Clean Slate Edicts

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Alanna Hartzok:

"In ancient times, failure to repay loans could cost farmers their land, possessions, enslavement of family members, or their own freedom. For millennia, the problem confronting rulers was how to prevent the destabilization that occurs when large portions of the population are forced off the land or into debtor’s prison for failure to repay loans.

And so there developed throughout the ancient Near East a tradition of clean-slate edicts, which “proclaimed justice” or decreed “economic order” and “righteousness” by canceling debts and restoring forfeited land to farmers. Clean-slate proclamations date from almost as early as the first interest-bearing debt, starting in Sumer around 2400 years BCE. Eventually, the tradition became known as the Jubilee Year, but by that time it was taken out of the hands of kings and placed at the core of Mosaic law.

Recent discoveries of Bronze Age Near Eastern royal proclamations dating from 2400 to 1600 BCE leave no doubt that these edicts were implemented. During the Babylonian period they grew more elaborate and detailed. Now that these edicts are understood, the Biblical laws no longer stand alone as utopian or other-worldly ideals; they take their place in a 2,000-year continuum of periodic and regular economic renewal based on freedom from debt-servitude and from the loss of access to self-support on the land. The revolutionary Israelite contribution to the tradition was its removal from the hands of rulers to become a sacred popular compact, to be preserved by the Israelites in memory of the fact that they had once been enslaved and must never again permit economic oppression to develop. The Israelites are portrayed as having made a covenant to protect the economically weak by holding the land as the Lord’s gift to support a free rural population: “Land must not be sold in perpetuity, for the land belongs to me, and you are only strangers and guests. You will allow a right of redemption on all your landed property,” and restore it to its customary cultivators every 50 years (Lev. 25:23-28). Israelite debt-slaves likewise were to go free periodically in the Jubilee Year, for they belonged ultimately to the Lord, not to any person (Lev. 25:54

Jesus pointed to Old Testament teachings regarding land ethics. According to some contemporary theologians, one of the tasks of the mission of Jesus was to restore the original intent of the Jubilee. In Luke 4:18 (by way of Isaiah 61:1-3): He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.. to proclaim release of captives.. To set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.

The author of Common Sense, Thomas Paine said: Men did not make the earth...It is the value of the improvement only, and not the earth itself, that is individual property...Every proprietor owes to the community a ground rent for the land which he holds.

Enormous sums are currently accruing as unearned income to a relatively few individuals, families and corporations who are holding large amounts of land, very valuable and well-located land, and natural resources as their own exclusive private property. These enormous land values and resource rents have also been directed to banks holding mortgages based on exploitative compound interest rates. It may be of interest to note that the word "mortgage" means "dead hand."

Truly, when one must work so many years of ones life to pay off a mortgage, one productive hand is as if dead in terms of producing for oneself, as the labor of that hand pays the mortgage.

For the 33% of citizens (40 million people) in the United States who are renters, there is not even equity ownership to look forward to after a life of labor. For the more than three million homeless people in American and the multi-millions who are homeless around the world, what Henry George said in 1879 holds true today:

Our primary social adjustment is a denial of justice. In allowing one man to own the land on which and from which other men must live, we have made them his bondsmen in a degree which increases as material progress goes on.[19]


Henry George: “Progress and Poverty”, (1879).

“The tax upon land values is, therefore, the most just and equal of all taxes. It falls only upon those who receive from society a peculiar and valuable benefit, and upon them in proportion to the benefit they receive. It is the taking by the community, for the use of the community, of that value which is the creation of the community. It is the application of the common property to common use. When all rent is taken by taxation for the needs of the community, then will the equality ordained by nature be attained. No citizen will have an advantage over any other citizen save as is given by his industry, skill, and intelligence; and each will obtain what he fairly earns. Then, but not till then, will labor get its full reward, and capital its natural return.

“A consideration of the manner in which the speculative advance in land values cuts down the earnings of labor and capital and checks production leads, I think, irresistibly to the conclusion that this is the main cause of those periodical industrial depressions to which every civilized country, and all civilized countries together, seem increasingly liable.” (via email, April 2009)