Beyond Jubilee 2000 in the Light of the Bible
Ulrich Duchrow
(Modern Churchpeople’s Union 87 th Annual Conference 13-16 July 1999)

The concept of a jubilee has been popularised in Europe by the campaign starting from the United Kingdom called Jubilee 2000. The motivation of those who launched this campaign was to find an approach to global economic issues which could find broad support within the European population and even power structures. The cancellation of the unpayable debt of the poorest country can be understood by many and is neither too radical nor too complex. It also has the advantage of the "single issue approach", which is good for broad campaigns.

This approach can be understood as a charitable effort not touching the vested interests of a substantial part of the European population. However, it can also be interpreted as an entry to a broader spectrum of questions and also strategies. This article argues that the relevant biblical texts themselves do lead to a more comprehensive and deeper view, which may start at a certain point but then move ahead addressing the root causes of the problems before us.

1. The socio-economic context of the biblical Sabbath-year and the Jubilee

The classical texts relating to the Sabbath-year and the Jubilee in Leviticus 25 belong to the Priestly Codex written in exile and shortly after the return of the exiled people to Judea. Their background is the catastrophic breakdown of the socio-political order of the monarchic times manifested in the destruction of Jerusalem and the deportation of the Judaic upper class to Babylon in the year 586 B. C. The question behind these texts is: How can we avoid the same social, economic and political developments leading to the experienced catastrophe when we rebuild the Judaic society after exile? So it is important to understand the structure of the earlier negative developments in order to grasp the precise meaning of the Sabbath and Jubilee rules.

Interestingly enough, the rhythm of seven years first appears in a text which most probably also reacts to a catastrophe, called the Book of Covenant (Exodus 21-23). Here the destruction of the Northern Kingdom by the Assyrians (722 B. C.) preceded the text. Prophets like Amos and Hosea had predicted the breakdown as a result of the social and economic injustices in the northern Kingdom if people did not turn from their wrong ways. Now the disciples of the prophets, with the refugees from the North, came down to the Southern Kingdom reinforcing the message of prophets there like Isaiah and Micha saying: "If you do not turn around to justice, you will suffer the same disaster as the Northern Kingdom."

It is in this situation that the Book of Covenant introduces certain rules related to the rhythm of seven and other socio-economic laws:

Beside this early text against charging security and interest on a loan there are other indications during this time of the late 8th century B. C. which indicate that there was a change in economic mechanisms splitting the society more and more into rich and poor. Like Isaiah 5, 8 says: "Shame on you! you who add house to house and join field to field until not an acre remains, and you are left to dwell alone in the land."

Up to the 8th century the Ancient Near East and also the Eastern Mediterranean area was characterised by aristocratic monarchic systems of rule. Here it was the form of a direct violence by which the powerful appropriated large estates, slave labour, raw materials and goods as well as tribute from the conquered peoples. During the 8th century a new type of economy spread from Greece: the property economy [1]. For whatever historic reasons the aristocratic order was replaced and superseded by a legal revolution protecting private property by absolute legal provisions. The free property holders formed the new community of the "polis". On the basis of this property value a new credit economy developed with strict rules on demanding security and interest for loans. If the loan could not be paid back the pledge, which in most cases was the land of the debtor, fell into the hands of the creditor. This is what the Isaiah text is talking about. The early form of interest is debt slavery, which means that the debtor has to work for the creditor in order to pay the interest. More and more this credit economy develops into a money economy. If the debtor, however, does not have money to pay interest and return the capital, land and then labour is distrained (cf. Nehemiah 5:1-5). Taking into account that the small producing families of farmers besides their subsistence had to produce a surplus value for the luxury of the aristocratic monarchic élites as well as for the tribute of the respective super-power it is easy to understand the socially and economically disastrous consequences of this new economy. Now the small farmers could be driven by members of their own class into hunger, distraint of their means of production and into slavery by the new mechanisms of private property, credit and interest. This is what the prophets protested at in Israel [2] and against which Israel developed laws, to prohibit the debt mechanism (like prohibiting taking "security and interest") and, in the case of falling into slavery, to provide for the periodic liberation of these debt slaves. The Solonic reforms of 594 B. C. are a parallel reaction to the disastrous social consequences of the new property economy in Greece itself. Solon abolished debt slavery but at the same time reinforced the role of property by distributing political rights according to the amount of property a citizen held (timocracy).

What is the mission of the people of God in the new socio-economic context? Besides the periodic liberation of slaves (cf. also Jer. 34:8ff.) the cancellation of debt was included in the rules of the seventh year. The first example is Deuteronomy 15:1ff. (the oldest texts of Deuteronomy stemming from the Josianic reform of 622 B. C). What does this text mean? The Hebrew concept here is shmittah, renunciation [3]. The creditor is supposed to renounce not only his claim but also the pledged property of the debtor, normally his land including his house which are the means of production of a small farmer. This means that after seven years not only the possible consequence of the debt (the debt slavery of the family) is cancelled but also the cause is eliminated - the indebtedness and the consequent mortgage on the means of production of the debtor. This opens up a new beginning in freedom. [4] In the Deuteronomy (15:12ff.) the liberated slave has to receive even a small capital from his master so that he can make a new start as a free small farmer.

Both is without parallel in the Ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman antiquity because in these regulations Israel rejects the absoluteness of property as well as the transformation of an enslaved person (at least of their own people) into absolute property. Deuteronomy is of the opinion that if the people of God follows God's good rule of justice and compassion there will be no poor among them (Deuteronomy 15,4ff.).

Against this background it is possible to precisely understand and place in context the classical text Leviticus 25. It summarizes the socio-economic rules as codified by the Priestly Codex in the so-called Holiness-law for the post-exilic new beginning in Judea [5]. The centre of the text is the theological statement without which everything else cannot be understood. It says why Israel must have a fundamentally different economic order compared with the surrounding peoples, the laws of which are given by the king or by property owners. In Israel law comes from outside - from the Sinai (Lev. 25:1) - and is given by God. It is taken away from the power of the kings and the property owners in the interest of equality among human beings and therefore in the interest of the poor and the weak. God says, according to Lev. 25:23: "No land shall be sold outright, because the land is mine, and you are coming into it as aliens and settlers." So people can be tenants of the land, not owners.

Therefore, anyone who refers to the Jubilee year today must be ready to face the question of property. The laws of Lev. 25 are based on the rejection of the absoluteness of property originating in Greece and later codified in the Roman law. If you want to follow the biblical God, you must accept God as the owner of the land and every "means of production". Therefore, human beings can only have the right to use and to rent land (as the means of production in an agrarian society). From here everything else follows:
V. 2-7: In the seventh year the land has to be allowed to celebrate a "Shabbath".
V. 8-13: After seven time seven years the "Jobel", the horn, has to be played and all families have to get a piece of land in order to equally be able to care for themselves as in the tribal community before monarchic times.
V. 14-17: The price of the land must not be determined by the market and therefore by speculation, but the 50th year is the reference point to calculate how many harvests a land can still produce, and those have to be paid.
V. 25-28: If a brother and his family are "deep down", i. e. in need so that they have to sell their land and their house, then the next relative has to redeem them (the order of Ge'ulah).
V. 35-38: And when people of Israel have to make loans they shall not take interest or additional tribute from their brothers.
V. 39-46: Nobody shall enslave persons of his own people, the Israelites. Again the same argument: God is their owner. God has liberated them from slavery in Egypt.

It should be mentioned that the Priestly Codex weakens some of the social laws of Deuteronomy. Liberation from slavery and the restitution of the land lost through distraint are taken out of the regulations of the seventh year and postponed to the fiftieth year. What is the explanation for the fact that historically this is the only text where the restitution of the distribution of land is mentioned for the fiftieth year? It seems that this is related to the return of the exiled people from Babylon 50 years after their deportation. At this time this problem was very relevant: How shall the distribution of the land be regulated after the landless poor, who were left in the country, had taken and cultivated the fields of the exiled upper class? Are the big landlords to get back their land which they once took from the people through violence and debt mechanisms, or should they not get back anything? The answer the Jubilee regulation gives is a compromise on the basis of the premonarchic egalitarian tribal society: "Every family shall have a piece of land for their subsistence."
Later the "Third Isaiah" comes back to the Jubilee as a hope of the future (Is. 61:2: "A year of the Lord's favour"). This is taken up by the evangelist Luke in chapter 4:1ff., when he proclaims that this hope is being realised in the Messiah Jesus. In Acts 4:32-35 Luke depicts the early Christian community in a way that it fulfills the deuteronomic Tora in the form of a community sharing all property with the effect that in this community there are no needy poor (cf. Deuteronomy 15:4).

It is important to note that the postexilic Judaic community and also Jesus and his followers not only pro-actively live God's alternative economic and social order but that they also resist when the Hellenistic-Roman empires and their collaborators in the provinces try to violently impose political and economic rules and practices which are against God's law. The story about the resistance of the three men refusing to adore the golden statue is a very good example (Daniel 3 [6]). Jesus does not only request the clear decision between God and Mammon but attacks in direct non-violent action the economic center in Judea, the temple collaborating with Rome and also calls for a boycott of the currency of the Roman occupation forces (cf. Mark, 11:15ff. and 12:13ff.) [7].

Even in this very short selective overview of the biblical alternative approaches to mechanisms of indebtedness and impoverishment the key theological elements - God's justice and compassion - are rooted within very specific socio-economic contexts. Therefore we need careful hermeneutic reflections in order to release the power of the biblical texts for the solution of our present problems. [8]

2. Alternatives to the mechanisms of impoverishment and debt today and in the 21 st century

There are two basic consequences for approaching our own situation in the light of the biblical history:

What is the context of the churches, particularly the European churches, when it comes to evaluating their own dealings with the land, labour and capital? [9] There is one basic analogy between the context of Judea after the 8th century B. C. and the European modern times since the 14th century A. D., because the political economy of Europe has taken over the absoluteness of private property and subsequent interest and money mechanisms from the Greco-Roman times. This was worked out philosophically by Hobbes and Locke and codified in the western constitutions such as the American and the French Constitutions of 1776 and 1789, as well as in the Code Napoléon, from where it was taken over in most European constitutions.

Besides that analogy there are two differences between the ancient and modern times which are important to realise in order to avoid short circuits in relating biblical texts to our own situation.

The first difference is the replacement of slave labour by wage labour in a long process which lasted until the 19th century. Secondly, the capitalist mode of production was developed with the help of wage labour. This does not only take over the money functions of circulation and treasury building but also enlarges its accumulation function. In the Hellenistic-Roman system the owners of the means of production, land and slave labour, having earned more money, put it into the circulation or the treasury. In modern times the profits gained from the private ownership of the means of production are being re-invested in order to maximize the productive forces and gain an even larger profit, and this is exactly the meaning of capital as distinct from money. The consequence is that unlike in antiquity modern times has seen the emergence of a growth economy.

On this basis it is not possible to simply take over the prohibition of taking interest from the Bible as an instrument countering today's mechanisms of impoverishment and debt because - if one stays in the framework of the capitalist growth economy in which the owners of the means of production can appropriate the surplus value created by labour - here the interest is the profit part of the surplus value created through growth. [10] This certainly does not mean that Christians and churches should neglect the very necessary question of whether they can put their money in the normal circulation created by the commercial banks. The analogy to the complete prohibition of taking interest in biblical times today would be the orientation of the interest rate to the real economic success and growth. It is true that at the present time interest rates are rather low within the national regulated money market, but the big commercial banks take huge amounts of money to the transnational deregulated money markets. Here they charge very high interest from the countries of the South and East when it comes to the short-term re-scheduling of debt, and the banks also use the difference between debit and credit interest to engage in speculation which, together with currency and derivative speculation, creates tremendous risks for the real economy.

A further key issue is the question of private ownership of the means of production . The Bible understands the ownership of the means of production (land) as a relative right to use the property for the subsistence of the families plus certain social duties (care for widows, orphans, strangers etc.). The absolute right to own the means of production necessarily leads to dispossessing weaker participants in the economy and to the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands. After the breakdown of the classical liberal capitalism during the great recession in 1929 and the two world wars the growing labour movement and other factors made it possible in Europe to limit the absoluteness of property. E. g. in the German Constitution (GG14) property obliges the owner to be socially responsible (Sozialpflichtigkeit des Eigentums). This leads to the right of co-determination of the workers in the Industrial Democracy Acts, on the one hand, and to systems of progressive taxation, on the other, i. e. the higher the income the higher the tax. This progressive tax on business profits and profits from assets (be it financial or profits from estates) has been eroded in the neo-liberal phase since the 70s. The tax burden was pushed more and more onto dependent labour (in Germany between 1980 and 1995 plus 73 %) while profits were taxed less and less (minus 9 % in the same period). An additional feature is the tax flight of capital through the transnationalised markets. The result of both mechanisms is that not only the impoverished countries of the South and the East have over-indebted public budgets, so have the rich industrial countries in Europe (except those to which the tax flight money goes like Switzerland and Luxemburg). This leaves the governments to introduce austerity politics cutting not only development aid, but also the services for the socially vulnerable, employment programmes, education and health.

There is another area of alternative economic practice where the churches can follow the biblical tradition and this is the more just sharing of labour and income. The transnational corporations (TNCs) use their global mobility to play the locally restricted workers against each other in order to produce unemployment instead of using productivity gains to cut working hours. In this way they can put pressure on wages and the working conditions. If when experiencing a decrease in income churches behave like the TNCs and cut employment instead of redistributing work and income in a new way they have little credibility when calling for a more just economy.

These are only some examples of the churches' possibilities of evaluating their own economic structure and behaviour in the light of the Bible. This is hermeneutically significant in two ways: Firstly the biblical traditions regard the exemplary socio-economic practice of the people of God as the key mission it has (cf. Is. 2:1ff. and Mt. 5:13ff.). Secondly, a church cannot make demands without at least fragmentarily showing it practises what it preaches. If, however, it is credible it can speak prophetically with unambiguous clarity.

Here it is very important to note that various international ecumenical bodies have made important decisions to engage their members in a new prophetic way as far as global economy is concerned. In 1997 the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) in its 23d General Council in Debrecen, Hungary issued the following call: "We now call for a commited process of progressive recognition, education and confession (processus confessionis) within all WARC member churches at all levels regarding economic injustice and ecological destruction." [12]

This call was taken up in the 8th Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Harare, in December 1998. Two important sets of decisions and recommendations concern debt relief and call for alternatives to the present global economy. [13] First of all the Assembly affirms that the prophetic action of the churches vis-à-vis political and economic powers has to start from the identification with the victims and therefore in alliances with them and other forces in civil society working in solidarity with them (III, 6). Secondly they address the self-appointed G7 (G8) nations of the Global Economic Summit in the following way:

"In Line with the Sabbath-Jubilee Tradition, the Eighth Assembly of the World Council of Churches Appeal to the Leaders of the G8 Nations to Recognize the Urgent Need to:
  1. cancel the debts of the poorest countries to enable them to enter the new millennium with a fresh start;
  2. substantially reduce the debts of the middle income countries within the same time frame;
  3. introduce a new, independent and transparent arbitration process for negotiating and agreeing upon international debt cancellation;
  4. accept that tough conditions should be imposed on debtor governments, but that these conditions must not be prerequisite for debt cancellation. They must be determined and monitored by local community organizations, including churches and other representative organizations of civil society;
  5. use their powers to ensure that funds illegitimately transferred to secret foreign bank accounts are returned to debtor nations;
  6. engage, in consultation with civil society, in a process of global economic reform toward a just distribution of wealth and preventing new cycles of debt."

This means that the Jubilee 2000 campaign cannot be restricted to just the relief of the unpayable debt of the poorest countries. Rather this is the entrance into a much larger agenda that has to be followed through by the churches, civil society and the political and economic actors. [14] There are already some enlargements of the campaign underway. One concerns the specific demand to cancel the debt of Nicaragua and Honduras, the countries which were most struck by hurricane Mitch. In addition a particular campaign has started to cancel the apartheid-caused debt in southern Africa and even to pay reparation to these countries. [15] It introduces two important new features to the Jubilee work:
These criteria particularly concern German and Swiss banks.
During the climax of the racist repression against the black majority the South African government took out loans to pay for the police and para-military forces as well as for the military to wage war and introduce destabilisation programmes against the frontline states, particularly against Angola and Mozambique. These loans were organised by German and Swiss banks in particular, as a new study has shown. [16]
Now the new democratic South African government and people have to pay back the debt, created for their former oppression, as have the devasted frontline states. The campaign asks the European governments and banks concerned to cancel these illegitimate debts and pay reparation for the damage they are co-responsible for.
But opening these dimensions of the question has important consequences for other areas. Who installed and supported all the dictators starting from Brazil in 1964, who have opened up their countries for transnational banks and corporations with the consequence of selling out their countries to transnational capital? It was the USA with the consent of the European governments. So the question of illegitimate debt and reparation has much broader implications for the West.
This working through our past would have to include the fact that we have repressed the memory of 500 years of European imperial and colonial history of conquista and violence over against the rest of the world.
In the light of this history the question of debt has to be posed in a new way. The Africans call it the social debt. This means that we have not only to talk about the debt relief, but we have to talk about restitution for the incredible losses Asia, Africa and Latin America have suffered through Europeans and the global structures Europeans have produced. According to Exodus 22:24-26 the creditor is called not only to forgive the debts but also to give back the pledge. For Europe, therefore, there is an undeniable challenge to pay restitution to the countries of the developing world. [17] This is also supported by the story of Zacchaeus, the wealthy man starting to follow Jesus by paying back what he owes to the poor whom he has robbed to acquire his wealth (cf. Luke 19: 1-10).
In addition to the recognition of the past the European Kairos Document suggests four further dimensions of working for alternatives to the global deregulated capitalist economy with its mechanisms of debt and impoverishment and its ideology and idolisation of the competitive market:
Concerning resistance I have already given some examples boycotting banks.
The new vision concerns the development of an economic paradigm integrating social, ecological and democratic criteria.
Small-scale alternatives are particularly possible in the areas of local money and LETS schemes (Local Exchange and Trading Systems), alternative cooperative banking, decentralised energy production and local food provision. [18]
The alliance building for political intervention aims at the social, ecological and democratic re-regulation of the economy at all levels. The national political institutions are no longer strong enough to cope with globally mobile capital. Therefore we work to change policies in the European Union. Up to now the EU has been governed by a neo-liberal majority of governments. Now we have a Green-Socialist majority and perhaps a small chance to revitalise the social traditions of Europe and unite with other regions of the world fighting the neo-liberal structures and policies of the IMF, World Bank and WTO - in 1999 particularly the re-introduction of the Multilateral Agreement on Investments (MAI) on the Agenda through the "Millenium Round". Together we can call for new sustainable structures and institutions at global level, e. g. taxing speculation, fighting tax flight and dumping, developing and enforcing minimum social and ecological standards of employment, investment and trade. In all of this we have to be aware of the fact that most of us are involved in different mechanisms of money and, therefore, co-responsible.
The churches could play a pivotal role in these endeavours of civil society. They could set an example by confessing their guilt of complicity in the history of European conquest and injustice. This also includes new efforts of economic literacy programmes in our European churches seeing economic activity as a matter of faith. Here too the WARC and the WCC make important recommendations.

There is a new Kairos for all churches, i. e. a critical moment, but also a moment of opportunity for their mission. Within many churches the crises cropping up all over the world have created more awareness and willingness to address the mechanisms of debt and impoverishment and the mechanisms of unjust wealth creation. As the questions concerned are global in nature, they have to be faced at the same time at all levels, but basically also on the global level. Is there any other agency or organisation in the world as local and global as the churches? Their responsibility and missionary possibilities are enormous. They could make a real difference if they would wake up and follow the lines of the biblical vision and the practical action against the mechanisms of debt and impoverishment.

CRÜSEMANN, F., 1992, Die Tora. Theologie und Sozialgeschichte des alttestamentlichen Gesetzes, München
DOUTHWAITE, R., 1996, Short Circuit. Strrengthening Local Economies for Security in an Unstable World, The Lilliput Press/Dublin
DUCHROW, U., 1998 2, Alternatives to Global Capitalism Drawn from Biblical History, Designed for Political Action., Utrecht
DUCHROW, U. u. a., 1997, Wahrheit, Versöhnung und Neuanfang auch im Westen - oder nur im Süden und Osten?, Beilage zu "Junge Kirche", H. 4, Bremen
ECUMENICAL SUPPORT SERVICES, 1999, Jubilee 2000: A Fresh Start for Southern Africa, Harare (Zimbabwe)
HEINSOHN, G., 1984, Privateigentum, Patriarchat, Geldwirtschaft, Suhrkamp TBW 455, Frankfurt
HEINSOHN, G./STEIGER, O., 1996, Eigentum, Zins und Geld, Reinbek b. Hamburg
JUBILEE SOUTH, June 1999, Manifesto: Beyond Debt and 2000, Cologne
KAIROS EUROPA, 1998, European Kairos Document for a socially just, life-sustaining and democratic Europe. A call to faith communities, trade unions and all movements and individuals that are working for social, political and economic change, to build coalitions to work for the liberation of society from the stranglehold of the deregulated globalised economy and its competitive culture, May 1998, Sarum College Press/Salisbury
KESSLER, R., 1992, Staat und Gesellschaft im vorexilischen Juda, Leiden
MADÖRIN, M./WELLMER, G/Egli, M., 1999, Apartheid-Caused Debt. The Role of German and Swiss Finance, (Bread for the World), Stuttgart
MYERS, CH., (1988), 1994 7, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus, Maryknoll/New York
VEERKAMP, T., 1993, Autonomie & Egalität. Ökonomie, Politik, Ideologie in der Schrift, Berlin
WCC, 1999, Dossier on Globalisation and Debt, Geneva

[1] Cf. G. Heinsohn, 1984 and G. Heinsohn/O. Steiger, 1996.
[2] Cf. R. Keßler, 1992.
[3] Cf. T. Veerkamp, 1993, pp. 65ff.
[4] Cf. as example Neh. 5 and 10,32.
[5] Cf. T. Veerkamp, 1993, 86ff. and F. Crüsemann, 1992, pp. 330ff.
[6] Cf. T. Veerkamp, 1993, 243ff.
[7] Cf. Ched Myers, 1994 7, pp. 297ff. and 310ff.
[8] The European Kairos Document of 1998 has tried to unfold a comprehensive European agenda in view of the issues taken up in the subsequent paragraphs. The title of the European document is: European Kairos Document for a socially just, life-sustaining and democratic Europe. A call to faith communities, trade unions and all movements and individuals that are working for social, political and economic change, to build coalitions to work for the liberation of society from the stranglehold of the deregulated globalised economy and its competitive culture, May 1998, Sarum College Press/Salisbury (see below).
[9] Cf. for the following U. Duchrow, 1998 2, Part One.
[10] Cf. T. Veerkamp, 1993, pp. 28ff.
[11] Cf. R. Douthwaite, 1996.
[12] In: Reformed World, 47, 1997, p. 185.
[13] WCC, 1998, Doc. RC-II, 1, III, 3, cf. WCC, Dossier on Globalisation and Debt, 1999.
[14] This has also been powerfully stated by the Jubilee South Coalition in its Manifesto for Cologne 1999.
[15] Cf. Ecumenical Support Services (Zimbabwe), 1999.
[16] M. Madörin/G. Wellmer, 1999.
[17] Cf. the proposal Kairos Europa presented to the Second European Ecumenical Assembly in 1997 to introduce commissions for truth, justice and reconciliation at all levels in Europe, in: U. Duchrow, 1997, pp. 91ff.
[18] Cf. R. Douthwaite, 1996.