye shall not therefore oppress one another … –Leviticus 25: 10, 17

At the end of every seven years thou shalt make a release. And this is the manner of the release: Every creditor that lendeth ought unto his neighbor shall release it; he shall not exact it of his neighbour, or of his brother … –Deuteronomy 15:1-2

As soon as I read about the Rolling Jubilee project–I think it was in Yes! magazine‘s poverty issue–I knew I wanted to be part of it. Rolling Jubilee, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, buys “bad” debt that’s in collections and is being sold for pennies on the dollar–and then they forgive it, cancel it, no strings attached. Or, as the Strike Debt folks like to say, they abolish it.

They focus on debt that has been incurred for basic services like medical care and education. (Most student loan debt is inaccessible to the Rolling Jubilee due to the federal government’s role, but the project has acquired private student debt.) The kinds of things that could be considered–but in the US often are not–basic human rights.

I know what a good feeling it is to retire debt. I’ve been working for several years to abolish my own debt, and starting next month, major chunks of it will be gone–paid the old-fashioned way, I might add–I haven’t gotten creative, in case you’re wondering! Early next year, I’ll owe money only on my house–and the end of my mortgage debt, though not immediate, is in sight as well. I am thrilled, so the thought of bringing freedom from debt to other people who may have despaired of ever having it, is really nothing short of awesome. I unequivocally love the idea.

According to Rolling Jubilee’s website, one in seven people in this country is currently being pursued by a debt collector. I’m comfortable calling it harassment. Just last week, after weeks and weeks of robo-calls for Hyacinth [my last name], a human finally called and I was able to put a stop to it. I’ve also gotten calls for Helen [my last name], and a number of other people who are not me and have never been members of my household. I certainly feel harassed, and it’s not even my debt.

Critics of the Rolling Jubilee have said that its approach doesn’t reduce the debt burden because it’s “bad debt” being discharged. This seems to me a banker’s view, not a people’s view, of the matter. It seems clear to me that those who owe the debt are unable to pay it–but the harassment of the attempts to collect that debt, and the felt burden of that debt, are no less real than if the debt were “good debt”–and probably both are increased.

To date, the Rolling Jubilee has discharged over $18.5 million in debt at a cost of a little over $700,000. They state that “all proceeds go directly to buying and canceling people’s debt.”

Now no doubt many people associated with the Strike Debt and Occupy movements have ideas a bit more radical than my own. I’m fine with that … I think a few radical ideas will be useful in moving our country away from the current tyranny of the 1%. And I love the idea of creating freedom from debt.

The term jubilee comes from the Bible, and as I wrote this, I wanted to refresh my memory on the details. I remembered a cycle of 7 years, and a complete cycle of 7 x 7 (49) years plus the 50th or jubilee year, when all debt is forgiven and all indentured servants go free.

Perhaps part of the reason I couldn’t quite remember the details (my family read the Bible through each year for much of my childhood) is that, like the Creation story, there are multiple different versions of the jubilee rules–one in Leviticus, one in Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy presents just the 7-year cycle, with the release happening in the fixed seventh year (the Sabbath year). Leviticus presents the 50-year jubilee cycle I remembered.

I was disturbed to see that it wasn’t quite all debt forgiven, all indentured servants and their children going free (and not empty-handed, either), and all land returning to its original owner. The Old Testament writings draw a distinction between the debt your ‘brother’ owes you, or your ‘brother’ being in servitude to you, and the same being true of a ‘sojourner,’ ‘stranger,’ or ‘heathen.’ According to these laws, such others could be held in servitude or indebtedness in perpetuity. Jesus took care to correct this error with his parable of The Good Samaritan, which makes it clear that all humankind are our neighbors, our brothers.

Isn’t that just the problem … those who wish to enslave us by having us forever in their debt don’t see us as their brothers, their neighbors, their landsmen, but as entities or objects to be used in their own enrichment. I think one of the beautiful things about the Rolling Jubilee debt buys is that they are blocks of debt, the individual debtors completely anonymous and unknown until after the buy is complete. Some of them no doubt would be recognizable to me as ‘brothers’ in Old Testament terms … people who share my ethnicity. And yet there is no doubt that every one of them is my neighbor.

If you’d like to contribute, you can do so here. (The original How to make a difference is here.)