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A Jubilee Must Tackle Injustice Everywhere

Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu.

Tuesday 9th October 2012

The Archbishop of York today speaks in the Guardian about tackling injustice through the principle of 'jubilee'. His article follows...

Ten years ago I was part of a movement called Jubilee 2000 which changed the way people think about debt. It challenged a deeply held principle ‘that debts must always be repaid’ by showing how, in the case of many debts owed by impoverished countries, the consequences of repayments was creating nearly unimaginable suffering.


We were not calling for an act of charity, but a realisation that the economy we had created was structured in a way which was deeply unfair, exaggerating inequality and poverty in many parts of the world. We didn’t want donations, but a change in the rules of engagement. 


The change in values which the Jubilee movement effected, forced decision-makers to enact policies which went someway to redressing this injustice. $125 billion of debt was wiped out, government’s were able to start spending money in ways that benefited their people.


Yet only 10 years later we find ourselves at the centre of a debt crisis which suggests we were not as successful as we’d hoped. Certainly many were freed from ‘debt slavery’, but globally debt boomed, as it was used as a means of papering over the cracks of inequality created by our ever more global economy.


Today the poorest in our own societies are paying a very high price for a crisis created by reckless lending by banks and over-the-top borrowing. Little has been done to reform a system based on greed and speculation which is creating an ever greater chasm between the haves and the have-nots. 


Of course there is no question that poverty in Europe, even post-crisis, is nowhere near as widespread as it was, and is, in some African countries. However, people in the most indebted European countries like Greece are suffering rapidly rising poverty, homelessness, unemployment, violence and levels of inequality. For example, six months ago medical researchers reported the sharp rise in rates of suicide, murder and HIV/Aids in Greece as a result of the response to the economic crisis there.


Ten years ago, we convinced people of the need for a different approach to debt by bringing to mind a very ancient concept - a Jubilee. Recognising the damage which very large debts can do to society. The Hebrew scriptures speak of a Jubilee Year in which debts are cancelled. They also call for restitution to be made for the damage done by debts - freeing those sold into slavery to help repay debts, returning lands which had been handed to financers of debt. 


The importance of what might be called ‘debt justice’ to a wider notion of fairness is not limited to Christianity and Judaism. The Holy Qur’an condemns usury and requires zakah (almsgiving) as an essential duty to prevent wealth being accumulated only among the rich. Dharmic faiths from the Indian sub-continent teach similar principles, teaching that wealth is held not for oneself but on behalf of all human beings.


In very different times, all of these faiths have tried to create solutions and to repair the damage which deep inequality can cause to our communities and societies. We would do well to adapt their solutions to the present day.


What would a Jubilee look like today? First, as we said 10 years ago, when the payment of debts causes suffering, impoverishment and growing inequality, it cannot be right that they are paid. Debt is not simply the responsibility of the debtor, the burden of debt needs to be shared. The institutions that created the crisis cannot simply return to making profits with no care for the trail of devastation left behind by their decisions.


Second, although debts can be just, when taken out in a democratic fashion for productive investment, they are not the only way for governments to raise funds. Taxes can ensure companies and investors in a country pay a fair share for being there. It provides a means of redistributing wealth in a global economy which, it is almost universally acknowledged, is too unequal. Progressive taxation is an important element of solving the problems of economic injustice.


Finally, we must introduce rules to ensure financial markets work for people. Regulating flows of money will help move us away from an economy based on speculation and ‘making money from money’ and making what? It will help control the lenders and will remove the control which financial markets have over every aspect of our lives. Returning money to its original purpose: a means of exchanging goods.


Such a Jubilee, then, goes well beyond cancelling some debt. Unjust debt is at the heart of our global economy; at the heart of deep inequality between rich and poor, as well as between rich and poor countries. If a Jubilee is a call for justice, it must consist of far-reaching changes in the global economy to build a society based on justice, mutual support and community; an economic and political as well as spiritual renewal in our society.


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