Prophetic Jubilee

June 06, 2016

Over the past couple years, comedian John Oliver emerged as one of the greatest prophets of our time. In many ways he's filled a void created when Jon Stewart left The Daily Show (I wrote a book chapter on how Stewart and this show served a prophetic role). Oliver, who also left that show to host his own HBO show Last Week Tonight, sits in the tradition of what Walter Brueggemann calls "the prophetic imagination."

In the past, Oliver has offered a strong moral critique on various issues, including predatory lending, voter photo IDS, Puerto Rico's debt crisis, televangelists, and Donald Trump's proposed wall. In his most recent show, Oliver tackled the topic of debt buyers. In particular, he focused on how some people buy medical debts and then take abusive steps to squeeze money out of people. In this episode, however, he went beyond mere moral outrage. After detailing the problem (including showing secret investigative videos some of his show's team shot), he then set up a debt buying company, bought nearly $15 million in medical debt (owed by more than 9,000 people) for less than $60,000 and then ... canceled those debts!

That's like the biblical idea of jubilee! Cancel the debts. Restore balance and justice. Proclaim forgiveness, freedom, and redemption. It's part of the definition of the gospel Jesus preached in Luke 4.

Oliver's effort reminds me of the brilliant prophetic work of an effort called "Rolling Jubilee." The group raised money to buy debts and then cancel them (much like Oliver just did). In about three years, they canceled nearly $32 million in debts that they bought for just over $700,000. (The leaders of the effort no longer raise money for the effort, but instead are focused on transforming our nation's debt system.)

This is the work we should be about. It's time to declare 'jubilee!'



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