money is a promise: American jubilee


Here is a story about fierce people.  A king decides to sell a servant and his family into slavery to settle the servant’s debt.  The servant begs the king for leniency to repay the debt, and the king has pity and mercy and not only releases the servant but forgives the debt in full.

The same servant meets a man in the street who owes him money and grabs him by the neck, and demands repayment.  The debtor pleads for leniency, but the servant has the man thrown into prison.  Friends of the servant see this cruelty and relate it to the king, their common benefactor.  The king calls the unforgiving servant to him, chastises him for his hypocrisy and lack of mercy, and throws him into prison.

Unhappy ending, sorry.  You probably remember this story from Matthew’s gospel from childhood when you went to Sunday school.  Or if you’re of another faith, echoes of the universality of the message in stories from your own religious teachings.


The author David Graeber wrote a book called Debt: The First 5000 Years.  I have excerpted three passages from one of his chapters below to introduce the idea of Jubilee, which is state sanctioned debt forgiveness.

Jubilee, called amargi (freedom) by the ancients, was perfectly described in the moment – in Matthew’s gospel – when the king forgives the servant and the servant is made free of his obligation.  What exhilaration must have accompanied this transformative moment in the servant’s life.

Of course, it’s not every day someone offers to wipe away your debts.  Most of us have to toil away our whole lives to afford what we have and, unless we win the lottery, we remain beholden to our companies and our mortgages for life.  Many – like the servant – have even deeper debts and obligations.

The passages on Jubilee below describe how cruel the world of money and business can be and how people have found a way around that cruelty.  In the first passage, Graeber relates how Americans are historically and chronically usurious and unforgiving.

In the second, he describes ancient cultures that were equally usurious, which invented Jubilee as a way to release people from the grip of these predatory business practices.  The third passage is a redefinition of money designed to reveal its proper meaning and to liberate us from its more ignoble uses.


Apparently historically Americans have been like the servant in the story by Matthew retold above:  stingy and cruel even when other societies were merciful.  From the start, we were debtors who had no tolerance even for our own kind – other debtors:

Americans have, since colonial days, been the population least sympathetic to debtors. (Back then, the ears of an insolvent debtor would often be nailed to a post.) The notion of morality as a matter of paying one’s debts runs deeper in the United States than in almost any other country, which is odd, since America was settled largely by absconding debtors. Despite the fact that the Constitution specifically charged the new government with creating a bankruptcy law in 1787, all attempts to do so were rejected on “moral grounds” until 1898, by which time almost all other Western states had adopted one. The change was epochal.


Americans aren’t alone in their intolerance; there are other cruel societies in history.  However, as we see in the following passage, at least some ancient societies were successful at providing a release – Jubilee – from the terrible pressures of usury, which distinguishes them from contemporary America.  For these societies, money and debt were transigent qualities which decreased their cruelty quotient.

In the passage we are shown how some Kings in the ancient world cannily improved public relations by passing Jubilee laws to release their indebted subjects from predatory and usurious business practices.  It made them popular, and their people happy.  In some cultures Jubilee was institutionalized and took place every seven years.  It kept landowners from getting to big and powerful and gave peasants the chance to begin anew.

Most interestingly, the word ‘freedom’ was invented to describe debt forgiveness:

Faced with the potential for complete social breakdown, Sumerian and Babylonian kings periodically announced general amnesties. All outstanding consumer debt was declared null and void (commercial debts were not affected), all land was returned to its original owners, and debt peons were returned to their families. Before long, kings made a habit of declaring such amnesties upon assuming power. (The sovereign saw himself as literally re-creating human society, so he was in a fine position to relieve all previous moral obligations.) In Sumerian, these were called declarations of freedom. The Sumerian word amargi is the first recorded use of “freedom” in any language; it literally means “return to mother,” since this is what freed debt peons were allowed to do.


Americans are in debt up to their eyeballs.  But we are the most unforgiving of societies when it comes to debt.  We don’t have a language of forgiveness when it comes to money; our relations and contracts are couched in intractability and finitude.

Here is the author Graeber’s solution:  to return to the original and ancient understanding of money as a manifestation of the trust we can have with another person:  the symbol of an agreement.

We are encouraged to shift our focus away from the empty symbol (money), and toward the living agreement, which gives us the breadth of vision and context to see and act on the advantages of forgiving our debtors:

We need to understand what philosophers in the Middle Ages, from Italy to India to China, already understood perfectly well: Money is not a thing, and is certainly not a scarce resource. Money is a promise. And it is a promise we keep to those we value and break to those we do not.

All passages from To Have Is to Owe, David Graeber, Canopy

Leave a Comment so far
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: