One of the most consistent arguments made against the policy of society-wide debt forgiveness is this: “You need a Christian or believing (in the sense of ancient Israelite) nation for it to work. It cannot work in a nation like ours because it is non-Christian, so either people will not go for it, or they will abuse it and it will not work.” Almost every time I have made a case for debt forgiveness somebody makes this argument. But it is a fallacious one, both historically and logically.
It is fallacious logically because there is nothing inherent to many pagan philosophies saying that debt cannot be forgiven. Forgiveness, liberty and debt cancellation were all concepts that existed before either Israel or Christianity had graced the face of the earth. Indeed, the most ancient usage of words that can be translated as “liberty” were pagan words referring to debt forgiveness.
It is fallacious historically because we have countless examples throughout history of ancient societies practicing debt forgiveness. From the ancient Sumerians, Akkadians, and other Near Eastern societies, on through to Greek city-states and the Roman public, we see that debt forgiveness was either practiced, debated, or offered in various contexts. In fact, many ancient pagan leaders correctly saw it as an effective means of shoring up popular support for their reign, and limiting the damage their nobles could do to their reign and their society.
Many examples of debt forgiveness in pagan societies can be given, here is one from ancient Athens,
Now later writers observe that the ancient Athenians used to cover up the ugliness of things with auspicious and kindly terms, giving them polite and endearing names. Thus they called harlots “companions”, taxes “contributions”, the garrison of a city its “guard”, and the prison a “chamber”. But Solon was the first, it would seem, to use this device, when he called his cancelling of debts a “disburdenment”. For the first of his public measures was an enactment that existing debts should be remitted, and that in future no one should lend money on the person of a borrower. Some writers, however, and Androtion is one of them, affirm that the poor were relieved not by a cancelling of debts, but by a reduction of the interest upon them and showed their satisfaction by giving the name of “disburdenment” to this act of humanity, and to the augmentation of measures and the purchasing power of money which accompanied it. For he made the mina to consist of a hundred drachmas, which before had contained only seventy-three, so that by paying the same amount of money, but money of lesser value, those who had debts to discharge were greatly benefited and those who accepted such payments were no losers. But most writers agree that the “disburdenment” was a removal of all debt, and with such the poems of Solon are more in accord. For in these he proudly boasts that from the mortgaged lands:
He took away the record-stones that everywhere were planted; Before, Earth was in bondage, now she is free.
And of the citizens whose persons had been seized for debt, some he brought back from foreign lands, “uttering no longer Attic speech, so long and far their wretched wanderings,” and some “who here at home in shameful servitude were held,” he says he set free.
This undertaking is said to have involved him in the most vexatious experience of his life. For when he had set out to abolish debts, and was trying to find arguments and a suitable occasion for the step, he told some of his most trusted and intimate friends, namely, Conon, Cleinias, and Hipponicus, that he was not going to meddle with the land but had determined to cancel debts. They immediately took advantage of this confidence and anticipated Solon’s decree by borrowing large sums from the wealthy and buying up great estates. Then, when the decree was published, they enjoyed the use of their properties but refused to pay the moneys due their creditors. This brought Solon into great condemnation and odium, as if he had not been imposed upon with the rest, but were a party to the imposition, However, this charge was at once dissipated by his well-known sacrifice of five talents. For it was found that he had lent that much, and he was the first to remit this debt in accordance with his law. Some say that the sum was fifteen talents, among them Polyzelus the Rhodian. But his friends were ever after called chreocopidae, or debt-cutters.
He pleased neither party, however; the rich were vexed because he took away their securities for debt, and the poor still more because he did not re-distribute the land, as they had expected, nor make all men equal and alike in their way of living, as Lycurgus did. But Lycurgus was eleventh in descent from Heracles and had been king in Lacedaemon for many years. He therefore had great authority, many friends, and power to support his reforms in the commonwealth. He also employed force rather than persuasion, insomuch that he actually lost his eye thereby, and most effectually guaranteed the safety and unanimity of the city by making all its citizens neither poor nor rich. Solon, on the contrary, could not secure this feature in his commonwealth, since he was a man of the people and of modest station; yet he in no wise acted short of his real power, relying as he did only on the wishes of the citizens and their confidence in him. Nevertheless he gave offence to the greater part of them, who expected different results, as he himself says of them in the lines:
Then they had extravagant thoughts of me, but now, incensed, All look askance at me, as if I were their foe.
And yet had any other man, he says, acquired the same power:
He had not held the people down, nor made an end until he had confounded all, and skimmed the cream.
Soon, however, they perceived the advantages of his measure, ceased from their private fault-finding, and offered a public sacrifice, which they called Seisactheia, or Disburdenment. They also appointed Solon to reform the constitution and make new laws, laying no restrictions whatever upon him but putting everything into his hands: magistracies, assemblies, courts-of law, and councils. He was to fix the property qualification for each of these, their numbers, and their times of meeting, abrogating and maintaining existing institutions at his pleasure.
In the first place, then, he repealed the laws of Draco, all except those concerning homicide, because they were too severe and their penalties too heavy. For one penalty was assigned to almost all transgressions, namely death, so that even those convicted of idleness were put to death, and those who stole salad or fruit received the same punishment as those who committed sacrilege or murder. Therefore Demades in later times made a hit when he said that Draco’s laws were written not with ink, but blood. And Draco himself, they say, being asked why he made death the penalty for most offences, replied that in his opinion the lesser ones deserved it, and for the greater ones no heavier penalty could be found.”
Plutarch’s Lives, Volume 1, The Life of Solon, Castalia House, pp125-127
For those who argue that you need a Christian nation to enact debt forgiveness, the Greeks prove this conclusively untrue. Anyone who knows their Greek history reasonably well knows that in many ways the Greeks had a terrible morality and lived in ways that Christians, and even many other modern people, can only condemn. However, they still came to the obvious conclusion that debt forgiveness is good for a nation and a moral imperative when a nation’s people are heavily burdened by debt.
We can observe a couple of things from Solon’s efforts. First, he only got his reforms through because he was trusted by the common man and noble alike. Some of his friends in the know did take advantage of his policies, as is to be expected; humans can find a way to abuse anything good. He had to give both sides less than they wanted so that his whole society was not turned upside down, which turned people in the elites and among the common people against him. And his policy was so successful it eventually won people over and they asked him to radically reform their society in many other ways as well.
So, even though Solon was a flawed individual, and his policies were also flawed, just the act of debt forgiveness was so powerful for this pagan society it won many of them over to listen to this man on other policies of law and culture. Solon’s policies did not usher in the golden age of Athens straight away, but they did pave the way for it, and it is for this reason that he is viewed as one of the greatest reformers in Athenian history.
So, we can see conclusively you do not need a Christian society, or even a remarkably moral society for debt forgiveness to work. In fact, the reverse can actually happen; the flow-on effect of debt forgiveness can eventually allow your society to increase its morality and culture in other ways.
What is also interesting is that the only genuine Jubilee* that is called in the Old Testament was from Cyrus the Great, who was also a pagan ruler, in this case the King of kings of the ancient Persian Empire. Cyrus let the peoples of many nations go free, including the Jews, restored them to their lands and homes, and gave them wealth to rebuild their lives.
This is what a Jubilee was, and it had a remarkably positive and stabilizing effect on the Persian empire, increasing its prosperity as a result. You could probably say that Pharoah in Exodus also called a Jubilee of sorts, however, this was not one he did willingly but under the command of the Lord God who told him to let God’s people go.
So, again we have established conclusively that debt forgiveness is possible in an unbelieving nation. I wonder what sort of moral effect it would have on modern Australia, Britain, Europe of the United States to have their people freed from debt.
The effects of both the Athenian and Spartan efforts at debt forgiveness created two of the mightiest European nations of the ancient world. Nations which still live on in memory as grand ancestors of our modern western civilisations.
Imagine what the highly capable European peoples of the western world could achieve if freed from the massive weight of the burden of debt around their necks? Imagine the blessing the West could have on poorer countries by cancelling their national debts. It is time to bring back disburdenment, I think you’ll find many Christians and pagans alike would support this policy and see it for the good that it is. The ancient Greeks did.
Here is an ancient video you can watch on this as well:
* A partial Jubilee was called in the times of Nehemiah (Neh. 5) and in the time of Jeremiah, King Zedekiah called a Jubilee but took it back (Jer. 34).