by Earle Fox
Tuesday, July 21 1998
2000 Anno Domini -
THE YEAR OF JUBILEE...
of DEBT CANCELLATION?
See also below: Five Talents Project
The idea of the Year of Jubilee has caught the imagination of the Lambeth Conference in a rather startling way. Archbishop George Carey says:
"Why the year 2000? Well, it gives us all a new opportunity to make this a Jubilee that actually works. In that year we shall be celebrating the 2000th anniversary of the birth of the one who brought us life hope, and peace.... 'He has sent me to proclaim release for the prisoners....'"
The Year of Jubilee comes from the Old Testament mandate that at the end of every seven times seven years land which had been sold from one's patrimony would be returned to the original family holding, and that slaves who had been bought would return to their families. Land was clearly considered essential to the even more essential life of a family, a matter which we do not take very seriously in our age of moving around and of disintegrated extended families.
References are made in Leviticus 25 and Numbers 36. Leviticus 25:10 reads:
And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and **proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants**; it shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his family.
The part of that quote in **....** was inscribed on the American Liberty Bell, indicating a connection between freedom and holding property. Both freedom and property are sacred to God.
It is debated as to whether the jubilee was ever really honored. But the idea has caught the imagination of many people today, albeit in a manner not totally appropriate to the Biblical situation.
The intention of the Year of Jubilee was to preserve family integrity in both person and property. It was *not* an attempt at debt forgiveness as social reform against an oppressive class, not in the "liberation theology" sense generally imagined today. The Year of Jubilee was not a debt cancellation. It has only indirect connection with the present drive to cancel the debts of overburdened countries -- however wise or noble or right that might be. The Year of Jubilee did not cancel debts. Rather, it simply limited the number of years that either property or persons could be alienated from their clan or family. It limited the amount of debt one could get into, it did not cancel debts that had been rightfully incurred.
Our socialist "liberation theology" mentality has persuaded us to cancel debts that may have rightfully been incurred as though the existence of a debt were prima facie evidence of an evil situation. Hence the implication often made that the very riches of the West are evidence of its corruption. Corrupt we indeed are in the West, but not because of our riches. We are corrupt because we have forgotten Whom to thank for our riches.
A piece of land was to be sold for the value of the numbers of crops remaining in it. A plot of land sold at the beginning of the 50 year period would be sold for more than one sold toward the end of the period.
"If the years are many, you shall increase the price, and if the years are few you shall diminish the price, for it is the number of the crops that he is selling to you." (Lev. 25:16)
The same principle would have applied to slaves. The price they commanded would diminish as the Year of Jubilee approached precisely so that the buyer would not be cheated out of the years of labor which he was purchasing in the slave.
But the issue before us today is not about the Year of Jubilee, which is not relevant, but about debt cancellation. The two should be kept clearly separate. The question before us is whether debt cancellation is workable and morally relevant.
My estimation is that it is probably not workable as presently discussed, that it is naive and sentimental, an attempt to create a moral bandwagon for a very good cause, but which is subject to all the problems of our contemporary secularized and (therefore) socialistic worldview.
A primary reason it is unworkable over the long run is that it will inhibit the very thing that developing countries need for their growth -- namely investment of capital. If an investor knows that every so often he will have to give up his investment to his debtors, he will not likely invest in the first place. One than has to look for donors, not investors.
That is not to say that the moral issue is not to be confronted. There
clearly is a deep moral issue of justice and the stewardship of God's creation.
But oppressive debt has no hope of being resolved unless some much
deeper issues are also successfully addressed -- such as the following eight:
1. TOP DOWN -- The debt-reduction proposal is a top-down proposal.
It is being suggested to a culture which has no comprehension of what the
Biblical notion of forgiveness might be, let alone a Year of Jubilee. And
it is being suggested to a secularized culture which is only vaguely
aware of the Biblical
framework for economic justice, and which is largely indifferent or hostile
to that framework. In other words, it is being based partly on sentimentality,
not hard thinking about the facts of the situation and what will really free
people from debt over the long run.
2. AIDS/HIV -- In a Lambeth press release article, it is said: "While United Nations figures show signs of hope for many developing countries -- increased life expectancy, improved literacy, and economic growth -- the burden of debt still drags down efforts to raise ever more of their citizens out of poverty."
The burden of debt is a burden indeed. But there has been no mention at Lambeth in the Jubilee context of the fact that the AIDS pandemic in Africa and Asia is literally wiping out decades of economic and educational growth (although the women's conference has addressed this issue). Average lifespan in some countries is being reduced from the 60's and 70's to under 40. That has an devastating effect on a nation's ability to sustain an economy.
It is probably not politically correct to mention the AIDS pandemic because of the cultural and sexual implications. But unless AIDS is addressed, unless there is a serious addressing of the fact that without a Biblical standard of sexual behavior, there is little hope of any substantial change in the situation. People will continue to die miserable deaths, including increasing numbers of children who are born to increasing numbers of HIV positive mothers. In South Africa, one of the hardest hit countries, the level of infection among pregnant women is well over 25%. That means that their babies will very likely, if not certainly, be HIV positive, get AIDS, and die.
AIDS in not a "homosexual disease", it is a promiscuity disease. 3rd world cultures tend to be as a group very promiscuous sexually, as are homosexual people all over the world. In the west, as bad as it is, sexual behavior is still governed to a significant degree by a residue of Biblical morality. On the whole, at least in America, married couples do not commit adultery.
It needs to be known that the Biblical culture is the only culture which has (until the recent invasion of the pansexual/homosexual revolution) maintained a serious moral standard of fidelity in marriage and chastity outside of marriage -- the only sure way to prevent AIDS. So the practical truth is that either we adopt Biblical standards (and they will work only with a Biblical spirituality, i.e., Biblical worship), or we will continue to be ravaged by HIV/AIDS, and economic growth will be seriously compromised. Sexual behavior has far-reaching social and economic reverberations. It is not just a "private" matter.
[NOTE: since this article was written in 1998, it has come to my attention (now May 2003) that Uganda, the former realm of Idi Amin's terrorism, has become one of only two countries in the world to turn the AIDS crisis around. The government and Churches are working hand in glove to teach abstinence before marriage, and faithfulness during marriage. The results have been stunning.
The results are also a great embarrassment to the sex-revolutionists, who
are doing their best to throw dust in the air and preserve their sexual license
even in the face of death-dealing results. That is deceit and betrayal of
the people of the world. And one hardly hears a word of these successes in
Uganda from our pseudo-conservative clergy.]
3. MORAL INTEGRITY -- It is said that the west is trying to impose "unrealistic and harmful demands for economic reform on governments as a requirement for receiving loans." It is less often said what those "unrealistic" reforms might be. But it is common knowledge that government agencies and individuals commonly siphon off large amounts of incoming funds for their own private purposes, or for political purposes. Much of the money never reaches the poor. To suggest that reforms in delivery of monies is unfair or unrealistic is nonsense.
It is true that a society must operate "where it is at", and that it is unrealistic to expect a largely uneducated, or non-Biblical society to operate with a sophisticated representative government which is accountable to the people. (But then it seems to be getting more and more unrealistic for us to expect western governments to operate that way also -- including the United States.)
Be that as it may, it is never unrealistic or unfair to require integrity
and honesty of persons who are responsible for the goods of other people.
Lying is lying. Stealing is stealing. It does not become "OK" by being
perpetrated by an underdeveloped government. Truth and integrity must be
required in all transactions, no matter with whom.
4. SPIRITUAL FOUNDATIONS -- It is said that debt reduction will "release the productive potential of marginalized communities and help create a framework for more self-reliant growth."
America, it is often said, grew so rapidly because of its enormous physical riches. The truth is that America has no more natural physical riches than many other lands. The release of enormous productivity came in the main from America understanding to a substantial degree that we are as a people under the law and grace of God. God produced a self-governing people who were thereby set free to be enormously creative and productive.
When you do it God's way, even lean just a little in His direction, things begin to work like they were meant to work. Nowhere in the Year of Jubilee proposal is there any sense that this is a wonderful opportunity to tell the world about Jesus, about the law and grace of God, that we want to help them because our Lord commands us to do so.
Release from debt is a wonderful thing, as every Christian should know. But the release for "self-reliant growth" comes from God, not from debt-release. It is much more a spiritual problem than a monetary problem.
It is implied that the west is rich because it is evil, that it has hoarded the riches and bullied the rest of the world. There is, to be sure, evidence of such behavior. But there is no more evidence of such evil in the west than in any other part of the globe. The single biggest difference between western culture and most other cultures is that it has been steeped for nearly 2000 years in Biblical thought and practice in a manner reaching deeply into the institutions of culture. The Biblicized institutions of western culture set its citizens free to produce the enormous growth of riches. Riches, like power, attract power-hungry people, who soon steal them from God for their own rebellious and unlawful purposes. The west has been no exception to that corruption. But it is very much in error to say either that a mere sharing of riches will produce wealth elsewhere, or that the possession of those riches is itself a sign of evil-mindedness and a reason for guilt.
The riches were gotten largely because God blesses those who "do it His way". The development of "due process" (which is an application of the way of the cross) in academics, science, and civil law was a fundamental aspect of Biblical growth in the west, leading to a freedom in the marketplace and in industry. The growth of self-governing individuals who desire to obey the law of God, and therefore the civil law (the way of the cross in personal and public morality), is an absolute necessity to the development of a successful government of, by, and for the people, and to a successful economy.
So if the developing nations wish to attain enduring riches, they must
first undergird their quest for physical riches with a quest for spiritual
riches. The sharing of riches by the west without a sharing of spiritual
foundations will only produce cultures rooted in jealousy, greed, and resentment.
The west is charged with selfishness and hoarding, that we are corrupted
by our material goods. Are we then to share our corruption with the struggling
nations? Are we, the corrupted ones, to spread the corruption of riches everywhere?
We must put our material goods first under the sovereignty of God. Then
and then only will they be a blessing to us and to them. The Lordship of
Jesus over all things must be a fundamental part of sharing our wealth.
5. GOVERNMENT INTERFERENCE -- A major part of the debt problem has come about because rich governments have been making loans to poor governments, with the trust that the money loaned would go to the poor.
When an independent corporation loans money to other corporations, those put in debt are only those in the corporations. But when a government borrows money, all the people of the country are put in debt, whether they voted for it or not. They are taxed to pay off the debt.
So a large part of the problem comes from governments violating their
proper role as referees for the public market place, and instead becoming
operators in the market. It creates an intolerable conflict of interest,
because then there is no independent referee for the market. Corruption is
inevitable and unavoidable. It will sooner or later always happen. That is
our fallen nature at work. Socialism, in short, is an impossible
dream. The role of civil government is to referee the public arena, not
to be a player in it.
6. COERCIVE or VOLUNTARY? -- The issue of how to accomplish this debt-reduction is rarely addressed for the public. Everything civil government does is (as it were) at gun point. All laws are made to coerce some behavior.
Will a debt reduction be legally (i.e. coercively) enforced? Will it be voluntary? Whose pocket will not be repaid if the debt is canceled? Will those people put at risk get to vote on the matter? Government folks are notoriously willing to give away money belonging to other people -- and precious little of their own.
A fire had destroyed a section of Washington, D.C., in at some time in the pre-war-between-the-states 1800's. A proposal was made to spend government funds to help those who had lost their homes, which was supported with enthusiasm. A senator from Tennessee (Davey Crockett, I think) pointed out that they had no constitutional authority to spend public funds for such an enterprise, as much as the money was needed. He volunteered a week's pay out of his own pocket if the other senators would do likewise. There was not a single taker.
Will multi-national corporations, which appear to operate largely beyond the law of any nation, and who seem to want to be a law unto themselves, be brought under the law? Will the so-called "free trade", which often appears to be simply a way for them to avoid the law of any nation and allows some of them to operate as international brigands, be discipline to the law of God? Will honest Christian stewardship principles be expected of anyone at all, let alone international bullies?
Will the coercive force of civil government as well as the enormous economic power of corporations be brought under the sovereignty of God?
It is alleged that international cartels, in cahoots with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, have managed to get many of their bad debts paid off at American (and, no doubt, other) citizens' expense. We can be fairly sure that few of those at the higher levels, some of whom are no doubt most responsible for much of the mess, will contribute out of their personal pockets to fund the debt forgiveness. It will again be the people who will pay the price.
A free market is the best way of allocating resources in a society,
but a market controlled by monopoly corporations is no more free than one
controlled by a socialist government.
7. CONCLUSIONS -- The issue of long term results must be studied in the Lambeth context. A one-time forgiveness of debt will, I expect, accomplish very little, and will not change the hearts of many. Two things must be in place for a serious long-term result:
(1) a spiritual renewal of the population;
(2) a change in the economic and political system which will set people free to be creative on their own, free from government "help", and which will promote small businesses without massive governmental regulations. Small businesses are the backbone of any substantial economic reform. That is true of any society, but all the more so of a developing nation.
The call for a Year of Jubilee idea comes with heart-felt pain from bishops and others in the 3rd world. But it does not deal with the complexities of the issue, and is being supported by western bishops and others, perhaps, more because it distracts from the massive failure of our "Decade of Evangelism" than because it will effectively change the terrible situation of many 3rd world countries.
It may be partly true, as some say, that hungry stomachs do not have ears, so you cannot preach the Gospel to them. But that is, I think, a very misleading statement.
The main issue is not whether we feed the poor, but whether we are willing to be a part of their lives, to identify with one another in whatever our needs may be. That must, of course, involve feeding the hungry as possible. But the Good News of Jesus Christ is good news whether or not one is hungry. Some of the most startling salvation testimonies come from those who have found their faith in the terrible circumstances of hunger and imprisonment -- Solzenytzen being one of many. And stories of spiritual maturity come from the hungry in Africa also that put most of us well fed to shame.
In one account, a relief worker who had accompanied a plane with food
relief supplies was helping hand out the food to a line of persons. He
noticed one fellow who seemed to have a deep sense of peace. The
line grew shorter and the fellow got closer to the distribution table. But
then just a few persons away, they ran out. The fellow found a shady patch
and sat down. The worker went to talk with the fellow, who, it turned out
had walked many miles to find food. "How do you keep such a sense of peace
in such disappointment?" he asked. The man replied: "I did not know
that Jesus was all I needed until Jesus was all I had."
8. WHAT, THEN, TO DO? -- How do we keep government from harmful interference, and how do we enable small businesses? Government will be a perennial problem because concentrations of power always attract the power-hungry.
But fortunately there are those at Lambeth who have a constructive sense of direction. A project called the "Five Talents Project" (from the parable of the talents) proposes to create a non-government network of support for poor people who wish to start small businesses. Providing a revolving loan system for micro loans will go a long way toward "empowering" people (much like the growing movement in America to provide funds from independent, non-government sources for school vouchers). It will circulate "power" down to the lowest levels, with training and support programs to help the economic system become self-supporting. And it will be voluntary, not "at gun point".
The project is being promoted by leaders from the Institute on Religion and Democracy, Truro Episcopal Church in Truro, Va., the Anglican Consultative Council, and the Oxford Center for Mission Studies. Many other things will need to be done, but if they can get support without being drowned in bureaucracy, they offer one of the best means of making a true and lasting dent in the problem of debt among the poorest of the poor. The program also offers an excellent means of parish to parish, person to person, or group to group contact, combining resources with personal involvement and relationship.
It has been the absence of God in the public square, and government intervention (socialism, communism, fascism, etc.) in the market place, that has produced a major proportion of our problems. When God is absent, Big-Brother-Government always fills the moral and spiritual vacuum.
We in America must revisit our own history and rediscover the meaning of limited government -- a Godly democratic republic -- and how that set Americans free to a degree unknown elsewhere to be creative. We must tie together the Gospel of Jesus Christ and our personal salvation to the wider issues of social justice, political and economic and educational freedom. All freedom, not just personal salvation, comes in the end from our freedom in Jesus Christ, King of kings and Lord of lords. That is not just a spiritual fact, it is a political and an economic fact.
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