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Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite Headshot

'Forgive Us Our Debts': Occupy Operationalizes the Lord's Prayer on Debt

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The folks who brought you Occupy Wall Street have launched what they call "Rolling Jubilee." By donating to Rolling Jubilee, individuals can give money to buy up distressed consumer debt that is normally sold to debt collectors for pennies on the dollar. But instead of acting like debt collectors, hounding folks for the full payment, you are giving to cancel the debt, that is, forgive it.

What Jesus taught as a prayer about forgiving debt (Matthew 6:12) has just been operationalized by Occupy.

Through prayer and deed, Jesus pursued an economic plan called the "Jubilee," as I write in '#OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power,' my new book on how what Jesus really said about money, and what he did about economic issues in his own time that is just now launching as an e-book, and then in print.

It is critical that American Christians learn that Jesus really meant it when he asked us to pray, "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." Conservative Christians would like you to forget that Jesus really meant debt forgiveness. The Religious Right would like you to focus only on specific, individual "sins" like homosexuality (something that Jesus actually never mentions), and ignore that Jesus was really concerned about structured economic inequality in his own time. To Jesus, systemic economic inequality was the "Kingdom of Caesar," not the "Kingdom of God."

Jesus starts his ministry (Luke 4:16-19) by standing up in the synagogue and reading from one of the key texts of his Hebrew scriptures on the biblical "Jubilee." The biblical "Jubilee" is a time of debt forgiveness.

Rolling Jubilee is exactly what Jesus was talking about and doing something about throughout his whole ministry.

According to the Jewish tradition in which Jesus stands, and from which he preached, the Jubilee is a special year of "liberty" where every 50 years there was a kind of "reboot" of Jewish economics and social relations. As described in Leviticus, "And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; you shall return every one of you to your property and every one of you to your family" (25:10). This 50th-year (or 49th-year) Jubilee followed seven "sabbatical cycles" where every seven years male slaves were released without debt, and land was allowed to lie fallow.

But that was millennia ago, some will say. How could the biblical Jubilee possibly be an economic plan in today's economy, one that is far more complicated than in the first century CE?

It has never been more important to raise the issue of debt forgiveness and do something about it in concrete ways than it is in 21st century America.

Rising income inequality, increasing debt and even forms of indentured servitude are on the rise on the U.S. today; these problems were not created by the economic crisis of 2008. They are problems of much longer standing, but the "great recession" exposed them in a dramatic way.

The national debate continues on a "fiscal cliff" that will result in cuts in programs that benefit the poor and the struggling middle class, many of whom are now falling further and further behind, versus keeping tax cuts for the wealthiest and not cutting the Pentagon budget.

How could this even be a debate?

What Rolling Jubilee has done, as Occupy has done before, is simply move the debate elsewhere.

It is not "holding debtors accountable" that is the moral issue in this country, it is the moral crisis of those who manufacture debt and then persecute those who fall into their debt traps.

That is why, even before the telethon on Nov. 15, the project had gone viral. The kick-off telethon is sold out, but it will be livecast on the Rolling Jubilee website.

Don't miss it. It's not really that often that Jesus' teachings actually get so concretely put into action.

And by the way, there's more good ideas to be had when you #OccupytheBible. The "Jubilee" is only one of 10 chapters in my book. "Jesus and a Woman of Power" should be popular, I think, especially since #bindersfullofwomen didn't do so well in our last election season!