There’s been quite a bit of hubbub in recent days over the Queen’s jubilee. Many are wondering, why all the fuss? In Quaker meeting this Sunday, I started thinking about another meaning of ‘jubilee’.
In some contexts it means a year of forgiveness and universal pardon, so something really worth celebrating! There’s some dispute about what jubilee meant in the Old Testament: some interpret Leviticus 25:10 as signalling a time when slaves were freed, debts were forgiven and so on. But it may not have been quite so progressive.
Putting the textual dispute to one side, I find the idea of a material or economic jubilee really inspiring. It’s considered in some detail by David Graeber in his book, ‘Debt: The First 5,000 Years’. There he argues that across many societies, the notions of debt, sin and obligation are inescapably intertwined. While credit and debt can be a liberating force – allowing enterprising people to move up the social ladder – Graeber argues that it can also become an oppressive structure which binds us into deeply unequal power relations. It’s been very interesting to read his arguments at a time where whole countries and regions of the world are oppressed by crushing debt. Graeber talks about ancient societies which kept records of debts on clay tablets. When they had a ‘jubilee’, all these tablets would be broken to symbolise the universal release from debt. (Some point out that such jubilees might not have been pure philanthropy, but rather a last-ditch attempt to stave off rebellion. But let’s be optimistic!)
What if we offered a jubilee, and cancelled or forgave debts? The immediate thought from many might be ‘sounds lovely in theory, but delinquent borrowers should pay the price’. It seems that we forget that a loan is a two-party agreement: the creditor bears some responsibility to their debtor. But of course, a partial jubilee is probably worse than no jubilee – those in the most desperate positions are held to their obligations while others get off the hook. And it’s easy to forget that an interest-bearing loan represents a risk: if we really expected every loan to be repaid in full, there’d be no interest! And yet, whole countries are wracked by austerity while banks refuse to countenance a ‘haircut’ on their loans.
A further objection to jubilee comes from Kant. He famously argued that the case of a ‘lying promise’ was logically incoherent. If we felt able to abandon our promises when it became inconvenient to stick with them, Kant argued, the institution of promising would become vacuous, thus it would not be possible to make any kind of promise, never mind a lying promise: “no one would believe what was promised him but would laugh at all such expressions as vain pretenses” (AK 4: 422). Of course, much turns on whether we think promising relies on an absolute, never-to-be-neglected commitment, or whether promises can be defeated in some special cases. And many have pointed out that insisting on fiat justitia, ruat caelum (let justice be done, though the heavens fall) is a bit silly. Plato has a nice example of breaking one’s promise to return a borrowed axe if one knows the axe owner is in a murderous rage. (Plato, Republic, Book 1, §331c)
But I feel this misses the point slightly. Jubilee would not give rise to ‘lying promises’, since it would only be every so often and would be known about in advance. So there would be occasional times of debt forgiveness and relevelling the playing field, rather than ad hoc wriggling out of agreements. No doubt banks would adapt to the new conditions and find new ways of turning a profit.
But what about a spiritual jubilee? One of the core ideas in the New Testament is that Jesus represents the ultimate redemption – through his death, all our sins are forgiven. Note the universality here: no-one is left out, there isn’t some special category of the ‘really bad people’ who are denied grace.
This is really radical. It seems a very important part of being human to be able to divide the world up into good and bad people. If a spiritual jubilee happened, those distinctions would go away. Would the world still make sense? Would we feel that some very bad people had somehow got off scot free? I guess we would all find a really universal spiritual jubilee fairly challenging.
On a more personal level, I feel we can experience ‘mini-jubilees’ in our own lives. By quietly reflecting on our week, we can let go of things we feel guilty about, and also things we feel angry about. I often use the quiet time in Quaker meeting to get this kind of perspective, remembering that God’s grace is over everything. The challenging part is holding onto that sense of openness and inspiration when things get tricky again.