Monday, June 18, 2007,9:51 AM
Jubilee USA Grassroots Conference

Sorry for the silence here the last couple of days, I was at the Jubilee USA Grassroots Conference over the weekend. It was an exhausting weekend and I feel overwhelmed with information. At the same time, it was revitalizing and inspirational to be surrounded by so many people who have truly committed their lives to make this world a better place for everyone.

Jubilee USA exists to promote economic justice for the world, mostly through Debt Relief. They of course realize that to improve conditions worldwide debt relief is just one element that needs to happens, so they promote and partner with organizations that work on all eight of the Millennium Development Goals. But Jubilee's main focus is to end so-called third world debt. Most Americans are unaware of the need for debt relief at all. They hear the term "debt" and think of their maxed out credit cards. But Debt Relief refers to countries that have incurred millions of dollars in debt fron loans from other countries, the IMF, and the World Bank. The problem is that many of these loans were irresponsibly given, acquired (and squandered) illegally by dictators, or are remains of colonialism and the Cold War. These are debts that the people of these countries didn't ask for or approve (like South Africans having to pay back the loans that the Apartheid government used to fight anti-apartheid efforts) and now these countries are having to use up to 80% of their national budget to repay these debts and their insane interest rates. To come up with that money the countries have cut public education, health services, and stopped hiring doctors, nurses, and teachers. Most aid the country receives from Western countries just goes straight back to West in debt repayment. To put numbers to it - Nigeria has borrowed $5 billion, to date it has paid $16 billion and still owes $32 billion. There are a number of stories and reasons why these debts are wrong, but the effect is that they are keeping the poorest countries in this world in cycles of extreme poverty.

The Jubilee movement calls for a cancellation of these debts. They invoke the Biblical principle of Jubilee to forgive debts and break the chains of injustice. Why? Because the people of these countries don't owe and they shouldn't pay. Besides the fact that the principles on these debts have been paid already, these weren't their debts in the first place. A good way to help understand this is to imagine that someone stole your credit card, charged $10 billion in weapons on it and did all that before you were born. But for some reason you have to pay it all back, resulting in your children not being able to attend school, you not having clean water, and there not being health services available to you. To put a selfish spin on why cancel debts, if these countries don't have debt canceled the environmental degradation and political instability (potential for terrorism) increases. But most of all it should be a moral choice for all people of faith or conscious who claim to care for the least of these to do whatever we can to give all people a fighting chance at life and the basic rights they deserve.

So I got to spend the weekend hearing stories about debt relief, economic justice, and human rights. I knew most of the general ideas before, but got to learn the facts and the stories this weekend. I heard of the extreme injustices being perpetrated (Vulture Funds), attempts to stand up to injustice, and stories of hope from countries whose debt has already been cancelled. I met activists from around the world - a political cartoonist from Kenya, lobbyists from DC, a human rights watch journalist in exile from Columbia. We even heard from the Ecuadorian Finance Minister who came to report in how her country is choosing to stop making payments on their onerous debt so they can spend money on basic human services. As a country they are standing up to the World Bank and the IMF (and their puppetmasters the G8). They face serious legal, economic, and political (hopefully not military) dangers in doing so, but they choose to no longer be oppressed by the rich west.

I could share any number of stories - of both horror and hope. At this point, I realize the need more than ever to get the word out about these issues. It is the government that can effect change by canceling the debts (or pressuring the IMF and World Bank to do so). But it will take people telling their elected representative (they do represent us you know) to support morality and debt relief. As I posted last week a bipartisan bill was just introduced to Congress called the Jubilee Act. It's up to us to tell our Congresspeople to support it. Simple, easy, but something that most people (especially Christians) have an allergic reaction to (treating the government like the empire it pretends to be instead of the representative democracy it is).

I'm sure that I will be mentioning other aspects of this event on this blog in the future. I just want to conclude by mentioning something I realized during the conference. Exactly five years ago I was at another conference at Moody Bible Institute just a few blocks from the Loyola building I was at this weekend. Both events were "Christian" events (although I don't think Jews, Muslims and Atheists would have been welcomed at the Moody one). But what sticks in my memory from the Moody event is the insane amount of time given to discussing exactly what type of clothing the women at the conference were allowed to wear - what sort of swimsuit, the exact width tank top straps had to be, and whether or not it was okay to wear jeans in church). When such an "adventures in missing the point" defines who we are as Christians instead of seeking justice and proclaiming good news to the poor I rejoice to no longer be immersed in that sort of christian experience. For although I spent this past weekend hearing depressing and horrific stories of oppression and injustice, I came away more full of hope in God and the potential of a better world than I do from "ministry" conferences where the focus remains on stuff we should have gotten over a long time ago (accepting women's rights for example). I got to be (for once) in an environment where gender equality was assumed and not debated and racial and ethnic diversity was the norm. It was encouraging to see that such things actually do exist (as opposed to just being endlessly discussed and debated). I am very thankful to have had this opportunity this weekend and look forward to continuing to meet with the Chicago Jubilee group to build on the grassroots campaign for justice, mercy, and love.

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