by Robert Hamd
From Beirut to Santiago, from Baghdad to Hong Kong, people are taking to the streets to protest. What all these countries have in common is that more people are poorer today than ever. Meanwhile, governing elites focus on the preservation of power and the accumulation of wealth, corrupting their political economies, circumventing political reform, and forcing debt peonage upon their populations.
In Beirut, the protestors are chanting in unison. People are crying out; the system is not working. As I walked through the streets of downtown Beirut, at the heart of the protests, I heard the same chorus from young and old alike: economic injustices, extreme indebtedness, rising medical costs, and a profound distaste for the political elites who gamed the system to profit off the backs of the poor.
Power to the People
The protests began over a proposed tax on WhatsApp and similar applications, but have escalated into massive, peaceful protests throughout Lebanon. The protests are marked by a unique feature; they include both young and old and are cutting across sectarian lines. The protestors are calling for the government to resign and for the entire political elite, who have ruled Lebanon since the end of its civil war, to step down.
On October 28th, Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned his government in response to the unprecedented nationwide protests. The protests have hit the ruling elites hard by paralyzing Lebanon. One effect is that the banks have been shuttered for weeks. Furthermore, according to World Bank Regional Director Saroj Kumar Jha, as Lebanon continues to protest, the economy faces 600 to 700 million dollars of losses every day.
Clearly, the people have had enough of the past political-economic arrangement and have taken to the streets in historic proportions, demanding change. As a lecturer in History, Politics, and Economics for the Master of Religion in Middle East and North Africa Studies program at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, I track different macroeconomic trends, and I believe that what appears to be only a nationwide protest might actually point to the greater problem of an economy built on rent extraction. An economy’s falling growth rate and rising economic debt places tremendous burdens on the general population, specifically the burdens of low wages and excessive penalties, fees, and heavy interest rates on accumulated debt.
The prophet Jeremiah noticed, “[b]ut your eyes and heart are set on nothing except your own dishonest gain, on shedding innocent blood, on practicing extortion and oppression” (22:17). Clearly Jeremiah took notice of the political-economics of his day. Global economic data indicate similar patterns, as claimed by economist Michael Hudson, who argues that economies propped up world-wide consist not of real product and prosperity but of a transfer of payments from the economy at large to the Finance, Insurance and Real Estate (FIRE) sector. In other words, what exists is an economy that favors the land owning, rent extracting 1% rather than an economy that works for the whole population.
Economic Trends from the Middle East
There are currently an unprecedented 2,153 billionaires globally, up almost 40% from five years ago, with a combined wealth of $8.7 trillion. Lebanon, a country of approximately 4 million people (this figure does not include the approximately 2 million Syrian refugees or half-million Palestinian refugees living within Lebanon) boasts 9 billionaires. Meanwhile, the median household income in Lebanon, according to Gallup, is $13,004. Lebanon’s wealthiest families, the top 1%, receive approximately one-quarter of the total national income, placing it among the most unequal countries in the World. Lebanon’s economic disparity is staggering, and the 99% are now attempting to lift the weight of inequality off their shoulders.
Jesus Unrolling the Scroll
In Jesus’s first sermon delivered to his own community (Luke 4:16 ff.), he announces his mission “to restore the Year of Our Lord,” as founded on Isaiah 61: 1-2. The text is referring to the Jubilee found in Leviticus 25. According to Old Testament scholar Christopher J. H. Wright, the primary purpose of the Jubilee was to preserve the socio-economic fabric and the survival and well-being of the community, guarding specifically against debt peonage. Jesus’ announcement calls for the imminent arrival of the eschatological reign of God. In other words, Jesus’ mission is concerned with the whole of life.
Furthermore, Jesus claimed that his people’s hopes for restoration and messianic reversal were being fulfilled in his own ministry. Wright points out Jesus’ use of the word for ‘release,’ aphesis in the original Greek, carries both the sense of spiritual forgiveness of sin and as well as literal and financial remission of actual debts. In the ancient Near East and Mesopotamia, debt amnesty was a policy carried out for centuries. Thus Jesus’ hearers unmistakably understood the economic significance of his words from Isaiah 61 and Leviticus 25.
The challenge for his listeners was his claim to forgive sins. Luke later recounts one instance in which a woman of ill repute anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume while she simultaneously wept profusely (Lk 7.36-50). Thereupon Jesus said to her, “Your sins have been forgiven” (v. 48). Those present debated amongst themselves, “Who is this man who even forgives sins?” (v. 49).
This remains the challenge for the church today. We are perfectly comfortable limiting Jesus to the role of forgiving us of our sins, but we debate the merits of debt jubilee. We believe economic questions are outside the scope of the mission of the church. Calling for economic reform seems too radical. Too uncomfortable. In contrast, we miss Jesus’ wholistic gospel that bids people come, find forgiveness of sins in Him alone, and to work out what “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” means in practice. Following Jesus is taking on a whole different trajectory, in light of the recent protests. Jesus is calling us to proclaim the whole gospel that just might include the socio-economic aim of “restoring to people the capacity to participate in the economic life of the community for their own viability and society’s benefit.”
Today, readers of the Bible tend to pass over the scriptural texts concerning debt cancellation, spiritualizing the idea of debt amnesties or releasing a debtor from bondage. The scriptures have much to say on debt peonage, financial injustices, corruption, exploitation, and power preservation. For us Lebanese, and in particular the church, we are confronted with these realities. Let us reacquaint ourselves with the whole scriptures, finding the courage from our Lord, who says, “Whoever has ears, let them hear,” to stand up against injustices and seek the peace and prosperity of Lebanon.
 Bassem Mroue, Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/world-banks-regional-chief-raises-alarm-on-lebanese-economy/2019/11/08/17f7fbee-0245-11ea-8341-cc3dce52e7de_story.html (accessed November 10, 2019)
 Michael Hudson, A Total-Returns Profile of Economic Polarization in America, https://michael-hudson.com/2019/10/asset-price-inflation-and-rent-seeking/ (accessed October 31, 2019)
 Maryam Srour, Lebanon’s Billionaire Club, https://www.the961.com/people/8-lebanese-just-made-forbes-middle-east-billionaires-list (accessed November 11, 2019)
 Glenn Phelps and Steve Crabtree, Worldwide, Median Household Income About $10,000
Country-level income closely related to Payroll to Population results, https://news.gallup.com/poll/166211/worldwide-median-household-income-000.aspx (accessed October 31, 2019)
 Christopher J. H. Wright, “Theology of Jubilee: Biblical, Social and Ethical Perspectives” ERT (2017) 41:1, 11.
 Wright, “Theology of Jubilee: Biblical, Social and Ethical Perspectives” 17.
 Wright, “Theology of Jubilee: Biblical, Social and Ethical Perspectives” 12.