Last spring I witnessed the unfurling of the flag of the Jubilee. The flag was a vivid symbolic reminder of the biblical year of redemption, and its unfurling took place during the Jewish-Christian Symposium on the Jubilee sponsored by the World Council of Churches, in Bossey, Switzerland. Present were 32 representatives from 15 countries, including India, Uganda, Brazil, the Philippines and Indonesia. I single out the Third World nations because, first, I was enabled to feel, even vicariously, their people’s pain and suffering and, second, because I witnessed a vivid demonstration that their hopes for remedial action are expressed by the biblical Jubilee.
The basic postulate of the Jubilee is Leviticus 25 verses 23–24:
Furthermore, the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is mine; you are but resident aliens under my authority. Therefore, throughout the land you hold, you must provide redemption for the land.
“Land” here is Canaan, the promised land; and “you” refers to the Israelites.
The Israelites are to remember that God is the landlord and they are tenants ordered not to sell the land “beyond reclaim.” Each Israelite clan’s assigned plot of land (Numbers 26) must always remain in its possession.1 Even if it is sold it can always be reclaimed, a process called redemption, and every fiftieth year—the Jubilee year—it must be restored to its original owner.
Cancellation of debts and return of forfeited land was also known in the ancient Near East.2 It usually occurred when a king ascended to the throne. Its purpose was to “prevent the collapse of the economy under too great a weight of private indebtedness.”3 However, it was generally limited to the king’s retainers and subject to his whim.4 The biblical Jubilee, in contrast, was inexorably periodic and incumbent on every Israelite.
The Jubilee has become the rallying cry for oppressed peoples today as the Exodus theme was for their counterparts in previous decades. This time, however, they are not enslaved politically (except where colonial rulers have been replaced by their own oppressive governments) but shackled economically. The global market economy has generated unprecedented growth and prosperity but not to them. The fact is that 20 percent of the world’s people possess 83 percent of the world’s wealth.5 Moreover, “three quarters of adjusting countries in Sub-Sahara Africa have suffered declining per capita incomes and in Latin America the declines were at least as bad.”6
The impoverishment of the Third World has brought attendant injustices relevant to the Jubilee theme. Global pollution, such as the depletion of Costa Rica’s rain forests in the interest of the timber and mining industries, has caused irremediable losses, especially in Third World nations. Though Costa Rica, singularly among Latin American countries, experienced significant economic growth between 1970 and 1990, the concomitant environmental decay in its soils and forests produced a loss of natural capital totaling 6 percent of the Gross Domestic Product of that period; Indonesia lost 9 percent.7
As a result, debtor nations have issued the following demands to creditor nations (who operate through the International Monetary Fund and similar agencies): (1) cancellation of their debts; (2) restitution of land and resources to their original owners; (3) cessation from pilfering natural resources and from polluting them (one symposium paper cited Genesis 2:15b—God leased us the earth “to work it and tend it” but not to despoil it); and (4) termination of economic slavery (as in the atrocious example of democratic India) by universally raising wages to a subsistence level.
The four demands correspond to the Jubilee remission of debts, restoration of land, Sabbath rest for land and person, and release from economic servitude. Obviously their implementation would be met by large-scale resistance. Some demands would need to be modified. For example, as one symposium paper pointedly asked: Wouldn’t the simultaneous remission of all debts inhibit creditors from lending at all?
Indeed, this very problem faced Hillel, the outstanding spiritual authority of the first century C.E. He found that loans were not being made because of their automatic cancellation at the sabbatical year (see Deuteronomy 15:1–2). As a solution, he issued an edict of Prosbul (Mishnah Shebi’it 10:3), a Greek legal term meaning “before an assembly.” It empowered the court, in place of the creditor, to collect a debt from the real property of a debtor if the bond were delivered to it in advance of the sabbatical year (Mishnah Shebi’it 10:2, 4, 6).8
Nonetheless, some countries employing Jubilee provisions have experienced spectacular economic growth. For 048example, in just two years, from 1952 to 1954, the percentage of South Korean farmers owning their land instead of working as tenants jumped from 50 percent to 94 percent. Something similar happened in Taiwan. Thus the Jubilee laws, mutatis mutandis, offer a realistic blueprint for bridging the economic gap between the have and have-not nations, which otherwise portends political uprisings that can engulf the entire world.
Last spring I witnessed the unfurling of the flag of the Jubilee. The flag was a vivid symbolic reminder of the biblical year of redemption, and its unfurling took place during the Jewish-Christian Symposium on the Jubilee sponsored by the World Council of Churches, in Bossey, Switzerland. Present were 32 representatives from 15 countries, including India, Uganda, Brazil, the Philippines and Indonesia. I single out the Third World nations because, first, I was enabled to feel, even vicariously, their people’s pain and suffering and, second, because I witnessed a vivid demonstration that their hopes for remedial action are expressed […]