Text: Leviticus 25 v8-12
The New Internationalist May 1999
In the Spirit of Jubilee - Henry Garman
See Jubilee 2000 Website
The old woman was telling the story, which her grandmother had told her. Grandmother was the daughter of a stone mason and she grew up in fear of the frost. When the mercury dipped below zero, the water that lubricated the stone-cutting saws would freeze, threatening her father's job and raising the spectre of hunger. Yet her fear of debt was even greater than her fear of frost. In Victorian England there was no deeper shame than the debtor's prison. The Clink Street jail in London gave its name to the expression - in the clink - that described one of the worst fates imaginable. For the working class, staying out of debt was a principle born from a bitter collective memory of the slavery that came with it.
But others in other countries are still slaves to debt. Countless lives are being ruined by and the real economic progress of dozens of impoverished countries hobbled by a growing debt burden.
All of us, - nations, individuals and private businesses - float on a stormy ocean of debt and think nothing of it. while sirens beckon from the shoals offering the immediate gratification of our lurking desires. As we all may know it's hard to resist, just a little more to enjoy what we think we deserve and put off paying until we are better off, and got the pay rise.
Few of us are economic whiz kids, and on a global scale it's hard to make sense of . Why do those countries end up with some much debt? The reality is that its a combination of natural disasters, unfair trade, cold war conflict, being used by the rich boys, not being able to stop the big boys of a few centuries ago, coming in and taking your land, and telling you what to do , what to grow, how to live and for whose benefit on the bottom line.
Here's one what happened to one country. By 1990, every single man, woman and child in Uruguay had become liable for debts equivalent to their entire annual income, without even asking for them, let alone receiving nay of the cash. How that happened may seem a mystery to begin with. The explanation is quite simple. In 1973, there was a military coup in Uruguay. It ushered in a very nasty little dictatorship that for a while imprisoned more people than anywhere else on earth. The economy had gone belly up and powerful people who owed large amounts to international banks were facing ruin. So the military leaders decreed that it was 'in the national interest' to bail them out by borrowing from exactly the same banks, only this time in the name of the Uruguayan people.
The banks were desperate to lend. The Organisation of Oil Producing and Exporting Countries (OPEC) had just agreed to a sharp oil price hike and as a result were collecting a vast extra income of dollars, which they deposited with the banks. So large was the quantity of these 'petrodollars' that the banks didn't know how to recycle them at their usual levels of profit. Dictatorships that could exact repayments from their fearful population through fiscal means with relative ease seemed like a good bet for a secure and handsome return. This combination of dictatorship, foreign loans and the transfer of private loans on to public backs was not confined to Uruguay. It was common in many South American countries. And the people are still paying for it.
In May 1998, some 70,000 anti debt campaigners under the umbrella of Jubilee 2000 met up in Birmingham to lobby the leaders of the 7 richest countries of the world. Next month the campaign goes to Cologne, where the G7 leaders meet again. I think that there will be more than 70,000 people there, linking arms as we did last year around Birmingham.
For years antidebt campaigners have been trying to keep the issue alive. However it may be that there is nothing like the major turning of a calendar page to focus energies and instil hope. As the calendar advances towards the millennium there is a new feeling of optimism and hope, a sense that something is about to happen. One word for it is JUBILEE, the seed of an idea planted by our biblical ancestors that is now blooming anew. A short bible passage is responsible From Leviticus 25 v9-10 You shall have the trumpet sounded loud You shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land. It shall be a jubilee for you.
As first glance the passage doesn't seem to say much, but as you peel away the layers of meaning we get a clearer picture of ancient Israel's moral worldview based on social equity and respect for creation. The text goes on to include a call to set free slaves, forgive debts, restore wealth to the poor and give animals and the land a period of rest. The word Jubilee is derived from the Hebrew word JOBEL, the curved ram's horn that was sounded to mark the occasion.
The Jubilee vision weaves together several key ethical insights from the Hebrew scriptures. First there is the Jubilee's relationship to the notion of the Sabbath as a time for rest and stocktaking, a principle that has almost disappeared in our seven day a week, twenty-four hours a day consumer world. The second insight is that humans are only tenants on the land, which they work. The Earth belongs to the Lord as we honour creating by giving it and those who work it periodic rest. The poor should be released from their debts and given some land and wealth so that they can start over
The Jubilee 2000 campaign calls for a sweeping cancellation of the Third World debts. This new International movement has taken on a momentum that pervious campaigners had scarcely dreamed as possible. What really underscores the Jubilee vision is its brilliant combination of hope and realism. It is realistic in the sense that no matter what structures we put in place, the distribution of wealth and land will become imbalance, requiring a major re adjustment. It is hopeful and daring in laying out how such a major re adjustment should occur.
There is an inherent recognition that no social, political or economic system can guarantee the well being of everyone. To put your faith in any system is a form of idolatry. No matter what system is in place some will become rich at the expense of others and debts will be accumulated that can never be repaid.
Because of this Jubilee campaigners say we need a mechanism to take stock and 'wipe the slate clean. A global Jubilee conference was held in Rome in January. The debates were often intense with many points of disagreements. But in the end all agreed that debt cancellation is one necessary step towards a transforming our global economy - though not the only one.
Current initiatives for debt relief are simply not adequate, they are unjust and ineffective as well. Conditions imposed by the rich North of the Equator countries were rejected, they should be set down by the south for the south, with increased participation by civil society in the cancellation process.
The campaign has along way to go and is still learning .But it has popular support and appeal. The Jubilee message is aimed at many levels of society. Instead of restricting itself to lobbying policy makes, it has taken the message onto the streets and into mainstream media. The campaign has the official endorsement of church hierarchies. from the Pope, to The Anglican Bishops to The World Council of Churches.
Yoko Kitasawa co-chair of the Jubilee 2000 Japan considers the campaign. the most successful campaign uniting religious groups, trade unions, Non Governmental organisations and other social movements working for the impoverished people of Africa and the South Annika Lysen of the Swedish Jubilee campaign notes that the campaign has forces the so-called debt experts to communicate their message more clearly and to be more accountable to the public.
These global campaigns and coalitions will not simple disappear in 2001. For David Musona of the Zambian Jubilee campaign, the most important lasting benefit is the greater capacity of groups at local level to understand economic policy and to speak out in their own interests. He says Governments and international financial institutions will no longer be able to ignore local groups, directly affected by their decisions when they consider making new loans
Throughout the centuries, when people have joined forces to change society they have often, against all odds succeeded. One of the closest parallels to the debt crisis is the Atlantic slave trade. It too, was a system of international oppression accepted for centuries as a normal and necessary part of trade and life. And it resulted in the countries of the Northern hemisphere benefiting from the resources of the Southern hemisphere, while southern countries, particularly sub Saharan Africa, were devastated.
But in 1833, the slave trade was abolished in all British possessions. It was not because of one powerful institution or individual, but because of the concerted effort of thousands of people who had been convinced by the uprisings and leadership of slaves and by the passion of such individuals like, William Wilberforce that the status quo was wronged and could be changed. Powerful people in parliament, like Wilberforce, took up the cause, but it needed the agreement and support of thousands of ordinary people to ensure the destruction of the slave trade.
In the same way, the oppression of Third World Debt could be ended by the year 2000. Then the world could begin again with new hope for the poor and a new start for international relations.
One major hindrance to the abolition of slavery was the powerful plantation owners in the West Indies, whose interests were best served by preserving the slave trade. It gave them pervasive power in the nations from which the slaves came It gave them trading advantages and ensured that they could produce good crops and receive good prices for them.
In the same way now it is in the short-term interest of many Western governments to maintain strong influence over the poorer countries of the world. Justice demands that richer countries give up unfair privileges, held at the expense of the poor. If creditors agree to remission of debts, the removals of restraint on growth could allow the poorer countries to compete on fairer terms and reduce their dependence on the rich parts of the world.
There are people in positions of power in both Northern hemisphere and Southern hemisphere eager to see debts cancelled and the balance of power between creditors and debtors altered. But the support of thousands of people in the North is needed to pressurise decision-makers increditor governments, countries like ours, into carrying through such a fundamental change.
John Paul II has written The term Jubilee speaks of joy, not just inner joy, but a jubilation which is manifested outwardly, for the coming of God is an outward, visible, audible and tangible event .. the year 2000 will be celebrated as the Great Jubilee… a commitment to justice and peace in world like ours, marked by so many conflicts and intolerable inequalities, is a necessary condition for the preparation and celebration of the jubilee. Thus in the spirit of the book of Leviticus, Christians will have to raise their voice on behalf of the poor of the world, proposing the jubilee as an appropriate time to give thought, among other things. to reducing substantially, if not cancelling outright, the international debt which seriously threatens the future of many nations.