The Rev. Stan Duncan, pastor of Abington (Mass.) UCC, and Bono, lead singer of Irish supergroup U2, probably don't have much in common. They have never met but, with millions of people around the world, they are responding to the same cause: picking up the mantle of Jubilee 2000, Jubilee USA in this country, which lobbies for debt cancellation in Third World countries.
But why call it "Jubilee"?
"The Jubilee is a concept from Leviticus," says Duncan, "whereby every 50 years there was a call for the release of slaves and the forgiveness of any debt that accrued over the 50 years prior."
Jubilee 2000 was an effort in the 1990s by more than 24 million individual petitioners and organizations worldwide to secure debt relief for more than 60 countries. Though U.S. Congress passed legislation, only four countries (Bolivia, Uganda, Mozambique and Tanzania) have been given debt relief.
How did these countries acquire this debt in the first place?
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, nations in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) increased the price of oil. Poorer countries could not pay their bills. American banks and international financial institutions lent trillions of dollars at below-market rates. The catch: the loans had to be paid back in dollars.
The profit from exported goods helped the countries significantly pay down the loans until 1982, when the United States was in a recession and no longer wanted products from those countries. Without profits from exports, the interest rate on the loans went from 5 percent to 27 percent nearly overnight, throwing already fragile economies into tailspins. Much-needed medical and education programs went unfunded.
Jubilee USA is comprised of individuals, groups and organizations committed to continuing the work of Jubilee 2000. The campaign has achieved $34 billion in debt cancellation, with another $700 million promised, from Congress. These monies have helped triple school enrollment in Uganda, fund vaccinations in Uganda and provide schooling for Honduran children.
"We have to call for a true Jubilee, in the Biblical sense, where full debt cancellation wipes away the power creditors exercise over millions of lives through debt," says Mara Vanderslice, Outreach Coordinator for Jubilee USA.
How can local churches help?
They can become "Jubilee congregations" that pray for justice and raise a dollar per member to support Jubilee USA. They can join Bono in a letter-writing campaign to elected officials to raise awareness about debt cancellation.
"The amazing thing is that debt relief is saving lives right now," says Vanderslice, "but there is still work to be done."