Wednesday, July 1, 1998

Addressing International Debt

Addressing International Debt

How to Proclaim the Jubilee

By Stephen F. Noll

The report to Lambeth titled "Called to Full Humanity," along with the "Jubilee 2000 movement, asks that the Anglican Communion to endorse cancellation of international debt as a moral imperative.

As one who teaches biblical theology, I have been curious about the notion of declaring the year 2000 a "Jubilee," in which all Third World debt will be forgiven. The biblical Jubilee is a provision of the Old Testament Law by which families recover their landed "inheritance" every fifty years (Leviticus 25). It was practiced only sporadically in Israel, and Jesus interpreted it as a sign of his coming ministry of release from the captivity of sin and death (Luke 4:18-21). The Christian Church, sabbatarian groups included, has never tried to observe the Jubilee as an economic doctrine.

So do those promoting Jubilee 2000 really believe that periodic debt remission is mandated by Scripture? It seems fair to say that, since they frequently reject other parts of the Mosaic Law (e.g., its sexual code), they do not take the Jubilee literally but have adopted it as a "bumper sticker" for an economic policy they consider desirable. Well, one may ask, what’s wrong with that so long as it benefits the needy in the Third World?

Two things are wrong with it. First, since Jubilee 2000 is directed at secular institutions, it lets the Church off the hook from its own moral imperative to give to the poor. God’s design for Israel is primarily relevant to the ordering of the Church as the New Covenant people, not the state or international community. It is the Church, primarily, that is called to celebrate the Jubilee in some way. How might we do this? Here are two applications of the Jubilee idea.

Anglicans might commit themselves to end the Decade of Evangelism with energy and joy, calling people of all nations to receive the world’s Savior on the 2000th anniversary of his birth with the joy that the first shepherds and Magi greeted him.

Every Episcopal congregation, the national church, and every Episcopalian might tithe their endowments/savings (or at least a tithe of a tithe) to an economic opportunity program, administered by Third World Anglican leaders, such as the Five Talents Project.

Do these proposals sound radical? All of them are doable if we are convinced that God is calling us to implement them. What I object to in the Jubilee 2000 idea, above all, is the "cheap grace" involved in calling banks and governments to do something we as the church are not willing to do ourselves.

There is a second thing wrong with the Jubilee proposal. By making total debt forgiveness a "moral imperative," Jubilee 2000 discounts those prudential decisions by people who actually exercise the responsibility of stewardship for their investors’ money. Creditors know how to "make friends with unrighteous mammon" (Luke 16:9). If we have learned anything in the last 25 years, it is that no-strings-attached welfare does not work at home or abroad. Programs like the HIPC (Highly Impoverished Poor Countries) Initiative of the World Bank combine market incentives with debt forgiveness. Why should we disparage their work by lofty proclamations that we cannot possibly carry out?

The call to obedience as a church and the exercise of influence on governments need not be utterly distinct. We Episcopalians have good reason to put pressure on our government to restructure African debt. This year the U.S. has promised debt relief to Indonesia and is about to do the same with Russia - out of fear of a worldwide economic collapse. Just as Christians in the United States have focused Congress’s attention on persecuted brothers and sisters, so we can be advocates for those who are overlooked simply because their stagnant economies do not affect the Dow Jones average.

But we can do this credibly only if we sacrifice something ourselves. One clergy friend sighed and said to me, "How will I ever get my congregation to buy that?" To which I replied, "I don’t know. Why don’t you try preaching about Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler?" (Luke 18:18-25). Our African brothers and sisters have gladly taken the Gospel to their neighbors even in the midst of great economic need. The year 2000 just might be a real Jubilee if we will take up our yoke with the same abandon and jubilation. Now that’s real biblical theology.

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The Five Talents Project

The Five Talents project takes its name from our Lord’s Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-29), in which one steward was commended for doubling his initial investment of five talents. The project is a "micro-enterprise" plan that would provide small loans (initially $100) to start up small businesses. Similar plans like this have been immensely successful in developing nations. The Five Talents proposal was developed by Robert Miclean of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (1521 16th St., Washington, DC 20036), which is an AAC affiliate. See EpiscopalAction, IRD’s June 1998 newsletter for more details.


This editorial was written for July 1998 Encompass, the newsletter of the American Anglican Council.

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