by Tom Snowdon
There is your brother, naked and crying! And you stand confused over choice of floor covering.
(St. Ambrose of Milan, +397)
I am troubled by those words of St. Ambrose, and I should be. I have stood, pondering and confused, over far less consequential concerns than the choice of floor covering during my life. One cannot even enter a grocery store without being confronted with choices vast in number, trivial in importance.
Soon we will celebrate two thousand years since the birth of the Incarnate God, Jesus Christ of Nazareth. This confronts us with another choice, not trivial at all. How do we celebrate this properly? Could we do something really big, something which would really fit the occasion and also serve as a landmark in time — perhaps something which would even please our Lord and God?
In pondering the question, we ought to consider the words Christ chose in defining his mission, spoken at the very beginning of Christ’s ministry in his home synagogue:
And he came to Nazareth… and went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the Sabbath day. And he… opened the book and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down;… And he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
This passage from Luke, so dramatic and powerful in setting and content, describes how our Lord defined his own life and ministry. But what was fulfilled that day in Nazareth? The references take us to Isaiah 49 and 61 where we are led to a vision of Israel’s, rendered most fully in Leviticus chapter 25 and its parallel in Deuteronomy 15, the Jubilee passages: the command to practice a Sabbath of the seventh year and a double Sabbath of seven sevens of years, a fiftieth-year celebration, a Jubilee. These Sabbaths were celebrated in a way that kept faith with those citizens who had been made poor by the normal push and shove of economic activities and the accidents of the years. All debts were to be forgiven and all land was to be returned to its original family. Slaves were to be set free and provided for generously. No one was to be kept in an impoverished condition. The celebrations also kept faith with the land which had become impoverished through intensive bearing of crops. It too was granted a year of rest. These celebrations kept faith with the covenant God. The people and the land were God’s, not to be exploited or misused or taken advantage of. Leviticus records, “Therefore you shall not oppress one another, but you shall fear your God; for I am the Lord your God” (25:17) and “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me.” (25:23).
Our Lord declares that all was the basis of his life and ministry. His advent in the world would be a fulfillment of this, an arrival of that “acceptable year.”
In the light of this central, defining role that the Jubilee played in the earthly life and ministry of our Lord, would it not be fitting to find a way to celebrate the turn of the millennium in keeping with this? But how? Let us face the question: Who are the impoverished, the enslaved, the disenfranchised at the end of the second Christian millennium?
We do not have to look far. Vast numbers of the human family live in abject poverty, deeply indebted to the rich of the world. Call them the third world, the undeveloped world, the south, the highly indebted poor countries or whatever you wish, the facts are the same. For every dollar which goes to them from the wealthy nations in terms of support (foreign aid, etc.), they send back between $3 and $6 in “debt servicing.” The following litany of facts is staggering.
In 1980, the total debt of the world’s poorer nations totaled $568 billion. From 1980 to 1997, the south transferred $2.9 trillion to northern creditors in interest and principal payments, yet the total debt of the south has now reached $2.4 trillion. If calculated per capita, each person in the south would owe about $300 to the north, much more than a year’s wage for many…. Of the 32 countries classified as severely indebted low-income countries, 25 are in sub-Saharan Africa. In total, sub-Saharan Africa owes $235 billion (81 percent of its total GNP). African countries now spend four times as much on debt repayments as they do on health care. Latin America and the Caribbean owe over $657 billion in debts to other countries and banks (41 percent of the region’s gross national product). Bolivia has the highest child mortality rate on the continent; it spends half of all its export income on paying its debt. Brazil is the world’s largest deforester and one of its largest debtors, owing $110 billion. It is cutting a staggering 50,000 square kilometers of forest every year.
[from A New Beginning: A Call for Jubilee, Canadian Ecumenical Jubilee Initiative, 1998]
It is relatively easy to conclude that it is time for a release from this incredible bondage, to use biblical terms, even more so when one considers that the debt has reached proportions which make repayment impossible. This debt cannot be repaid and even servicing its interest has become impossible in some cases.
How did this desperate state of affairs ever develop? Even the immediate history is not simple but a time-line as follows helps us understand. In the 1960’s and 70’s, the United States, spending more than it earned, especially because of the Vietnam war, decided to print more dollars. More US dollars circulated, to the point that the US found that it did not have enough gold reserves to back all those dollars. In 1971, then President Richard Nixon unilaterally declared that the dollar would not be redeemable for gold. This put an end to the Bretton Woods monetary system, which had been based on a US dollar tied to gold and had provided a relatively stable world economic system since after World War II. The world’s stocks of dollars fell in value. This was a blow, especially for nations which exported oil priced in those falling US dollars.
In 1972, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries hiked its prices to make up for a decline of profits. They made huge amounts of US dollars, depositing these in the offshore banking system. The resulting over-supply of money on deposit had to be put to use. Developing countries were loaned large amounts of money at very attractive rates. It was a borrower’s market. By the mid-70’s these borrowing countries were encouraged to increasingly shift their agricultural production into crops which could be sold to the affluent northern countries, yielding income in US dollars and other strong currencies with which to repay their loans and further develop their economies. This led to an over-supply of many crops, causing prices to drop dramatically and eliminating the extra income for which the indebted countries had hoped. Oil prices, already high, took another jump in the nervous market atmosphere following the Iranian revolution of 1979. Inflation in the West became the biggest economic fear.
The US and Britain led the way in raising interest rates to unprecedented highs in the early 1980’s to cool off an over-heated economy and stop the rise in inflation. The indebted countries now faced the additional burden of these rates, nearing twenty percent. These countries, their exports bringing in much less than predicted, had to pay much more than predicted on their loans and for needed imports, especially petroleum products.
By 1982, Mexico led the way by defaulting on its loans. It could not repay. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank began to play major roles, stepping in to revamp the debts, lend more money, accompanied with stringent programs of restraint on government spending and new economic plans to realign those economies to produce more exports to bring in more income for debt repayment. In country after country, these programs, called Structural Adjustment Programs, imposed huge reductions in national programs of health care and education. They have transformed local, long-standing subsistence farming practices into cash-crop operations, and reduced some of the world’s greatest forests into vast plains for the raising of cattle and other cash-rich operations. Poor countries are now bankrupt, their fledgling infrastructures falling apart, their traditional means of food security severely jeopardized, their governments unable to maintain even the most basic of services, their natural resources being stripped from their countrysides. Along the way, most of these countries have had their currencies devalued several times, making their debt in U.S. dollars even more daunting.
Another theme of this debt-creation is that many of the original loans were made to support the rule of highly unscrupulous dictators, a hedge against Communism. They were loans to provide sophisticated arms for their armies, often used against their own populations, or to fund mega-projects, such as hydroelectric projects and nuclear-electric projects. Sometimes, much of this money disappeared into Swiss ban accounts. People such as Mobutu of Zaire and Marcos of the Philippines stole some of this money. Governments in northern countries were often far too eager to loan money to ensure the purchase of manufactured items which they wanted to sell, much like an automotive manufacturer providing the loan as well as the new car. In their eagerness, the lenders often brushed aside concerns about the credibility of foreign governments and dictators. Now, the poor of these countries, who often had no say in the shape of their government or character of their leaders, are being asked to pay for the often unscrupulous greed of both their former leaders and rich lenders.
The Jubilee 2000 project, now worldwide in its scope and supported by many of the church bodies of the world, calls for the outright cancellation of the debt of the world’s fifty most indebted countries. This proposal is being put forward because it is moral, because it is achievable, and because it is in keeping with the Holy, Jubilee Spirit with which our Lord announced His ministry, as has already been pointed out.
The morality of the matter is clear. This is not debt forgiveness, it is the righting of a wrong. It is not the poor themselves who have incurred these debts, but the rich and powerful, eager to maintain positions of control and privilege. Interesting parallels occur in the world’s history. In 1898, the United States captured Cuba from Spain. Spain demanded that the US pay the debt which Cuba owed to Spain but the US refused, saying that the debt had been “imposed upon the people of Cuba without their consent and by force of arms.” This became entrenched in international law as the concept of “odious debt.” The same exists in many of the debt situations in these fifty highly indebted poor countries today. It is clearly the burden of the lenders to bear the burden of their unwise and often unscrupulous lending. In this current crisis, the Anglican Archbishop of Capetown, South Africa, Njongonkulu Ndungane, argues persuasively that, even though the United Nations declared the former apartheid regime of that country as the agent of crimes against humanity, the rich countries of the world continued to loan that government money. Now, the majority of South Africa’s people who were oppressed by that very regime are being asked to pay for its debt, incurred in part to oppress them. The same argument can be made concerning the world’s most indebted country, Nicaragua. Another comparative example would be Germany. Following World War II, Germany was asked to pay war-reparations totaling 3.5 percent of their total export income. Germany protested, saying that was too high a percentage, an amount which would severely hinder their recovery. The victorious Allied powers reduced that percentage. By comparison, we are now asking some of the poorest counties to dedicate over 40 percent of their total export income to debt servicing.
To cancel the debt of the most heavily indebted countries is “do-able” and is the only solution for the situation. The debt of the fifty poorest countries is $341 billion (about half of what President Clinton recently earmarked for a new anti-ballistic missile system). In Canada, my home, it would cost each Canadian $15 each year for the next three years to cancel the debt which the poorest fifty countries of the world owe to the various branches of our government. Additional debt is owed to international monetary institutions and commercial banks, banks which have been declaring record profits in the past several years. It might be fitting to note here that the poorest fifth of the world’s population saw their share of the global income fall from 2.3 percent to 1.4 percent in the past thirty years. Over the same period the share of the richest fifth rose from 75 to 85 percent. Both the International Monetary Fund and World Bank have large gold reserves, part of which could be liquidated to write off these debts.
The real questions are not about the justice or even the possibility of achieving this Jubilee. The real questions center around the word “will.” Do we, in the rich north, have the will to begin to treat the poor with the respect and dignity which the Gospel demands? Can we stop treating the rest of the world as a resource to be exploited for our benefit, as we have treated it throughout the colonial period, the cold war period and now in the period of economic globalization? We are the ones with the power to do something positive here which will benefit the poor and oppressed of whom Jesus spoke and to whom He ministered. Will we follow His example and words?
Jubilee 2000 organizations exist in many countries. Their immediate goal is to create the largest petition the world has ever seen to present to the gathering of leaders of the G-7 nations in Cologne, Germany in June of this year. Please become involved in this campaign in any way which you are able. Many of these organizations are also involved in promoting more broadly-based programs of economic justice and education as well as the debt-cancellation campaign.
A Call to Jubilee
We believe that the start of the new millennium should be a time to give new hope to the impoverished people of the world. To make a new beginning we believe it is time to cancel the backlog of unpayable debts to the most impoverished nations. We call upon the leaders of lending nations to write off these debts by the year 2000. We urge these leaders to take effective steps to prevent high levels of debt from building up again. They should promote sustainable economic and social development instead of supporting measures demanded by international financial institutions that erode health care, education and the environment, further impoverishing the poorest populations of the world.”
— from the Preamble to the Jubilee Petition
Tom Snowdon, Peace Ministries coordinator for the Mennonite Central Committee-Canada, attends St. George’s Orthodox Church in Winnipeg. For a wide range of campaign-related resources and contact addresses in various countries, see this web site: