Vicars in Chains

Ever since Seattle erupted into a free-trade fighting zone during the World Trade Organization’s 1999 meeting, the very scheduling of a global economic gathering has become a provocation to activists worldwide. What happened suddenly in Seattle has been transformed into rituals of resistance like that enacted in Quebec City at the 34-nation Summit of the Americas in April. Whether these rites have helped make the global economy more sacred or less profane is disputable. They have at least demonstrated that the party of globalization has a potent opposition, or perhaps that economic globalization itself has matured into a two-party system.

The opposition party is scattered and wide. You could call it a big church, and indeed quite probably the most phenomenal piece of it is a largely faith-driven movement of protestors with their own rituals. They probably wouldn’t whack down a chain-link fence like the one erected to keep out demonstrators in Quebec City, but they love putting on chains to symbolize the bondage of poor nations. They don’t toss Molotov cocktails, as black-masked anarchists did in Seattle two years ago, but they did burn a laptop computer outside a rich-nation summit in Okinawa last summer.


These are debt campaigners, who collected the world’s largest petition—signed by over 24 million supporters of debt cancellation for the most desperately poor countries. More than that, they dragged rich nations into pledging more international debt relief than anyone could have imagined possible a few years ago. And they did so while intoning obscure verses from the Hebrew Scriptures calling for debt forgiveness every “seven times seven” years—among other social deeds aimed at restoring economic equilibrium.

Now, the debt-relief forces, having been animated by the biblical tradition of the jubilee year, are arrayed for a new engagement, possibly on the wider stage of global finance and trade. But there’s also the possibility that the Cinderella coach that drove this improbable millennial band really turned into a global pumpkin at the ring of midnight, Dec. 31, 2000.

Seattle 1999 has defined the broader, so-called “anti-globalization” movement. For debt crusaders, the myth of mass origins is Birmingham, England, 1998. That is where 70,000 of them formed a human chain to hoist external debt onto the international agenda during the summer meeting of the Group of Seven industrialized nations.

“They were mainstream politically, and in fact, many were fairly conservative. And that really struck the decision-makers who were present there,” recalls Adrian Lovett, who directs a new campaign called Drop the Debt, based in London: ground zero of jubilee mobilization. “These were not Seattle-style young people, though we certainly had a lot of young people. By and large, they were the churchgoing public of the middle classes. And that of course is a very powerful constituency when it’s mobilized.”

The rituals were striking and somewhat curious even to Lovett, who came to the Jubilee 2000 movement from political rather than religious precincts, as a 20-something former Labor Party legislative aide and before that, a disc jockey. (He describes himself as a baptized Catholic who is by no means a regular churchgoer.) In that year before Birmingham, Lovett had trekked to one jubilee debt event after another in villages around England. “And it always seemed to involve chaining up the local vicar,” he said with some amused detachment earlier this spring in London, where we met up at The Wesley Café at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster.

There were many sorts of shackles, real and paper-made, to symbolize debt bondage. Speaking at the closing celebration of Jubilee 2000 in London’s Trafalgar Square late last year, Lovett felt moved to note that in the course of the campaign, he had “seen more vicars in chains than is probably healthy.” One irony of the biblically motored jubilee bandwagon is that it took off and caught on sensationally in the United Kingdom, which has been largely de-Christianized over the past few decades.

While Quebec City was this year’s Mecca of global resistance, for debt relievers it will be Genoa, Italy. That is where fleets of them are expected to come and call for an ultimate round of sweeping debt cancellation when the G-8 meets there on July 20-23, with provisional member Russia added to the rich seven. (Last year in Okinawa, jubilee activists were furious when the G-8 deemed the “digital divide” a more respectable item of deliberation than poor-nation debt. So in a heretical gesture against the digerati, they torched a laptop.)

Campaigners want the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, basically controlled by the seven, to wipe clean the debt slate of the worst-off countries. G-8 leaders say they and their institutions have forgiven quite enough debt—up to one-half of the amount owed to them by 22 hard-pressed countries. Actually, the more realistic figure is a bit under one-third, which represents the effective cut in debt-service payments. At any rate, “It’s just not enough, just not commensurate with the scale of human suffering in those countries,” insists Henry Northover, a policy analyst with the Catholic relief agency CAFOD, headquartered in London’s downcast neighborhood of Brixton.

He and other Genoa-bound campaigners have a point. Even after those 22 countries get all the debt relief coming to them under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative, on average they will still put out more in debt payments than they spend on health care or education. Meanwhile, countries will face in return stricter financial “conditionalities” of the kind embedded in International Monetary Fund-designed Structural Adjustment Programs, which often include—among other adjustments—charging citizens prohibitive “user fees” for primary schooling or basic health care. Many developing-world campaigners are livid to the point of smelling a debt-relief hoax.

How much steam the jubilee debt-relief engine has left in it is hard to judge. It is, after all, a millennial movement, and a successful one at that. By the end of last year, it had rightly come to be regarded as the world’s most successful single-issue campaign since the struggle that toppled the apartheid system of racial subjugation in South Africa. Scarcely anyone thinks that serious relief would have flowed back to many impoverished countries without Jubilee 2000. If the debt campaign’s Cinderella coach didn’t shrink into a pumpkin at year’s end, it is at least fair to say the millennial theme is a quickly “diminishing asset”—as readily acknowledged by Lovett, whose organization, Drop the Debt, is designed as a short-life successor to the Jubilee 2000 organization.

On that, he would get no argument from the I.M.F. or World Bank. Officials of the latter especially have saluted the “historic contribution” of Jubilee 2000 to combating world misery, as a policy aide, Anthony Gaeta, allowed by telephone from Washington. “Historic,” though, is the shrewdly operative word in that praise. Essentially, the World Bank is calling on jubilee battalions to declare victory and go home, or move onto something else, like child poverty. Gaeta and other officials argue that the third world debt is now sustainable, meaning it no longer hinders development and social well-being. Of course, they said that in the mid-1990’s, when the debt burden was clearly catastrophic. Still, the load has been lightened, and admittedly there is much else to do, like beating back the internal demons of corruption and strife in many a debt-stricken land.

Beyond Genoa, what comes of jubilee intensity in a post-jubilee time? Does it follow the letter of Leviticus, the prime biblical text calling for absolute debt forgiveness (along with the freeing of slaves and return of land lost to indebtedness)? Or is that a case of financial fundamentalism, as some intimate? Do the millennial forces regroup on the broader battlefield of globalization? How?

Much of this is still to be revealed. At the New Economics Foundation, a London think tank, Ann Pettifor is mustering a new initiative called Jubilee Plus, another official successor to Jubilee 2000, which she directed. Jubilee Plus is fixing to highlight the root causes of the debt crisis—which in Pettifor’s understanding are the bitterly unjust structures of international finance that are stacked in favor of creditors, investors and shareholders. She wants to stretch the jubilee year analysis, of a piece with the Sabbath and every-seven-year sabbatical traditions, in that broad direction. In ancient Israel, the exhortations included letting land rest and sharing whatever it yielded naturally. To Pettifor’s mind, it is a notion of discipline that defies the near anarchy of globe-trotting finance.

Other jubilee stalwarts are pushing down other trails. In Washington, at the U.S. Catholic Conference and Bread for the World (an ecumenical Christian anti-hunger lobby), this year’s most favored poor-nation issue is American foreign aid, not debt. That is chiefly because the United States ranks dead last among rich countries in its dispersal of international development assistance. Yet that choice also betrays doubt about whether 100 percent debt cancellation—the Drop the Debt agenda—is morally imperative. In Britain, relief agencies, including CAFOD, are propelling that agenda but also looking beyond Genoa to complex questions such as free and fair trade. This appears to be the dual direction of the Vatican, where Pope John Paul II clearly feels the debt crusade is not over.

There are ready explanations of why the jubilee contingent has made strides where others have made only noise. All have something to do with being issue-focused, non-ideological and faith-based. These virtues led to a preposterous coalition that included at several turns third world militants and conservative Republican congressmen, while sparing us the woollier critiques of global capitalism. Jesse Helms and others could see the face of debt, the Africans and Latin Americans aided by agencies like CAFOD and Catholic Relief Services, the thousands of children who die every day because of notoriously preventable illnesses.

After a wholly unexpected debt-relief triumph in Congress last fall, David Bryden of Jubilee 2000 USA remarked on one lesson to be learned from the cause: that “we should not be so cynical that we no longer rely on moral arguments to win support from politicians.” Cast further, debt-relief disciples have not been afraid to ride this once-arcane policy debate, this affair of international finance, onto some stretch of transcendental terrain, some ground of ultimate concern. It is hard to think of a squishier sentiment from any Realpolitik perspective, yet it is equally hard to picture a spunkier start for a far-reaching, faith-rooted movement of global engagement, if that is to come.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

This year’s W.Y.D takes place less than three months after the conclusion of the Synod for Young People that was held in the Vatican last October.
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 21, 2019
On Jan. 18, a teenager wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat, center left, stands in front of an elderly Native American singing and playing a drum in Washington. (Survival Media Agency via AP)

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- An exchange between Catholic high school students and a Native American tribal leader in Washington Jan.

Like most public writers, I was used to getting notes that were crude, crazy or even mildly threatening. Normally, I would say a quick prayer for these obviously troubled people and get on with my day. This time it felt different, precisely because the author wasn’t insulting or obviously deranged.
Rachel LuJanuary 21, 2019
In cities across the country, local activists marched in support of a progressive agenda centered on economic justice, racial justice and immigrant rights.
Brandon SanchezJanuary 20, 2019