If a biblically inspired movement has its way, the year 2000 will usher in a fresh start for the worlds poor through massive debt relief.
Jubilee 2000 is creating the largest petition the world has ever seen, to be presented to the 1999 G-7 conference in Germany. It urges that the debts of the worlds poorest nations be canceled by 2000 to give hope to impoverished people around the world.
Jubilee 2000 has been organized largely by Christians and church organizations inspired by the biblical tradition of debt relief and release for slaves every 50 years. Those themes resonate with the moral outrage aroused by debt-related suffering. Life for millions of Third World people is becoming harsher as governments divert money from education, health care, and other needs to debt payments.
Tanzania, for example, spends four times as much on debt servicing as it does on health and education combined. Debt payments are expected to devour one-third of Mozambiques government spending for 1997.
"What has happened to our Christian conscience?" asks John Patrick Ngoyi, a Catholic priest in Nigeria active in the campaign. "When those dollars went out in loans, they were clean. Now they are tainted with sweat and blood. Who is paying? The woman who cant get medicine. The girl who cant go to school.
"This is the time to forgive each other, to realize that human selfishness might have led us too far from God. Is the God of Jesus Christ only a God of rituals or a God of life?" Adds Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, "It is a chance for renewal for everybody."
RENEWALOF CREATION and of the justice thrust of the gospelis at the heart of the campaign. The goal is to restore "right relationship" with the Earth and each other, says Doug Hunt, interim coordinator of the U.S. Jubilee campaign. Theological reflection is woven into the heart of Jubilee 2000, unlike other social justice campaigns where an initial faith element later gives way to political organizing.
Although the term "jubilee" only occurs a few times in the Bible, its themes of forgiveness of debt and slavery, and renewal of the land, run through the biblical story, notes Sylvia Keesmaat, a biblical scholar and member of the Canadian Jubilee partner Citizens for Public Justice. "And just as in biblical times, jubilee stands in radical judgment over idolatry, condemning every economic system that results in slavery and indebtedness."
"Theology is the ground of the work," adds John Mihevc of the Inter-Church Coalition on Africa and a leading Canadian organizer. "Jubilee is a way to understand the church in the world in a creative way."
Although it originated in northern nations, the Jubilee 2000 Coalition is rapidly gaining Third World support. So far 40 countries are involved, with more being steadily added.
U.S. churches and organizations backing the campaign include Bread for the World; Friends of the Earth; Methodist, Mennonite and Presbyterian Church bodies; Catholic religious orders; and Sojourners. Major Canadian churches are mobilizing their support, setting the stage for educational work and petition drives in thousands of local churches.
British activists will turn up the heat in May by forming a vast human chain around a G-7 meeting in Birmingham, England, under the theme "Make a Chain, Break the Chains of Debt." Meanwhile, activists in many countries are gathering signatures and generating letters to politicians and the International Monetary Fund urging their support for debt relief.
The task ahead may seem daunting, given the enormity of the problem. But as Doug Hunt notes, "As religious people, we know that God makes a way out of no way."
MURRAY MacADAM is a Toronto free-lance writer specializing in global issues and community economic development.