The word jubilee has biblical origins. While there is some debate as to the exact etymology of the English word: whether it comes from the Hebrew word “yobel”, a ram’s horn, blown to signal the beginning of the jubilee celebration, or from the Latin “iubilo” meaning shout, the connection with the Leviticus texts seems undisputed.
The Jubilee year, the end of a forty-nine year cycle, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, was indeed intended as a time for celebration: marking the jubilee year by holding street parties in which whole communities come together is probably not too far removed from the original sentiment. On the other hand, celebrating a system of birth into privilege and the upholding of the inequality of inherited wealth could hardly be more distant from the original idea of the jubilee celebrations.
Written into God’s code for life are policies which combat the cycle of environmental destruction, and break the downward spiral of debt and poverty. The jubilee year is the year when “you will proclaim the liberation of all the country’s inhabitants” (Leviticus 25:10) It is the year in which debts are forgiven, slaves are freed and land which has been bought and sold is redistributed in the name of equality.
While, in Britain, the queen celebrates sixty years of living a privileged life at the expense of others, two statistics have come to my attention this week:
1) The government of the Philippines spends 27.1%, more than a quarter, of its total revenue servicing foreign debt, owed to both foreign governments and multinational private corporations, whose lending and vast interest bills often take advantage of countries' poverty. As a slightly-better-off-than-the-very-poorest country, the Philippines has not qualified for any debt relief. As a percentage of government expenditure, its repayments of overseas debts are now second highest in the world.
2) Last Monday marked the beginning of the new school year in the Philippines. Of the students who began their high school career in Filipino public schools last Monday, statistics suggest 65% will not complete the four years of high school. I know from experience that even many of those who make it to the end, will have been badly let down by a substandard system.
I know that poverty in the Philippines is the result of a complex web of realities of which the repayment of foreign debts is only one strand among many; and that the government spending on repaying its overseas debts, and their interest, is not the only factor which has resulted in the Philippines having a sadly inadequate education system, and many young people being forced by circumstances to drop out before completing school.
Nor do I exonerate the Filipino government, past and present, from its share of the blame in the debt problem: irresponsible governments have borrowed thoughtlessly, and in a country where corruption is rife at every level, I suspect much of that borrowed money, some of which may perhaps have been lent with good intentions, will have been misappropriated. Some of it was probably spent on shoes.
But this post isn’t about levelling blame, because I don’t think that is what the jubilee is about either. The jubilee year is about a fresh start. It is about beginning again, not with the same old divisions and inequalities, but with financial disparities rebalanced and the chance to genuinely start anew. A chance which countries trapped in a web of debt and poverty are never offered.
We live in a world fuelled by unsustainable debt and credit. We live in a world where poverty persists. We live in a world that desperately needs us to be celebrating a real jubilee.
Let’s do it!