Faith & Reason: Eternal debts grant unto them, O Lord

The new Archbishop of Cape Town travelled to London this week to berate the City. Paul Vallely reflects on the Church's passion for the issue of Third World debt.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Why is the Church so preoccupied by the issue of Third World Debt? On Thursday Desmond Tutu's successor as Archbishop of Cape Town, Njongonkulu Ndungane, travelled to London to deliver an address at Southwark Cathedral. It was entitled "Seizing the Millennium" but its focus was entirely on the debt issue.

He is far from a lone voice. The Roman Catholic bishops of England and Wales have in recent times made two powerful public demands for rapid progress towards a solution of the crisis which, though it is no longer a problem for international bankers, continues to afflict the daily lives of a billion of the world's poorest people. And on Wednesday the Catholic development agency, Cafod, strongly attacked the Government for not sending the Chancellor of the Exchequer to the spring meeting of the World Bank and the IMF. In the event, opponents managed to postpone an agreement to launch a debt relief programme which Britain had championed.

It is the biblical principle of Jubilee which underlies the concern. When the Israelites arrived in their promised land they divided it not in accordance with their relative power but by casting lots. Laws recorded in Leviticus and Deuteronomy ordered that land could be sold by the impoverished but that the original owner had the right to redeem it whenever he could raise the price. And every 49 years - a sabbath of sabbath years which was given the name of Jubilee after the word yobel for the ram's horn blown to announce its arrival - the land had to be returned to the family to which it originally belonged.

As so often in the Old Testament the aim was to strike a balance between the individual and the social, between the right to private ownership and the obligation to hold goods in trust and use them in a way which reflects the divine purpose.

Historically the attempt to create a balance between wealth creation and social justice failed. The gospel of prosperity celebrated in the Wisdom books, and then the rise of the Israeli monarchy, created a poverty gap which archeologists confirm. Excavations at Tirzah show 10th-century BC houses all of the same size and arrangement; by the eighth century the community had divided into the bigger and better-built houses of the rich and a quarter where poor houses huddled together. The shift produced the gross inequalities the Prophets so vividly denounced.

There is some debate among historians as to how widely the Jubilee principle was ever enforced but whatever the actual practice the principle towered, symbolic and educative, articulating the communal aspirations of the people and a vision of a future governed by the Covenant. Indeed there are grounds for thinking that Jesus was referring to Jubilee when he began his ministry by announcing he had come to bring good news to the poor, proclaim liberty to captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed and "to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour".

But how convincing are the prescriptions of an early Iron Age rural community when addressing a problem of complex international finance on the eve of the 21st century? Today's global society may be enormously different but the Jubilee principles remain apt. There is a moral imperative on a debtor to repay, but the poor world has amply done that. Between 1980 and 1992 some $1.66 trillion has been paid by the poor world to the rich. That is three times the amount borrowed. Yet thanks to the miracle of compound interest, and the constant new loans to pay the interest on the old ones, they still owe us $1.3 trillion. It has become too big ever to repay. External debt has become eternal debt.

Meanwhile the others responsible for the situation - greedy oil sheikhs, reckless banks, irresponsible Western governments, avaricious arms dealers and corrupt Third World leaders - refuse to share the burden which falls on the shoulders of the poorest through cuts in health, education and food subsidies.

The system of Jubilee ensured that the poor did not become marginalised, alienated and disenfranchised from the rest of society. The same considerations must apply on a global scale today. The details must be a matter for experts. But the lesson of Jubilee is that self-righting mechanisms are a fundamental part of social justice. It must be a central concern of the churches to say so.