'... as We Forgive Our Debtors.' ; Can the True Spirit of Debt Forgiveness Be Fulfilled If Strings Are Attached by the Creditor? Religious Thinkers Weigh in, as G-8 Leaders Consider Relief for Debtor Nations

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, July 7, 2005 | Go to article overview

'... as We Forgive Our Debtors.' ; Can the True Spirit of Debt Forgiveness Be Fulfilled If Strings Are Attached by the Creditor? Religious Thinkers Weigh in, as G-8 Leaders Consider Relief for Debtor Nations


G. Jeffrey MacDonald Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


World leaders might reach into new territory when they tackle the plights of developing nations this week, but in aiming to relieve overburdened debtors, they'll find a well-worn path.

That's because some of the oldest codes in the Judeo-Christian tradition address how to treat those who have become hopelessly indebted. And although ancient guidelines might not mean much at the negotiating table as leaders of the Group of Eight (G-8) most industrialized nations takes up debt relief this week in Scotland, the issue resonates across the globe in no small part because tradition has made it a moral matter for millennia.

President Bush is proposing forgiveness with conditions. To have their debts erased, 20 nations would need to demonstrate "good government and sound economic policies," including in some cases privatization of services or expanded markets for American exports.

Religious scholars and advocates point to the ideas of Sabbath years and jubilee - regular intervals for giving people a fresh start, sometimes by waiving debts owed by those with no hope of repayment. Their interpretations differ, however, on the question of whether attaching conditions to such debt cancellation can be justified in the 21st century. Does it matter if certain conditions would help fulfill a religious vision for a just society? And what if the creditor tries to benefit from the debt-canceling arrangement?

The biblical tradition of forgiving financial debts traces its roots to Mosaic law, which Jews regard as Torah and Christians know as the Pentateuch, or first five books of the Old Testament. Here, amid codes for addressing theft, adultery, and other moral violations, rules stipulate what should happen when kin or dependents "fall into difficulty" or become "so impoverished that they sell themselves." (Leviticus 25:35, 39, New Revised Standard Version). Although scholars say such codes were seldom if ever enforced in ancient Israel, what emerges in scripture is a divine ideal for restoring justice and equilibrium to a world in which some have lost hope.

Some people of faith claim that the idea of creditors attaching conditions violates the spirit and ultimate goal of jubilee.

"All the power is in the hands of the creditors," says Marie Dennis, director of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, a Catholic missionary organization in Washington. Tying strings to debt relief maintains this imbalance, she says. "The righting of relationships [requires] that some people or a group of people don't make all the decisions in the world and leave the majority out of any meaningful participation."

But the counterpoint is that "when one is altruistic, one has a right to expect a certain quid pro quo," an even exchange, from the beneficiary, says Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, a network of about 1,000 Orthodox synagogues. …

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