Jubilee's good news for a deep-debt world

March 26th, 2022

Distribution of Wealth

In all the businesses I’ve started, I sought to practice distribution of wealth. Jubilee calls us to wealth creation (farming the land) as well as wealth distribution (sharing with the needy). Such distributions have been used for a variety of purposes, including buying houses, paying off mortgages, and securing pensions for missionaries. When I asked fellow directors in one of my Malaysian businesses to structure a share option scheme for our staff, they thought I meant the senior management. When I explained that I believe the cleaners should also be included, they balked, but to their credit, agreed. None of the staff—doctors, nurses, and cleaners—had ever owned shares in a publicly listed company before. They all had to be educated about the intricacies of share ownership, such as dividends, tax declarations, closed periods, and insider trading. One of our nurses sold her shares the following year to fund her son’s university education in the USA—something she would not have been able to do on her salary alone as a single mother. A salary alone isn’t enough. Real empowerment comes through ownership of assets. That’s what underlies the Jubilee program.

In recent years, many millionaires have been created through similar employee share ownership schemes in the tech sector (e.g., Microsoft, Apple, Google, Amazon). But an amazing example is the John Lewis Partnership, one of the most successful and largest retailers in the UK. The company’s website states this:

Over 100 years ago our Founder, John Spedan Lewis, began an experiment into a better way of doing business by including staff in decision making on how the business would be run.

He set out the principles for how the Company should operate and produced a written Constitution to help Partners understand their rights and responsibilities as co-owners.

Spedan Lewis wanted to create a way of doing business that was both commercial, allowing it to move quickly and stay ahead in a highly-competitive industry, and democratic, giving every Partner a voice in the business they co-own.[1]

All employees are partners and co-owners of the business to this day. John Spedan Lewis was revolutionary in the way he created wealth and shared it with all his employees. This is very much in accord with the spirit of Jubilee.

Julian Richer, the founder of the hi-fi chain Richer Sounds, recently sold 60 percent of his shares to an employee-owned trust and paid his employees bonuses of one thousand pounds for every year they had worked in his stores. The company also gives 15 percent of its profits to charity, which is remarkable generosity reflecting the spirit of Jubilee. Like Zacchaeus’s generosity (Luke 19), this would have amazed Jesus and made him smile.

But individuals I know have also, in their own small ways, sought to practice the spirit of Jubilee. One senior partner in a London law firm gave away his entire year’s salary to a charity on his fiftieth birthday. That was him working out a personal Jubilee. 

Available from MinistryMatters

Cancellation of Debts

The Jubilee 2000 Movement to cancel the debts of the poorest countries of the world resulted in US $130 billion being cancelled for thirty-six Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) in 2005 by the G8 group together with the IMF. Since 2005, for the countries that had some of their debts canceled,

  • Their debt payments have fallen from 10 percent of government revenue to 4 percent. 
  • The proportion of children completing primary school has increased from 51 percent to 66 percent.
  • The number of women dying in childbirth has fallen from 680 per 100,000 births to 500. 

This is clearly an impressive result. However, as was pointed out by the Jubilee Debt Campaign,Debt cancellation was vital in 2005 for countries to get out of the debt trap, and help provide essential services such as healthcare and education. However, nothing was done to prevent reckless lending re-creating debt crises, as is now seen in Europe. Governments continue to bailout lenders, incentivising them to continue acting recklessly, whilst giving large amounts of their “aid” money as loans.

Figures calculated by the Jubilee Debt Campaign, based on data from the World Bank,

show that loans to impoverished country governments have increased by 40 percent in just one year, and have more than tripled since 2005.

Lending to “low income countries” increased to $17.3 billion in 2013, the latest year with figures available, up from $12.2 billion in 2012 and $5.1 billion in 2005.

Research by the Jubilee Debt Campaign, based on IMF and World Bank figures, has shown that debt payments for low income countries are set to increase from 4% of government revenue today to up-to 13% by the early 2020s.[2]

The debt spiral of HIPC nations is also true of individuals. Citizens of most developed countries, with a lifestyle characterized by overconsumption, are heavily in debt. Many debt spirals end in personal bankruptcies and broken lives. 

Moral Hazard

What about the moral hazard of debt cancellation? This, of course, is one of the fears of the world’s richest countries today. If they cancel the debts of the poorer countries, will they learn not to get into debt again? Will the rich nations find themselves worse off?

In fact, leading economists suggest that the opposite is true. Promoting the welfare of another, be it an individual or a nation, leads to an improvement in one’s own welfare.[3] In fact, companies have their debts restructured all the time. Companies in distress often restructure their debts to avoid bankruptcy. Lenders have to forgive or cancel monies owed (called “taking a haircut”) and allow more time for the loans to be repaid. Debt cancellation and restructuring are even applied to countries; recent examples include Argentina, Brazil, Greece, and Spain.

The biblical message on this point corroborates the economic facts. Wealth held onto does not bless the hoarder, it becomes a liability (Exod 16:20; Jas 5:2, 3). On the other hand, the wealthy will not go without if they share (Mal 3:10–12; Luke 6:38). Despite sharing what he had with a crowd of five thousand, the boy with five loaves and two fishes still had enough to eat himself (John 6:12, 13). We can also practice cancellation of debts as individuals and churches.

Jubilee in Fremantle, Australia

A group of churches in Fremantle, Perth, Australia, felt God calling them to proclaim a Jubilee to the people of Fremantle. They raised over A$80,000 and persuaded the utility companies to cancel the debts of those whose electricity, gas, and water have been cut off through arrears. On Easter day 2003, the utility companies wrote to their debtors and said that through the generosity of the churches of Fremantle, their debts have been canceled and their utilities reconnected. Because of the Data Protection Laws, the churches could not directly contact the utility customers. So, the utility companies included a letter from the churches explaining why they were proclaiming a Jubilee with a telephone contact for people who wanted to get in touch. The story hit the national television, with the mayor and church leaders being interviewed. The local radio station announced where families had had their utilities reconnected and the sums of debt canceled on the hour, every hour for the whole week—it was the most popular radio station that week. Many other acts of generosity were also practiced throughout the Jubilee Week. What an imaginative expression of Jubilee this was. This is the church living social holiness. This is the kind of church to belong to. It is relevant. It smells of God’s justice and compassion for the poor.[4]

Jubilee in Singapore

Singapore’s Golden Jubilee year to celebrate their fifty years of independence was in 2015. Care Corner, one of the largest so- cial justice NGOs, together with the YMCA, decided they would carry out a debt cancellation program. They raised S$1 million, which was matched by the government, and canceled the debts of families they have been working with up to a maximum of S$2,000 and provided each family with a counselor for a year to help them manage their finances. Five hundred families were helped in this way by two hundred trained volunteer counselors.

The Methodist Church of Singapore also raised S$1.7 million to cancel the debts of 850 families for their 130th anniversary during the country’s Jubilee year. A maximum of $2,000 was given to each of the families as a one-time gift to enable a fresh start. Gambling or credit card debts were excluded. The gifts only covered debts related to daily necessities such as utilities and rent arrears.[5] Both debt cancellation programs in Fremantle and Singapore are impressive expressions of Jubilee. But why do it only every fifty years? Jubilee is an everyday lifestyle in the New Testament. Perhaps a Jubilee every year, or at the very least match the Old Testament’s requirement of every seven years. Perhaps even better, how can these churches incorporate even more frequent practices of generosity to create a community of social holiness?



[1] John Lewis Partnership, “Our History,” https://www.johnlewispartnership.co.uk/about/who-we-are/our-history.html.

[2] Jubilee Debt Campaign, “Don’t Turn the Clock Back: Analysing the Risks of the Lending Boom to Impoverished Countries,” Oct. 10, 2014, https://jubileedebt .org.uk/report/dont-turn-clock-back-analysing-risks-lending-boom-impoverished -countries.

[3] For further study on this subject, an excellent resource is The End of Poverty: How We Can Make It Happen In Our Lifetime by Jeffrey Sachs (New York: Penguin, 2005).

[4] www.ausprayernet.org.au/trans_articles4.php; www.fremantleJubilee.asn.au

[5] Theresa Tan, “Methodists in Singapore to Help the Poor Clear Their Debts,” Straits Times, Dec. 7, 2014, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/methodists-in-singapore-to-help-the-poor-clear-their-debts.

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