At the start of her Jubilee year, the Queen of England said to a meeting of faith leaders “the concept of a Jubilee is rooted in the Bible.”
She failed to mention that a biblical jubilee has nothing to do with celebrating a monarch’s reign, but was a time when debts were canceled, slaves freed, land returned and fields left fallow.
All these were linked. Those working on the land got in debt when harvests failed. To feed their families they borrowed from neighbors. As debts rose and families became unable to pay, they had to sell off their land.
Rent was charged on the sold land, creditors got richer, debtors poorer, and debts increased.
Now when struggling to pay, debtors sold off what was left to them – daughters, sons and themselves. Many ended up in slavery. Jubilee was a time to stop and put right these wrongs.
Europe is currently mired in a debt crisis. It is not the first.
During the 1970s, U.S., Japanese and British banks had gone on a lending binge to Latin American and African governments.
At the start of the 1980s, interest rates shot up at the same time as prices for these countries’ raw commodity exports crashed. The debt was no longer payable.
But it kept being paid. The International Monetary Fund made new loans, which simply paid off banks while recycling the debt. In return, countries were made to implement radical austerity and liberalization.
Large debt payments, low prices for commodity exports, and austerity proved a disastrous mix.
In both Latin America and Africa, economic “growth” was negative across the 1980s and 1990s. In Africa, the number of people living on less than $1.28 a day increased from 205 million in 1981 to 330 million by 1993. And the size of the debt increased, too.
The debt crises continued. In the mid-1990s, private borrowing led to a crisis in much of East Asia, followed by Russia, Brazil and Turkey.
At the turn of the century, Argentina defaulted on its debts, which had ruined the country. A worldwide boom through the 2000s came to an abrupt bust in 2008.
In countries such as Ireland, Spain and the U.K., private banks had lent and borrowed huge amounts among themselves and from foreign banks in countries such as Germany.
When this bubble burst, debts were pushed onto the public through bank bailouts, lower taxes and higher welfare payments.
In Greece, the government had borrowed from German, French and British banks and kept these amounts hidden with the help of Goldman Sachs.
Today, the people of Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain face a similar crisis to Africans and Latin Americans in the 1980s and 1990s.
Bailout loans are paying off banks, with debts coming to be owed to other governments through the European Union and IMF.
Austerity and debt payments are leading to increases in poverty and unemployment. And the debt is just getting bigger.
In response to the Third World debt crisis, the global Jubilee movement was born, calling for cancellation of debts.
While the envisaged jubilee never happened, 34 countries, primarily in Africa, have had $130 billion of debt canceled over the last decade, finally freeing them from the 1970s debt burden.
Debt payments have fallen for the governments that received debt relief. Social spending has increased, particularly on health and education.
However, some countries that did not qualify for cancellation because they are “too rich,” such as the Philippines, El Salvador and Jamaica, still spend a quarter of government revenue on foreign debt payments.
Our current economic system puts too much value on all debts being paid no matter the cost in lives and livelihoods. Debts need to be canceled when they are out of control, whether in Greece or Ireland, the Philippines or El Salvador.
But we also need to bring an end to the cycle of debt crises. This has been done in the past.
From 1945 to the mid-1970s, a global system of regulating loans and debts across the world existed.
Recent research for the Bank of England shows that in this post-war period, loans between countries were less than half the level they have been for the last 30 years. And in the post-war lower-debt world, financial and debt crises were 50 to 95 percent less likely.
Just as with the call for Third World debt cancellation, we need a moral voice calling for our financial system to be brought back under control.
The Occupy Movement is one such voice, highlighting the huge inequality that helped cause the financial crisis and which is getting worse.
Jesus declared “The year of the Lord’s favor” – widely understood as the year of jubilee.
One of his central messages to his followers was to “release us from debt, as we release our debtors.”
But as well as endorsing jubilee he goes beyond it, telling those who have wealth to lend without expecting a return, to stop making debt a moral obligation that has to be fulfilled.
At Jubilee Debt Campaign, we are asking individuals and faith groups to call for a real jubilee – cancellation of the unjust debts of the most indebted nations, promoting just and progressive taxation, and controlling lending.
Across the world, people continue to suffer in the fifth year of a global economic crisis caused by too much debt.
For all those living under this burden, a real jubilee would be a true time of celebration.
Tim Jones is policy officer at Jubilee Debt Campaign and is a member of a Baptist church. This column first appeared at The Baptist Times.