Forgive Us Our Debts

Occupy Wall Street offshoot turns to ancient religious teachings to take on America’s mounting consumer debt.

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An offshoot of Occupy Wall Street has turned to ancient religious teachings to take on America's mounting consumer debt. (AP/ Jason DeCrow)
An offshoot of Occupy Wall Street has turned to ancient religious teachings to take on America's mounting consumer debt. (AP/ Jason DeCrow)

In many faith traditions, forgiveness refers to more than sin. It also refers to economic debt. The Hebrew Bible teaches the practice of Jubilee, where debts are forgiven every seven years. The Koran urges compassion for debtors in difficult straits, saying their debts should be postponed until they are “in ease.” In these faith traditions and others, economic and moral behavior is tightly entwined.

That link—between money and morals—isn’t limited to the pages of ancient sacred texts, however. You can spot it in today’s news thanks to a creative new project called the Rolling Jubilee, part of the Strike Debt campaign, which are both offshoots of the Occupy Wall Street movement and are tackling a huge problem. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, about 30 million Americans are being hounded by debt collection agencies.

The idea behind the Rolling Jubilee, the so-called bailout of people by people, is simple. Financial institutions often sell hard-to-collect debt to third parties at a discount. The third parties—usually debt-collection agencies—buy up the aggregated debt and then go after those who now owe them money. Since the collectors bought the debt at a bargain—usually pennies on the dollar—they’re guaranteed a significant profit if they keep hounding debtors until they pay.

Here’s what the Rolling Jubilee does. It buys up debt at a discount but does not chase down the debtors. Instead, it forgives the debt and sets the debtors free.

The Rolling Jubilee got off the ground in early November and was officially launched on November 15 with The People’s Bailout—a variety show and telethon in New York City that was livestreamed and featured “music, comedy, magic, education, and the unexpected.”

In just over a month the Rolling Jubilee has raised almost half a million dollars, which has been used to erase more than $9 million of debt. Contributors get a bargain and those heavily in debt get a break. According to Jubilee officials, a $10 donation wipes out $200 of debt, while a $100 donation wipes out $2,000 of debt. The project is buying medical debt first since nearly 1 million Americans have been financially ruined by a calamitous illness.

According to the American Journal of Medicine, medical costs triggered over 60 percent of bankruptcies in 2009, and most of those who filed for bankruptcy were middle-class, well-educated homeowners. So much for the stereotype of bankrupt bums who max out their credit cards on reckless consumer spending.

The truth is that wages for the middle class have been stagnant for more than 30 years, while living expenses have sharply increased. According to a report by the Center for American Progress, between 1970 and 2009, health care costs jumped by 50 percent, college costs by 80 percent, and housing costs by 97 percent, net of overall inflation.

Susan Wilcox, director of campus ministry at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn and a member of Occupy Catholics, said in a recent interview that the notion that debt is merely an individual responsibility is not true. “Debt is a social contract,” Wilcox said. “You don’t enter it alone—it’s relational and communal. One in seven Americans is in debt. How is it that we all happened to mismanage our money at the same time?”

Wilcox goes on, “Our society has cultivated these individualistic notions. People who lose their home think it’s happening only to them. They feel shame and a sense of moral failure. But it’s about unjust systems.” Wilcox says the ancients would be laughing at us for not understanding the collective nature of debt.

Back in ancient times, the Hebrew practice of Jubilee was meant to ease inequities that had grown over time, restore fairness, and rebuild a level playing field. There was a clear understanding that debt and borrowing led to serious inequalities that needed to be rectified in order for people to have the basics to sustain life. Based on this same philosophy the land too was given a rest. In the largely agricultural societies of ancient times it was ecologically prudent to let the land lie fallow for a period before replanting. The Jubilee was meant not just for people, but for God’s creation as well.

In addition to the Rolling Jubilee effort, the Strike Debt campaign created the “Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual.” The manual serves as an educational and tactical guide that helps people negotiate their personal debt, as well as understand the larger system that pits individuals against global corporations.

Soon the Rolling Jubilee will send letters to the people whose debt the program has erased in hopes that some will come forward and tell their stories and put a human face on national statistics. The project’s organizers hope to transform awareness about medical debt into political pressure, and are working with allies in the health care community to plan direct actions that will coincide with the announcement of debt buys. They hope to expand the project in the coming months, and they are busy researching other debt markets and possibilities.

According to Susan Wilcox, the Rolling Jubilee got a lot of press coverage right from the start. “We hit a spot that everyone could relate to and showed something different,” she said. “We touched the intersection between hopelessness and life.”

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.

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Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative

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