Mercy and Justice Come Together in Debt Relief

In his 1994 apostolic letter on the advent of the third millennium, Tertio Millennio Adveniente (As the Third Millennium Draws Near), Pope John Paul II proposed that the Jubilee of the Year 2000 is “an appropriate time to give thought, among other things, to reducing substantially, if not canceling outright, the international debt which seriously threatens the future of many nations.”

A number of social activists have taken up the Pope's call for debt relief, including some who might not be so supportive of the Holy Father on other issues. For example, Bono, lead singer of the rock band U2, along with Bob Geldof, who as singer of the Boomtown Rats organized 1985's Live Aid charity concerts, have joined with humanitarian organizations calling for debt relief for poor countries. And social activists ran a full-page ad in The New York Times calling for complete cancellation of $200 billion in debts owed by poor countries.

How is it that rock musicians and radical activists have rallied behind John Paul? And what has the Pope really taught about international debt relief?

First, it is worth separating out the secular justifications given for debt relief and the theological framework of the Pope. We are all used to seeing secular approaches to Jubilee 2000 that end up completely separating the millennium celebration from the birth of Christ. Part of this occurs with the Y2K uproar, as if the millennium is a computer event rather than an anniversary of the Incarnation. (The worst example I have seen is a fast-food chain's television commercial proclaiming that we should mark the millennium by buying four collector cups embla-zoned with pictures of our favorite Disney characters.)

In a similar way, some people have jumped on the bandwagon of the year 2000 to advance a political cause. By contrast, the Pope's call for debt relief comes from a deeper theological tradition along with a meditation on the significance of the year 2000.

The Holy Father pointed out in Tertio Millennio Adveniente that time has a fundamental importance for Christians. In the Incarnation, the eternal God becomes flesh so that time becomes a dimension of God. Because God is eternal and yet enters time, there arises for us a duty to sanctify time, for example, by dedicating particular times to God. When Jesus went to the synagogue in Nazareth, he read aloud from Isaiah: “The Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted …. to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor” (Luke 4:18-19). Jesus then added, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). We mark and celebrate time because of this “fullness of time” and the messianic mission of Christ.

In the old covenant, this was prefigured in the custom of jubilees, as described in the Book of Leviticus, Chapter 25. Every seventh year was to be a sabbatical year, when the earth was left fallow and slaves were set free. After seven sabbatical years, every 50th year was to be a special year of jubilee. The jubilee year included precise regulations that extended the celebrations of the sabbatical year. As the law in Leviticus prescribes, during the jubilee year, “each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his family” (Leviticus 25:10). If anyone had been sold into slavery or had sold their ancestral land during the intervening years, the old debts were abolished, captives were freed and the land was restored to its original owners.

The Pope notes that “the prescriptions for the jubilee year largely remained ideals — more a hope than an actual fact.” The jubilee year was meant as a reminder that the land ultimately belongs to God, that God has liberated his people, and that we are sojourners who use the land for a time. To the poor and enslaved, the jubilee year was meant to offer new possibilities; to the rich, the jubilee was a reminder of God's justice, where justice included protection of the weak and the needy. Those who possess land and property are really only stewards “charged with the proper care of creation, and the created goods of the earth should serve everyone in a just way.”

With the new covenant, the jubilee tradition is transformed. The Jubilee of the Year 2000 is a celebration not only of the birth of Christ, but of his life and of the paschal mystery. In the paschal mystery, his death and resurrection, both justice and mercy are served. Mercy is served in that our sins are forgiven, but justice is also served in that the paschal lamb, unstained and innocent, takes on the sins of the world. In other words, our injustices are not condoned by Christ, but freely forgiven out of love for us.

In the spirit of the Book of Leviticus and in celebration of the Incarnation and Resurrection, Pope John Paul II asks Christians to raise their voice on behalf of the poor to consider forgiving international debt.

In a secularized world like ours, it is easy to take the Holy Father's call for forgiving international debt out of its context. For example, for lenders to be coerced to abolish agreements that were legally entered into solely because of social pressure from activists seems a confusion of mercy and justice, or a kind of false mercy that ignores elements of justice.

As the Pope explains in his 1980 encyclical Dives in Misericordia (On the Mercy of God), there is a “fundamental link between mercy and justice” in the biblical tradition. “Forgiveness does not cancel out the objective requirements of justice” (No. 14). Hence, forgiving loans should not be encouraged against the will of those who are justly owed or as a way of condoning those who have trouble properly paying their bills. Rather, debt relief can be part of working toward peaceful development in a manner that links mercy and justice.

In that spirit, Catholics should join the Pope in encouraging international debt relief coupled with appropriate programs for genuine development as part of the biblical jubilee, a joyous celebration of mercy and justice that proclaims the year of the Lord's favor.

Gregory R. Beabout teaches philosophy at St. Louis University.