Jesus Christ taught his disciples to pray for forgiveness as they forgave others. Various translators have given this injunction as forgiveness of “trespasses,” “sins,” or “debts.” While we can speculate endlessly about how such Christian forgiveness should work out in practice, the sense of the idea reflects a certain recurring traditional social contract. When we owe something, we should attend to repaying it. Further, it is wrong to expect leniency if we ourselves are impatient and demanding. However, individuals should not be reduced to intractable permanent poverty.
Many cultures institutionalize forgiveness of both moral and economic debts. For instance, the Law of Moses to the Jews directed that there be a periodic “Jubilee” year in which certain debts were to be forgiven. This has been described was “…a self-regulating system that deleveraged itself before credit bubbles grew out of control…” Also, the Koran holds a similar instruction that “… if (the debtor) is in [serious straits], then let there be postponement until (he is in) ease … and that you remit it as alms is better for you…” For what it’s worth, the Jubilee law even prescribed that farm land be given a rest every seven years so that it had a chance to recover and restore productivity.
Many people were aware of the “Occupy Wall Street” (OWS) protests at their peak, but now think that the movement has disappeared. Actually, it only got quieter while it organized a variety of initiatives. OWS volunteers were some of the most active responders in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
One of the many OWS projects is “Rolling Jubilee,” which uses donated funds to buy-up private debt (such as college loans) for pennies on the dollar – like collection agencies do. But, instead of hounding the debtor, it forgives the debt. In just their first month, they raised $474,723 to abolish $9,499,377 as an act of “mutual support and good will in pursuit of a new world based on common good, not Wall Street profits.”
Today, many people find themselves in increasingly difficult and overwhelming circumstances. Without adequate health insurance, serious illnesses in families account for 60% of personal bankruptcies. Situations such as ballooning mortgages, being laid off, or college loans without having a living-wage job, can be devastating as well. We don’t have to overspend to land in this kind of debt. The working poor and middle class have faced decades of degenerating economic headwinds (including fewer and poorer jobs) while bankers and corporations win increasing legislative favors and record profits.
OWS is not the only group that views modern investment banks and nonbank financial companies as increasingly predatory – using deceptive and abusive practices. That is why the Obama administration formed the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and nominated Elizabeth Warren to be its head. The CFPB began overseeing debt collection agencies (including $850 billion in student loans) at the start of 2013.
Frankly, our national economy is currently “awash in unpayable debt.” Financial institutions are already sometimes obliged to “take a haircut” by canceling a portion of each other’s debt. International banks have allowed entire countries to recover their economies through debt forgiveness. We will be seeing a growing national conversation develop about the possible benefits of consumer debt relief.