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Working for justice...debt

Since the beginning of October, we’ve been looking at issues of social justice, in response to national and international campaigns and days of awareness. This week is being marked as Debt Week by the Jubilee Debt Campaign, and so that was our focus on Sunday morning.

In case you’ve not heard of it or it’s slipped off your radar, the Jubilee Debt Campaign started in the nineties as Jubilee 2000, and called for the cancellation of third world debt by the year 2000. The church I grew up in was very involved in the campaign, and I remember being at the big demonstration Jubilee 2000 organised in Birmingham when the city hosted the G8 in 1998. Having been part of the campaign twenty years ago, it makes me so sad that it is still necessary now, but not only is third world debt on the increase again, there is also a growing debt crisis in our own country. The really frustrating thing is that the campaign did see success. Over $100 billion of debt was cancelled for 35 of the poorest countries in the world, and in those countries, the proportion of children in education rose from 6 in 10 in 2000 to 8 in 10 in 2010. That should have been enough to demonstrate how vital the cnacellation of debt is, but sadly there is still a lot of resistance, and I think there are two main reasons for that. First, there is a lot of profit to made out of debt. And second, there is a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding about debt.

And so part of what we did on Sunday morning was learn a little more about the reality of debt, focusing on what the Jubilee Debt Campaign are calling the Great British Debt Trap. We held a short quiz prepared for Debt Week, in which we learnt that we are experiencing the longest period of wage stagnation since the Napoleonic Wars, there is no limit on the interest or fees charged on credit cards or doorstep lending, 55% of people on zero hours contracts are struggling to pay bills because they do not have enough hours, UK households currently owe £239 billion in unsecured debt (so that's not including mortgages) and are paying £21 billion in interest, and children in households with debt arrears are five times more likely to have low wellbeing than children in households that are debt free. They are quite shocking facts, and it really does need to be emphasised that mny of those with problem debts are borrowing to pay bills and put food on the table. This is not about poor budgeting or wrong priorities, this is about families not having enough money to live on.

We also heard from Luke 4:14-21. This is the first of those used in a series of Bible studies produced by the Jubilee Debt Campaign, and it seems an obvious place for them to start, because many scholars have suggested that the “year of the Lord’s favour” refers to the year of jubilee, and it was the tradition of the jubilee year that gave the campaign its name. A jubilee year in Jewish scripture and tradition was a time when fields were left fallow, debts were cancelled, slaves were set free, and land was returned to its owners. Jubilees were supposed to happen in cycles of every 7 or 49 years to ensure that inequalities did not persist over time.

Of course Israel was an occupied land at the time of Jesus, and so it was no longer in the people’s power to practice the year of jubilee as it had been decreed, but how they needed it! Many were suffering under the weight of debt, as rural farmers had been forced to mortgage their land in order to pay taxes to King Hero and the Romans. Once in debt, large proportions of what they grew had to be given over to make more tax and debt payments, and if harvests were poor or failed, the rural farmers were in even greater trouble. They might lose their land, or have to sell themselves and their families into slavery, and some may have ended up in the debtors’ prison. These debts had been forced on people by an unjust system, and they needed God’s justice to set things right.

I want to take a moment to appreciate how extraordinary and grace filled the idea of jubilee was. As a system it’s not perfect - surely it would be better to have sufficient protections against debt and slavery in the first place - but it does recognise that people make mistakes and things go wrong that are outside of their control, and it provides a way of hitting the reset button. I can’t think of anything like it in any of our current systems. Farmers no longer rely on leaving fields fallow, instead exhausting the soil and then artificially revitalising it with fertiliser so that the fields are constantly producing. In the same way, society traps people into cycles of debt and wage slavery, with systems of support being so badly eroded that they are crumbling under the pressure. How we need a year of jubilee now!

And that is why it really matters that the year of jubilee is part of what has often been called Jesus’ manifesto, his vision of all that is fulfilled in him. This has always been an important passage for me. The verses from Isaiah which Jesus is quoting were read over me when I came out of the water at my baptism, and it was in those words that I started to hear a call to ministry. It also followed me to college, where it fromed part of our liturgy of afternoon prayer. But more importantly, it was in recognising what Jesus did with those words that I started to grasp something which I now see as central to his message.

The passage he reads from Isaiah goes on to speak of “the day of God’s vengeance” and the rebuilding of ancient ruins, and yet Jesus stops short of retribution and restoration. Perhaps this is comparable with his use of Psalm 22 on the cross, where a part seems intended to evoke the whole, but there seems to be no reason why Jesus couldn’t have read on for a few more verses, and so this stopping short feels very deliberate. I’m sure that retribution and restoration were very much on the mind of an oppressed nation, and I’m sure that they had become entirely bound up with the vision of jubilee. For us too, I think there can be a tendency to think that change must come with comeuppance, and a desire to see the rich and powerful fall. And yet it seems to me that Jesus is saying that the year of jubilee is coming, but not as expected. There will be release and freedom and healing, but they will not come with vengeance and the old ways will not be rebuilt, because that release and freedom and healing will be for all, the oppressors as well as the oppressed. There is a challenge here to live more gently and generously and gracefully and gratefully, and gentleness and generosity and grace and gratefulness must characterise the jubilee we seek to bring about.

So what might jubilee look like for us here and now? In order to start to answer that we need to know more of what the situation looks like here and now. We started to see some of the picture in the answers to the quiz, but these are the headlines provided by the Jubilee Debt Campaign. The household debt trap is hurting millions of families in the UK. An estimated 7.6 million people now owe at least a third of their entire annual incomes, and nearly 9 million people are ‘severely indebted’, spending more than a quarter of their incomes on debt repayments. The Citizens Advice Bureau says that the main reason people get into problem debts is a change of circumstance, often caused by factors outside of a person’s control, such as redundancy or illness. Unjust debt is hurting the poorest families hardest. The poorest households who already face severe hardship are the most likely to need to borrow to make ends meet, and yet are often also forced to pay the most in interest rates and costs to borrow money. Just under half (44%) of all households spending more than a quarter of their income on debt repayments have incomes of less than £15,000 per year. The debt trap is causing distress and damaging families and communities. When personal debts get too high they cause poverty, mental health problems, family breakdown, homelessness, and threaten community cohesion and the stability of the economy. A quarter of people admitted to hospital each year with mental illness face financial problems, while we have already heard that children in households with debt arrears are five times more likely to have low wellbeing than those with no difficulties with debt.

And debt is just one part of a bigger picture of hardship and suffering, which is only getting worse. A study published last month revealed that 14 million people including 4.5 million children are living in poverty. 12% of the total UK population are living in persistent poverty, which means they have spent most or all of the last four years below the breadline. Almost 60% of those living in poverty are in work, but with low wages and limited hours. Significant flaws in the rollout of universal credit mean that 40% of recipients are experiencing financial hardship, while at the same time food bank use is soaring, although the government fails to see a connection. Perhaps unsurprisingly there is a degree of intersectionality at work, for example as people with disabilities are disproportionately likely to be in poverty. Those who find themselves in debt often find themselves blamed and stigmatised too, but Citizens Advice Bureau estimates that only 10% of problem debts are the result of poor budgeting. Instead there are systemic problems lying behind this picture of debt and poverty. Unfair lending practices, falling incomes set against the increased cost of living, failures in the benefits systems, grossly unequal distribution of wealth...I’m sure I could go on.

So what can we do? In apparently speaking of the year of jubilee, Jesus endorsed Old Testament critiques of debt being used as a way to increase poverty and inequality, and spoke of good news as an end to a system which traps people into debt. We must do the same, pushing for fairer laws and greater protections. Economics is not my area of expertise, and so here I defer again to the Jubilee Debt Campaign, and their recommendations. They suggests that capping the cost of loans would be a first step, but the wider economic system needs to be challenged as well. People in the UK may not be formally enslaved, and few will have to hand over land, but being trapped in low paying and insecure jobs is a form of enslavement. Higher wages, more secure work and a more generous welfare system are all part of the solution to prevent the system from plunging people into unjust debt. These are the things we need to be demanding. If this sounds political - good! It is sometimes said that the church should stay out of politics and stick to religion, but I believe that the church should be deeply political because it should be thoroughly engaged with society. When Jesus said “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”, he wasn’t advocating for a separation of church and state in the way we would think of it now. He was principally trying to avoid the trap the Pharisees had laid for him, but he was also declaring that Caesar doesn’t get everything, and that was a profoundly political statement. Giving to God what is God’s means devoting our hearts and minds and bodies and souls to loving him and bringing about his kingdom. Giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s means we don’t do that by running off to the desert our tearing the whole thing down with violence but by staying within the system as engaged members of society and changing things from within. We need to be holding our politicians to account and telling them what really matters to us. If you want to think more about the the church and politics, I can recommend looking up Christians in Politics, a cross-party movement which encourages Christians to get more involved, wherever they are on the political spectrum.

But it’s not just politics, because it’s not just about the big stuff. I saw a short video online yesterday, talking about how the University of Winchester had for several years offered a 25p discount for anybody bringing a reusable cup, without seeing any significant difference to the number of disposable cups they were using. Then they lowered the price of drinks and added a 25p surcharge for anyone not bringing a reusable cup, and suddenly they are using fewer disposable cups. The price of the drinks had not actually changed, but the expectation had. Instead of there being an expectation that you had a disposable group, but you got a bonus if you didn’t need one, the expectation is now that you have a reusable cup, and there is a penalty if you don’t have one. And it was that shift in expectation that made the difference. I think there is a very important lesson in there. If the reality of our experience around money and debt and poverty is going to change, then it is our attitude that is going to have to change first. That has to happen on a mass scale in order to bring about the kind of change we need, but it has to begin somewhere and it can begin with us.

This is where I want to go back to the four words from earlier. Gentleness, generosity, grace, gratefulness. What would it look like if all of our thinking and doing around financial matters was characterised by those four qualities. A desire to spend wisely, in ways that did good and not harm? A willingness to give away what we can, and even sometimes what we think we can’t? A commitment to forgiving debts, and releasing others from poverty? A mindfulness of all we have, and all that other do not? I encourage you to take some time this week to think about what these words might mean for you.

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