The Leviticus:8 Project
You shall count off seven weeks of years—seven times seven years—so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years. Leviticus 25:8
Some number of years ago, a movement was underway to forgive the debts that countries with developing economies had amassed. The notion was that lender countries with strong economies were in a better position to assume the loss than countries with significant debt were in to maintain the interest on the loans. It is not surprising that many of the advocates for forgiveness were familiar with the Biblical mandate to reset the economy and land holdings every fifty years – the jubilee.
Before any such program could be finalized, those strong economies plummeted, and the plans were abandoned. But it is worth noting that the conversations about this innovative approach were not all supportive.
There’s no doubt that both the Biblical mandate and the contemporary proposal were well-intended. After all, if wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few, the many suffer disproportionately. That situation seems to be acceptable only to those with wealth or the expectation that they will amass it to the disadvantage of others. Still, the Bible (and, indeed, all of Jewish thought) concedes that there will always be poor people. It also insists that the privileged have the responsibility to provide for the disadvantaged. In every way from creating self-sustaining opportunities (such as leaving the corners of the fields unharvested or teach a person a marketable skill) to simply handing over money (preferably with joy, but even with resentment), those that have must provide for those that don’t.
But this notion of the forced redistribution of wealth is one of the places that capitalism chooses to disregard the instruction of Scripture. Who would lend money, who would build a house, who would plant an orchard if, after seven years or seven times seven years, the investment would be lost?
Close readers of the Bible know that the reluctance of lenders to lose their loan is anticipated. And those who have studied even a little Jewish law know of the invention of the prosbul, a legal fiction that allows lenders to assign their loans to the court, an institution that is not a person (my friend), so that debts can survive the mandatory forgiveness. Despite the moral authority of the Bible and the admirable notion of a society free from permanent want, practical experience made it clear that human nature was sometimes more reliable than divine instruction.
The old joke is both older than old and not such a joke: The students come to the rabbi and say they have found a way to rid the world of poverty – the rich will give the poor what they need. “How is your plan doing?” asked the rabbi. “We’re half-way there,” they replied. “The poor have agreed to accept the gifts.”
And it turned out that there was some pushback against the debt-forgiveness movement as well. Countries, like people, were reluctant to forgive existing debts even when they were prospering and might well have been able to afford the gesture. In almost every case, the debts were being managed to prevent disabling the smaller economy. But the anticipation that strong economies might not always be so strong (which turned out to be devastatingly true) made representatives of lender countries declare their reluctance to extend future credit to these same countries. A once-in-a-generation reset might very well have complicated the ability of any country to move beyond momentary solvency.
I know that there was disappointment in some quarters (especially among some faith-based activists) that the “jubilee plan” did not come to pass. If there had been a willingness, it not only would have alleviated a significant amount of debt, but also it would have validated a particular perspective on the wisdom and authority of the Bible. At least a few of the proponents believed that the latter “witness” was as important as the former problem-solving.
There were other creative minds who went to work on national debts. There has yet to be a solution, but with the exception of those few leaders that will not acknowledge their country’s economic crisis, the combination of public and private efforts has made inroads in alleviating poverty. There is a long way to go, but not as long as before.
But the lesson of the push for debt forgiveness gives me quiet satisfaction – not because I am somehow in favor of crushing debt, but because I continue to reject a literal reading of the Bible. The embedded skepticism of the idealistic vision, tackled by the legal logic so disparaged by outsiders to Jewish tradition, gives me great delight. With a minimum of exceptions, everything is a negotiation, not out of some worship of making a deal, but because of the constant celebration of our capacity to be idealistic and practical at the same time.
In the best sense, that’s my definition of politics, my version of Otto von Bismarck’s “art of the possible.” You work at something for a long time – maybe seven times seven years – and in the end, with people of good will, you get the best possible outcome. That’s a jubilee worth celebrating.