It’s become something of a commonplace among commentators and critics on both ends of the political spectrum to declare the death of the Occupy movement, whose campaigns against social and economic injustice and political corruption began to garner international attention in mid-2011. Although the last of the movement’s higher profile encampments were shut down in early 2012, it would be a mistake to conclude that Occupy is no more. The movement has, rather, taken on new forms. These forms are, to be sure, less visible than, say, thousands camped in Zuccotti Park, home base of Occupy Wall Street, perhaps the most prominent and visible representative of the movement. But they are, in many ways, more organized and focused and, because of that, potentially more potent.
One of the more interesting and important forms is Strike Debt. Recognizing that the creation of personal and collective debt is a significant source of power and profit for the financial and political elite, Strike Debt aims to mobilize a debt resistor movement, using direct action, research, education, and the arts. Currently, its main initiative is the Rolling Jubilee, whose goal is “a bailout of the people by the people.” Here’s how it works. When, for whatever reason, banks can’t collect on a debt, they sell it to debt collectors, often for pennies on the dollar. The collectors, in turn, attempt to turn a profit by recouping as much of the original debt as possible, often employing scare tactics that are immoral and, in some cases, illegal.
Rolling Jubilee intervenes in what they rightly refer to as this “shadowy speculative market of debt,” by buying up debt just as any collector would. Rather than using that debt as a means to turn a profit, however, Rolling Jubilee abolishes it, “to help each other out and highlight how the predatory debt system affects our families and communities.” There are, of course, limits. Because the debt offered for sale is anonymous and bundled, it can’t target specific individuals. Nevertheless, it is a perfectly legal and, it seems to me, ingenious means to provide some relief to those suffering under the weight of our current economic system by using that system against itself. At the time of writing, Rolling Jubilee has raised a little over $619,000, which has allowed the movement to abolish over $12,000,000 in debt. That’s not much in the grand scheme of things, of course. But it is something, at the very least an encouraging start.
Rolling Jubilee does not claim any religious affiliation, but its website makes clear that the basic idea behind the initiative comes from “many faith traditions, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam.” Although it’s unclear to what extent it was ever put into practice, Leviticus 25, for instance, calls for a Jubilee every fiftieth year: “And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants; you shall return, every one of you, to your property and everyone of you to your family” (25:10). In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus begins his ministry by associating it with the notion of Jubilee. Jesus has, among other things, been sent “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:19). We likewise find various notions of debt cancellation in Islam. We read in the Qu’ran, “”And if [the debtor] is in difficulty, then [there should be] postponement until [he is] at ease, but that you should give it as charity is [even] better for you, if you knew” (2:280). For all three traditions, then, debt cancellation in some form or another is essential to faith.
The congregation one of my colleagues serves has attempted to take seriously alleviating debt as an expression of faith. Although his congregation does not buy uncollected debt on the market, as does Rolling Jubilee, they have over the past five years been able to dissolve about $50,000 in medical and student loan debt for members of the congregation and the surrounding community. The congregation is located in rural eastern NC and is solidly working class, so it is by no means wealthy. Yet they’ve been able to put together their own, small-scale version of Jubilee by pooling their resources together to pay off the debt of those in need and by establishing a basic, internally regulated no interest loan system.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed when seeking to find concrete avenues of resistance and to imagine alternatives to our current economic system. Perhaps the idea of a Jubilee, however, can provide us with a way forward. In Debt: The First 5000 Years, anthropologist and activist David Graeber notes that “we are long overdue for some kind of Biblical-style Jubilee” (390). That is unlikely to occur, however, unless we start taking matters into our own hands, as Rolling Jubilee and my colleague’s congregation have done in their own ways. Given that the problem of debt affects most of us in one way or another, focusing on its cancellation may provide a focal point for a broad-based, post-secular political movement. “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” Jesus said (Matt. 6:12).
Hollis Phelps is Assistant Professor of Religion at Mount Olive College, Mount Olive, NC. He is the author of Alain Badiou: Between Theology and Anti-theology (Acumen 2013).