This essay is adapted from a paper given at Science, Religion, and Culture’s 2015 conference, Ways of Knowing. You can find other contributions on theological approaches to the crisis economy here, and in our upcoming spring issue.
Debt cancellation has become part of the public conversation over the past decades in response to our cycles of financial crises. The weight of this rhetoric stems in part from a transference of historical practices in the Ancient Near East (ANE) to the present by way of theological imagination and the biblical record. Debt cancellation, or Jubilee, appears in the Hebrew scriptures and becomes a metaphor for salvation in second temple Judaism and early Christianity. Debt bondage and debt slavery work as central metaphors to depict a state of iniquity. Conversely, redemption from such debt slavery, a cancellation of the balance owed, serves as a metaphor for salvation or the forgiveness of sin. A widespread and commonplace practice from the ANE is applied in scripture to describe divine activity, affording it a certain status, authority, and centrality. Debt cancellation is an ancient practice that has attained divine credentialed status, been codified in a sacred text, and reappears as a tool ideally suited to the present.
It’s in part because of its proximity to language of salvation and its association with divine activity that debt cancellation has garnered an altruistic aura. It smacks of profound mercy and justice. Progressive social movements, whether religiously inspired or not, champion debt cancellation in various forms, from the famed Jubilee 2000 campaign to groups associated with Occupy Wall Street. Thus, Jubilee is part of a set of purportedly radical options marshaled to challenge the excesses and abuses of our current global capitalist order.
If we assess the originary logic and historical context of Jubilee, however, it’s clear that we should pause before we champion debt cancellation policies today. For debt cancellation in its ANE context is unquestionably an act and prerogative of sovereign power. Jubilee is an exceptional act, occurring in moments of transition in sovereignty or in times of crisis. It is a declaration of sovereignty, a statement of total supremacy over the economy and society of a territory or empire. Only the sovereign can declare Jubilee. Such acts, while framed as benevolent and while certainly providing a temporary relief, ultimately reinforce sovereign authority and emphasize the system’s dependence upon sovereign will and decision. Debt cancellation is a form of sovereign crisis management.
The logic of sovereignty at the heart of debt cancellation calls for reconsideration and, possibly, rejection of the practice as a radical challenge to present socio-economic and political systems. At best, Jubilee serves as a temporary pressure release—certainly one that many of us (including myself) would welcome. But it ultimately refreshes the system of sovereign power and the relation of authority to the sphere of the governed. As such, the horizon of its transformative potential may be limited. It may actually undermine the liberatory ideals for which it often stands.
The Sovereign Logic of Jubilee
Given that so many of us are mired in debt, and in light of the ways that the financial sector thrives on debt, debt cancellation has understandably emerged as a solution. The ancient context of this practice is instructive. As economic historian Michael Hudson notes, credit-debt relations governed the majority of economic interactions in ANE contexts. Contrary to the popular myth propounded by classical and neoclassical economics, barter was not the standard means of exchange in ancient economies. Before the advent of money and coinage, exchanges were not simple spot transactions of swapped commodities. Rather, debt tabulations and IOUs were the common means to overcome the standard frictions or inefficiencies of barter, given the lack of a “double coincidence of wants.”
Indeed, there existed nearly as great a variety of loans types as in modern times, with forms of compound interest, capitalization of interest to principal, balloon payments, variable rates, etc. Given the typically high rates of interest and the cyclical repayment schedules often tied to harvest cycles, it was not uncommon for loans to compound excessively, rendering repayment next to impossible. In these situations, creditors could claim repayment in the form of slavery—either the debtor or a family member was given to the creditor to work off the debt owed.
Typically, three routes out of debt slavery existed. One could work and eventually buy oneself out of bondage; one could be purchased or ransomed to freedom, usually by another family member (a kinsman redeemer); or one could be set free during sovereign declarations of debt cancellation, such as the Jubilee year. It is from the latter two options that ideas of redemption (apolutrôsis; redemptio) enter theological discourse. The idea of being set free from the debt bondage to sin is here related to an idea of God as somehow declaring or purchasing humanity’s freedom, or otherwise securing release. Humanity’s inability to extricate itself from its obligations is met with God’s actions to do so.
Declarations of God’s spiritual debt forgiveness are proclamations of divine power and authority as much as of benevolence.
Such debt cancellation occurred primarily when a new leader came to the throne. As a mark of benevolence and supremacy, the new ruler would destroy the ledgers of indebtedness—often through visible, material acts of smashing clay tablets—effectively resetting the economy. Debt slaves would be released; indeed the Sumerian and Akkadian terms for Jubilee translate literally as “return to mother.” Lands held as collateral or assumed by creditors would be returned to the original owners and the very tabulations marking one’s financial obligations would cease to exist.
The relief brought on a horizontal level between creditors and debtors within the ruled populace was not the only important aspect of the declarations: the reprieve from forms of vertical obligation between subjects and the governing power was equally significant. As Marty Stevens observes, everyone owed taxes and other forms of political-financial obligations, “unless specifically exempted by periodic royal proclamations of freedom, which monarchs proclaimed at their accession to the throne or in periods of political or economic crisis.” Upon the assumption of the throne—or during phases of political and economic turmoil—the sovereign could effectively reset the economy and aid in the restoration of productive relationships and capacities within the ruled sphere. It was political and economic redemption.
Stevens’ mention of Jubilee in times of crises is noteworthy, for it calls to mind discussions of the state of emergency or exception in political theory. The state of exception is a period in which the rule of law is suspended and in which we witness the actual dynamics of sovereignty. Various supporting institutions and practices are momentarily stripped away, and centralized authority comes to the fore. These moments reveal that order depends upon sovereign power and that it is sovereign will and decision that forge the space of order and law. Law follows the establishment of authority—it does not precede it. Such states of exception are often states of emergency, in which sovereignty is asserted to protect and preserve order. They may occur, for example, in times of war, times of transition between specific rulers, or in economic crises.
Following this logic, debt cancellation, as a form of extra-legal suspension of the economic-legal code, is a type of exception. Debt cancellation, as an exceptional moment betraying the constitutive position of the sovereign in relation to the politico-economic order, marks the instantiation of sovereignty. As power shifts, as one ruler leaves the throne and another assumes it, it becomes crucial to maintain continuity of authoritative structures. We see sovereign power coming in from the outside, as it were, above and over against the economic sphere. It appears as set apart, independent, and able to intervene unilaterally and totally. The exception, in the form of debt cancellation, reasserts elements of sovereign identity in order to entrench the structural position of ultimate power in the midst of a shift to new authority figures.
The application of the Jubilee trope in scripture does little to reconfigure such logic. God is now the king who legislates Jubilee, but the pattern is the same. Ancient Israel, in creative competition with and in distinction from neighboring societies, reiterated the logic of sovereignty. Arguably, asserting Yahweh as king transfers political models of sovereignty into a divine register, but leaves the configurations of power and rule intact. Declarations of God’s spiritual debt forgiveness are proclamations of divine power and authority as much as of benevolence. The pattern of Jubilee bequeathed to later religious and emergent so-called Western and secular traditions leaves this logic intact.
In this rite of institution of kingship—whether sacred or secular—we find the claim that the ruler has ultimate power, specifically over the economy. But we can also glimpse debt’s fundamental relation to political economy. The relation of the sovereign as one imposing a debt upon the populace appears in the ritual of all debts beginning anew when the ruler assumes the throne. The one debt that remains is obedience to the ruler and its accompanying tribute requirement. This manner of authority also comes to the fore in moments of political and economic instability, as the order is threatened and the basic structure of sovereignty is reasserted in an effort to preserve the sphere of rule. Such ancient contexts demonstrate awareness of the link between political and economic crises. Debt cancellation is ritually tied to the repatriation of exiles and pardon of prisoners, for instance, implying a strong degree of ancient integration between the political and economic. The sovereign clearing of the slate was not merely an act of mercy but an expectation, seen as a legitimate aspect of the ruler’s policy.
While provisionally remediating tax debts and other economic obligations to the ruler, these Jubilee acts in fact reinforce the subjected status of the populace. To accept debt clearing is to accept the sovereignty of the one who declares all ledgers wiped clean. It is to acknowledge a ruler’s effective ownership of and authority over the economic territory and its transactions. To be freed from debt by the sovereign reestablishes an indebted relationship to that very lord. One’s obligation to a neighbor may be eliminated, and a portion of one’s obligation to the ruler may be erased, but one must continue to live, work, exchange, and ultimately render financial and ideological fealty to such governing authorities. To be set free from debt obligation is to be set free to continue to serve the sovereign. A celebration of the sovereign’s debt clearing is simultaneously a consent to be governed.
Debt Cancellation as Radical Proposition?
In our contemporary moment, it has become clear that debt is integral to the structures of global capitalism and that debt undergirds how capitalist credit money is produced. We’ve also seen a growing awareness that debt seems to structure much of our social relations as well as, by extension, political relations and institutions. Debt is not simply a narrow economic category but a category of promise, obligation, power, and control. Debt takes up ideas of trust, fidelity, moral standing, and future hope and expectation. Debt quantifies time and feeds off of the notion of temporal scarcity—that time is limited, and hence valuable, and must be compensated for if lost. Hence the so-called law of interest, which is not a natural physical law—despite the claims of some economists—but a convention, a social construct. Interest proclaims that time must be repaid, that lost time must be factored into compensation.
We saw this confirmed with the Wall Street bailouts: they functioned as a form of debt forgiveness or Jubilee, one decreed solely for the wealthy.
The prevalence of debt and the awareness that debt structures so much within our societies have prompted renewed calls for debt forgiveness and cancellation. Yet we need to ask: in calling for massive acts of debt forgiveness, how is the state being invoked as savior? In what ways are implicit logics of reliance upon state sovereignty at work? Certainly, genealogy need not be determinative, and contemporary invocation of an ancient trope is not a direct transfer of past meaning and implication. But we need to consider how the trace remains, since there is much that appears structurally resonant with past practices, particularly as the state form appears integral to the process.
Perhaps that’s all that’s left to progressives and radicals, to call on the state to intervene and to discipline abusive creditors like Wall Street firms, banks, and corporations. But I’m skeptical that the state is an authentic counterpoint to such centers of capital. We saw this confirmed with the Wall Street bailouts: they functioned as a form of debt forgiveness or Jubilee, one decreed solely for the wealthy. A similar mercy was not extended to the working poor, who had originally shouldered these high-risk loans and whose fragile credit opportunistic loan agents decimated further. As critical theory has shown, the state form and the capitalist centers of credit-debt financing emerged together historically and operate together continuously. To affirm one may be to affirm the other.
The case of debt cancellation reveals the persistence and necessity of sovereignty in our current economic arrangements. It calls into question whether debt cancellation policies are a truly radical act. Instead, they may function as pressure release valves designed to recalibrate the economic system and allow it to persist. Perhaps the most disruptive and transformative ways forward, then, involve allowing debt to balloon out of control, to default, and to jam the gears of a system that thrives on debt as its lifeblood. Perhaps what we need is not debt cancellation, but debt negation, a refusal and rejection of the category of debt altogether, and a striving to think human social, spiritual, political, and economic relations in a vastly different register.
Devin Singh is Assistant Professor of Religion at Dartmouth College, where he teaches courses on religion and economics, modern religious thought, and philosophy of religion. His current book project examines the relation between money and Christian doctrine and considers theology’s legitimation of economy in the West.
 Gary A. Anderson, Sin: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).
 Michael Hudson, “‘Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land’: The Economic Roots of the Jubilee,” Bible Review 15:1 (February, 1999); Michael Hudson and Marc Van de Mieroop, Debt and Economic Renewal in the Ancient Near East (Bethesda, MD: CDL Press, 2002).
 See L. Randall Wray, ed., Credit and State Theories of Money: The Contributions of A. Mitchell Innes (Cheltenham, UK; Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2004).
 Marty E. Stevens, Temples, Tithes, and Taxes: The Temple and the Economic Life of Ancient Israel (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006), 153-4.
 Anderson, Sin, 57.
 The cultural background to ransom and redemption is succinctly explored in Gerhard Barth, Der Tod Jesu Christi im Verständnis des Neuen Testaments (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Keukirchener, 1992), 71-5.
 David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2010), 82.
 John Sietze Bergsma, The Jubilee from Leviticus to Qumran: A History of Interpretation, Supplements to Vetus Testamentum (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2007), 22.
 Stevens, Temples, Tithes, and Taxes, 103.
 Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005); Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).
 Geoffrey K. Ingham, Capitalism (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2008); Maurizio Lazzarato, The Making of the Indebted Man: An Essay on the Neoliberal Condition, trans. Joshua David Jordan (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2012).
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