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Ending Debt Slavery

Bob Edgar

Last week marked the 200th anniversary of the end of the transatlantic slave trade. Two centuries later, it is clear that one of history's most towering evils, the enslavement of human beings, came to an end only when citizens challenged their governments to understand slavery as incompatible with basic laws of God and humanity.

Around the world today, citizen campaigners are leading their governments to understand that deadly poverty and crippling debt, slaveries of our own age, similarly are incompatible with the basic laws of human dignity.

Despite the international community's new commitments to poverty eradication over the past seven years, particularly the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals , the basic inequities that fuel deadly poverty in our world are as pronounced as ever. Every day, 13 percent of the world's population goes to bed hungry and nearly 15,000 people die of AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.

The vision of the Jubilee that we find in scripture challenges us to address these realities as part our nation's commitment to building a more prosperous, stable world for all people.

In the Hebrew Scriptures we find a vision of life in community that is liberating and just, governed by Sabbath cycles: the Sabbath Day, the Sabbath Year and the Jubilee Year. These cycles are a powerful reminder of God's intent that all creatures enjoy fullness of life and partake in the abundance of God's world. Sabbath Year observance requires that every seven years debts are canceled and those enslaved because of debts are freed, restoring equal relations among community members and preventing a situation of ongoing exploitation.

2007 is the Sabbath year, seven years after the historic Jubilee 2000 campaign for debt relief. The Sabbath year is an opportunity to reflect on the achievements of the Jubilee campaign, and to address the unfinished agenda on international debt and global poverty. 2007 is also the halfway mark to the deadline to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, but we are far from halfway to achieving them.

We should celebrate progress: Thanks to debt relief commitments in 1999 and 2005, now more than 20 countries have seen 100% debt cancellation from the IMF, World Bank and African Development Bank. Resources freed up from debt relief are reaching those who need it in the form of greater access to health care, education and clean water.

But the abolitionists who challenged the inhumanity of the slave trade didn't want to merely abolish slavery for some; they abolished slavery for all. The Sabbath year is a time to act on the unfinished agenda for international debt, to abolish debt slavery once and for all:

  • Too many countries—including Liberia, Haiti and the Democratic Republic of Congo—are caught up in the harmful economic strings of the international financial institutions' debt relief program and face deadly delays to receiving desperately needed full cancellation.
  • Many other low-income countries—such as Lesotho, Kenya, Nigeria and Sri Lanka—have been excluded from debt relief by the IMF/World Bank. Chancellor of the Exchequer of the United Kingdom Gordon Brown has suggested that 67 low-income countries should be eligible to receive full debt cancellation to reach the Millennium Development Goals, assuming they meet good governance and other criteria.
  • Nations including Indonesia, South Africa and the Philippines clearly have unjust and odious debts which require further analysis and study.

Our faith and our convictions call us to support bold and prophetic measures which address this unfinished agenda to end the crisis of debt and deadly poverty. On March 25, 1807—almost exactly 200 years ago—the British Parliament voted to abolish the transatlantic slave trade. This year the Bush administration and the U.S. Congress have an opportunity to take a step towards the abolition of deadly poverty and crushing debt.

Reverend Dr. Bob Edgar is the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches.

© 2007

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