If you ask the dictionary what it means to abolish, it will say something boring like “to do away with” or “to put an end to”.
But you wouldn’t say you abolished your old shoes or that you abolished your nose-picking habit, would you?
No, abolition has taken on a much deeper meaning than the dictionary would have you believe. It’s not a word a child is likely to hear until they reach a certain chapter in their history class. After that, the word is inexorably linked to the act of setting something free. We don’t abolish just any old thing we don’t want anymore.
We abolish systems that oppress.
This is why the Rolling Jubilee promises to abolish debt, not forgive it.
Forgiveness implies a moral failure on the victim’s part.
Abolition implies a moral failure on the abuser’s part.
And make no mistake about it, debt is a form of institutionalized abuse.
Like most abusers, it seduces you with promises it never intends to keep. Once it has you in bed, it hauls out the chains. And not the fun 50 Shades of Grey kind. The kind that a serial killer uses to bind his victims while he snubs out cigarettes on their sensitive bits.
And like most forms of abuse in this country, responsibility for the assault is foisted upon the victim and not the perpetrator. The victim asked for it, waltzing around campus with that virginal credit report. The perp couldn’t be expected to control himself around a temptress like that. He just had to loan her $2,000 at 27% interest.
My point isn’t that people shouldn’t be responsible for debts they voluntarily incurred; it is that our current financial system is designed so that debts are almost impossible to repay.
This is because repayment is not the point. If it were, than banks and other credit lenders would not sell their distressed debts to third-party collection agencies for pennies on the dollar. They would never settle for $100 of a $10,000 debt if they genuinely needed their money back. Every time they engage in this practice they are committing a remarkable act of honesty.
The truth is that they don’t need our money back.
They just need us to believe that they do.
Abuse thrives on dependence. An environment must be created in which the victim believes they have no other choice but to accept the terms of abuse. Why do battered women go home? They aren’t stupid; they’ve been brainwashed to believe they are somehow indebted to their husband. If she doesn’t go home and make his dinner, she is a bad person.
And we have been brainwashed to believe that we are indebted to the financial sector. If we don’t send a check to the collection agency, we are bad people.
Yet the majority of the money these companies loaned us never existed in the first place. Even so, they expect us to pay back not only what they lent us, but two or three or ten times that amount in interest. They tell us this is their right; they tell us this is only fair. They tell us we are lucky to have them as they hold us down face first into our pillows so the neighbors can’t hear us scream.
Any economy is an illusion; an artifice originally created to minimize consumer inconvenience, but ultimately, inevitably used to maximize financial inequality.
Money is just a symbol of power earned, like calories are a symbol of energy gained. Neither money nor calories mean much by themselves; they represent potentials. And in the case of money owed, it represents only the potential to oppress.
So when the Rolling Jubilee says it is going to buy distressed debts and abolish them, it is not employing hyperbole. It is actively seeking to put an end to a system of oppression.
I am writing this Scroll at 3:07 pm on November 17, 2012. At this time, the Rolling Jubilee has raised $331,843 in donations, which they estimate is enough to buy $6,641,668 of distressed debts.
Right now, they are focusing on medical debts. So this isn’t six million dollars worth of unnecessary plasma TVs they’re paying for.
This is the five years of infertility treatments that ended in an emergency hysterectomy not a baby. This is the battle with cancer that cost a family their home. This is the pieces of a child sewn back together after a drunk driver mowed them down. This is the rape kit a women is charged for after she has already been violated in the most intimate way.
This is the abolition of debts that should never have been incurred because in a nation that reminds its citizens every chance it gets what a privilege it is to live in the land of the free, nobody should ever suffer or lose their life because they can’t pay.
Just imagine – if you aren’t already living this nightmare – that you receive a dozen phone calls a day, at home and at work, demanding that you pay for your late spouse’s ambulance ride, for the defibrillation that didn’t work, for the emergency room visit that ended with a doctor saying, “I’m sorry, but…”
Imagine that the people who call you tell you terrible things. Because they do. They have no morals, no boundaries. They will insult you. They will call you names. They will threaten to publicly humiliate you. They will promise to destroy what is left of your life. They will file liens and garnish your wages. They will take everything you own. I wish I were making these things up. But this is what they do. This is how the system works.
Now imagine you go to your mailbox one day – a chore you have come to fear and hate because every day brings another letter from your financial stalkers. You’re just waiting for the day you pull out a severed animal head with a note saying “You’re Next.”
But on this day, you get a different sort of a letter. It says there will be no more phone calls. No more threats. Your debt has been purchased and abolished. You have been set free.
It was not the government who did for you. Not a corporation nor any particular church. Though certainly many religious people were involved. The idea was borrowed from the Bible after all; modeled on the divine mandate that once every fifty years, the fields should lie fallow, property should be returned, and all debts should be removed from the slates. This was the Jubilee.
There have been many religious groups calling on the government to enact the Jubilee for years now, but the people have grown weary of waiting for the powerful to intervene. They have taken it upon themselves to bind up the broken-hearted and set the captives free. The hope – the reason that this is a Rolling Jubilee – is that as individuals discover those letters of freedom in the mail, they will pay it forward, giving back to the campaign so the Jubilee can continue.
This is an underground railroad for the twenty-first century, and everyone can ride. A $5 donation abolishes $100 worth of debt. $10 abolishes $200. $20 abolishes $400. $50 abolishes $1,000. And so on and so on. The holidays are a time of donations, and there are many worthy causes to choose from this year, but if you want to maximize your giving, consider donating a portion of the money you were planning to give to charity to the Rolling Jubilee.
But don’t mistake this for an act of charity. This is a calculated act of subversion. If you give, this is you joining the people as they rise up and say, “You can force us to play the game, but we don’t have to let you win.”
If you’re ready to hear the people sing, join them here. If you can’t give money right now, they understand. But you can give Tweets. You can give Facebook shares and Tumblr posts and Pins. You can tell your friends, your family, your campus, your co-workers, your church.
You can be an abolitionist wherever you are with whatever resources you have to give. Contrary to popular belief, that life path did not disappear with the Civil War. It is a calling that has been crying out to each of us, and for too long the system has been intentionally generating enough noise to drown out that voice.
No more. Throw open your window and scream, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.” Mean it. Then do what you can.
“Abolition is not some distant future but something we create in every moment when we say no to the traps of empire and yes to the nourishing possibilities dreamed of and practiced by our ancestors and friends. Every time we insist on accessible and affirming health care, safe and quality education, meaningful and secure employment, loving and healing relationships, and being our full and whole selves, we are doing abolition. Abolition is about breaking down things that oppress and building up things that nourish. Abolition is the practice of transformation in the here and now and the ever after.” ~ Eric A. Stanley