You remember the “Occupy Wall Street” (OWS) folks, don’t you? This was the movement, started in New York City to protest the economic system in the US where the rich seem to get richer and the poor get poorer. There were signs saying, “We are the 99%” in protest to the amount of wealth held by the top 1% of folks in the country and the system that perpetuates their increasing wealth. The movement started by, quite literally, “occupying Wall Street” and then spread around the US and even overseas where its effects were felt.
On the political and economic left the protesters were seen as workers for social justice, fighting the system, standing up for the rights of the little guy. On the right they were seen as social misfits, slackers who should get jobs, or, worse, communists. And while the OWS folks had some issues with keeping a unified message, the general complaint was against the financial and banking industries that led to the disenfranchisement of the lower classes while bailing out those at the top…most notably in the “Bank Bailout.”
I supported this…in a vague, non-committed, not-really-supporting sort of way…and was pleased to see that, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy the OWS folks, because of their experience in community organizing, were able to provide relief to some areas around New York City in ways the government and Red Cross were not. Good for them.
But what’s coming out of this movement right now is blowing my mind…religiously.
Some of these OWS have spent some time figuring out how the debt industry works in the United States. They know that debt is a commodity that persons (debt collectors) can buy for pennies on the dollar and try to get a larger payment from the consumer that has gone into debt. So, if you owe some a student loan for $10,000 and there is no way that you can pay that, that company that owns that loan will “sell” that debt for, say $500, to a collection agency of some sort. Then the collection agency will contact (harass?) you to see if they can get a full, $10,000, payment from you. Baring that, they will “cut you a deal” and tell you that they’d be willing to take $7,500 or some other amount from you. It’s a deal for you because you get out of paying the full $10,000. It’s a deal for the holder of the loan, because they are at least getting some money out of the deal and have already written your lack of payment off in increased expenses in other places. But the real deal is to whatever person is collecting your $7,500. They’ve just made $7,000 on an initial investment of $500. Win, Win, Win.
Well, thought the OWS folks, what if they had $500 to buy $10,000 or more of debt. And, instead of contacting you to get $7,500 or any other amount from you, they just forgave the debt completely. You owe nothing. The donor just made a $500 gift (debt purchase) and forgave $10,000 in debt. The original business (such as the student loan holder) is a winner because they got some money for the loan and they were were going to sell the debt anyway so someone else could deal with the collection process. They still get to wash their hands of the deal. The original debtor comes out winning because their debt is just wiped clean. The donor comes out winning because they, through their gift, have had a tangible impact on the economic lives or an individual or a household who is now not saddled with an extra $10,000 in debt. Win, Win, Win.
Let’s be clear here. Not everyone is a winner when this happens. Someone is losing money on the deal. That’s the debt collector. Their business is based on collecting debt money. The donor in this new model has taken their business away. Actually, they have “given” their business away.
Jubilee comes from many faith traditions including Judaism, Christianity and Islam. A jubilee is an event in which all debts are cancelled and all those in bondage are set free. It worked in Biblical times and it can still work today. For example, a kind of jubilee happened in Iceland after the 2008 economic crisis: instead of bailing out their banks, Iceland canceled a percentage of mortgage debt. What these examples show is that debts are just a promise which can – and should – be renegotiated or cancelled when the circumstances warrant. Strike Debt believes that now is the time for a jubilee for the 99%.
This, I would argue, is the Occupying Wall Street folks Occupying Grace. Think of all the references by Jesus to canceling debt, actual financial debt, as a sign of grace. There is the Parable of the Two Debtors in Luke. There’s the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant in Matthew. And how ’bout the forgiveness of our debts in The Lord’s Prayer.
I was talking about this “Rolling Jubilee” with some people on Saturday and the conversation was interesting. One person had the very same reaction most of us when confronted by the offense of grace. They asked how we might know that the forgiveness of debts isn’t just being “wasted” on someone who was a poor money manager or made some very bad choices. Some persons, the argument goes, are “worthy” of being graced and some others where the grace is, more or less, wasted on them. But, debt, in the debtors business is debt. There’s not good debt or bad debt or worthy debt or unworthy debt. And to forgive us our debts like this is…well…it stinks. And it’s also what makes it beautiful.
Bethany Keely Jonker, over at Think Christian offers the following:
Rolling Jubilee, like many of Jesus’ parables, reveals the amazing, unfair truth about grace: it’s offered freely to everyone, and it’s not deserved by anyone. It is always unfair, in your favor.
I’m still floored by this approach at relieving the debt burden on some folks.
Slate Magazine wondered if it would be better just to give money to poor persons who weren’t in debt. But, they said, “If the peculiarity of the distressed debt situation and the concept of a jubilee happens to inspire people and motivate them to be more generous with their time and money than would otherwise be the case, this is a perfectly good idea.”
Even over at Forbes Magazine, Tim Worstall, who admits to disliking almost everything about the OWS movement, comes to the following conclusion:
I’ve said, this is the first Occupy Anything idea I’ve heard which makes even a modicum of sense to me. And it does indeed make great sense to me: if you think that lowering other peoples’ debt burdens is a good idea, which I do, then doing it voluntarily and at 5 cents on the $ sounds just absolutely fabulous to me. You’re spending your money as you wish: what could be wrong with that?
I can’t say I understand all of the economics of this. I can’t say I want to either. What I can understand is that I think this looks a whole lot like grace to me. And, perhaps, it could help a whole lot of people. Perhaps that’s enough.
Powered by Facebook Comments