Saturday, August 13, 2011

Jubilee Economics

A lot of people who know nothing about the church or the Bible have recently taken to co-opting a biblical term and using it in the context of the current fiscal calamity that augurs what some suggest is our impending global economic ruin; namely, Jubilee. Nouriel Roubini, the Turkish-born, Harvard-trained, American economist who is a professor of international economics at NYU’s Stern School of Business, suggested recently that the single most effective stratagem which the US could undertake to staunch the global economic hemorrhage would be to grant a “Jubilee” to the more than one-half of Americans who are currently underwater on their mortgages (who owe more than their home is worth).
The housing collapse, he argues, has triggered the global meltdown by eroding American wealth which was the largest driver of the global economic engine. Because Americans feel less wealthy than they did before their homes lost 30-50% of their value, they have locked up their wallets and have effectively ground the American economy to a halt. Moreover, because America is the economic engine that drives the global economy, when our housing bubble burst it created a vacuum which sucked the life out of the global economy as well. “Declare a Jubilee!” he says. “Write off or write down the debt on America’s housing shortfall. Just wipe the slate clean, turn the page, start all over again. Whatever your home is worth today is what it’s worth.” That largesse, he argues, would be the single biggest shot in the arm of the world economy that could be achieved because it would liberate Americans to once again lead the world in global economic recovery.

Jubilee. The word “Jubilee,” (yovel in the Hebrew), itself occurs 21 times in the Old Testament, mostly in the Book of Leviticus, chiefly in Leviticus 25. Significantly, the word also can mean “ram’s horn” which, in ancient Hebrew culture, was the instrument associated with repentance (shub in Hebrew), which signified a turning around, a starting over, a fresh start, a new beginning.

Both the word and the idea it signifies derive from the ancient Hebrew culture wherein every 50 years (7 years in Deuteronomy) God declared a “sabbatical year,” from the Hebrew word Shabbath which means “rest.” The entire nation and land would be granted a Sabbath Rest – all debts would be canceled (forgiven); slaves would be emancipated (liberated); prisoners released; the land would lie fallow, resting from the annual cycle of planting and harvest. It would be a Sabbath filled with Sabbaths, an entire year of Sabbaths, a year of release (Deut. 15:9), a year of Jubilee. The idea, as it takes expression in the Leviticus tradition, is that of a “Sabbath of Sabbaths.” That is, just as within the weekly cycle there is a “Sabbath day,” so also in the annual cycle there is a “Sabbath year.” Hence, after seven Sabbaths of Sabbath years (7 times 7 or 49 years), the following year (the 50th year) would be declared a “Sabbath year,” a Jubilee Year.

Of course, then, as now, Jubilee was not welcomed by all. Provocatively, Deuteronomy’s version of the Jubilee says, “There will be no poor among you” (Deut. 15:4). Ah! There’s the rub. What was “good news” for some was “bad news” for others. The slave, the tenant farmer, the prisoner, the debt-ridden Am haAretz (people of the land) who eked out a living, living from paycheck to paycheck, welcomed the Jubilee as liberation, salvation, good news, “gospel,” if you will. But those with the most to lose, the landed gentry, the politicians, those who trafficked in slavery and servitude and serfdom, did not hear “Jubilee” as good news. Indeed, many of them went to great lengths to avoid Jubilee. This was the motivation behind a practice mentioned in the New Testament called “prosbul” (see Mark 7:11). The word derives from the Greek (pros meaning “to” or “toward” and bul from the Greek word Boule, meaning “council” or “court”). The idea was that as the Jubilee approached, you would declare your property “Corban” (dedicated to God). It would be ceded over to the Council (Boule; that is the Sanhedrin), for the period of time in which the Jubilee was in effect. Then, when the Jubilee had passed, the property would return to its pre-Corban owner, thus avoiding the necessity of canceling debts or freeing slaves, etc. It was a legal fiction tolerated by the Jewish religious establishment as a way of avoiding the consequences of Jubilee because, they believed, were Jubilee permitted to have its full effect, it would wreck the economy! It is against this practice that Jesus speaks when he criticizes the Pharisees in Mark 7:1-13 (see especially 7:9-13). That is to say, Jubilee was one of those commandments of God that everyone liked to talk about but no one actually did anything about. It was safer that way.

Which helps us to understand the harsh reaction Jesus received in Luke 4:16-30 when he went into his home town synagogue and stood up to preach. They gave him the scroll of Isaiah, and he read from Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the LORD is upon me in behalf of which He has anointed me (literally “Christed me”) to preach good news to the poor; he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives (prisoners) and recovery of sight to the blind, to send away the traumatized in release, and to proclaim the Year of the LORD’s grace” (that is, the Jubilee Year!) (my translation of the Greek). You will recall that when the people heard that Jesus was declaring the Year of Jubilee, they at first greeted him enthusiastically (“And all spoke well of him, and marveled at the words of grace which came from his mouth;” Luke 4:22). But when he clarified the context in which he meant that the Jubilee had come – Today! – and the community within which it was to be effected – all ya’ll – their “jubilation” turned quickly to castigation and then to assassination (“They rose up and put him out of the city, and led him to the brow of the hill…that they might throw him down headlong”).

It’s a wonderful idea in theory, isn’t it? Year of Jubilee! Year of Release! Debts forgiven; captives released; fresh start; new beginning; turn the page; a Sabbath for everyone! Why, it almost sounds like “gospel,” doesn’t it? But remember, gospel isn’t “good news” for everyone.

I’d watch my back, Dr. Roubini, if I were you. 

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