Will the Rolling Jubilee Really Work?

On the Occupy spin-off movement’s new economy of inefficient forgiveness.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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.



Anonymous commented…

Ben, I think Consumerism implies more than just participating in the economy. It implies a culture that values "consumption" as an end itself rather than a response to needs or even wants. It's kind of like eating versus gluttony.

According to wikipedia: "Consumerismis a social and economic order that encourages the purchase of goods and services in ever-greater amounts."
Merrian Webster: "the theory that an increasingconsumptionof goods is economically desirable"

I think that theory of purpose of the economy and our participation in it is certainly worth a critical review.

Jon Bauman


Jon Bauman commented…

Hey Ben, I understand your point, and i realize you are venting, however,if you read the quote on consumerism in context, seems like its condemning consumerism that leads to our financial decline, or the kind that causes us to not help the poor. Perhaps consumerism and greed are more closely related than you think. Although using our wealth that we earned is not a bad thing, its not the best either.as u said, its amoral. Although, you cannot deny the voluntary socialist structure of the early church. We are called to aide the poor. And this org based on this article is doing just that. . So what is the problem? For me personally, whenever I see luxury station wagons or SUV, it seems like a misuse of wealth by taking a type of car that is made for practicality and spending thousands more on one some that are more luxurious. All of that extra money could be used to advance Gods kingdom. Btw, I go to a Bible college and am not liberal.


Anonymous commented…

Great point Eliza. Those definitions certainly do seem to end in greed and a gluttony of consumption, if you will. I think ever increasing consumption would be mathematically and economically desirable, but not morally.

So I'm wondering, would having more to provide for others, be inside the umbrella of consumerism? Like let's say I buy lots more of ____ to provide for others without. Or would that be out of the definition of consumerism?



PhattMatt commented…

I often think about what I could be doing with the $1400/month I pay on student loans... I'd gladly give 3/4ths of it away just to have the extra 1/4th to help us afford having children.


KeithMason commented…

I think thats wishful thinking regarding consumerism. Economically our society is driven by a culture of more and that is conferred to us as individuals. The hidden curriculum of consumerism is not on 'providing for others'. We live in a society driven by economics not by values and that as individuals the more stuff we have the better off we are as people.

Even the mindset of 'me getting more to give to others' recognises their are many who 'do not have' and so need help. It implies a measure of value on the amount of 'capital' someone has whether its the lack of it or the potential for someone to give their capital away. The primary thing however.. over any thing else is the acquiring of capital. Consumerism is synonymous with greed and gluttony.

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