Forgiving debt—for Social Justice Sunday
1 Timothy 6.6-19
I mentioned the term ubuntu some weeks ago. I’d like to remind you of it again. Remember, it’s an African word meaning ‘the essence of being human’. Ubuntu means that we need other human beings just to be human. The Zulu and Shona people of southern Africa say: ‘a person is a person through other persons’—not apart from them. Ubuntu means that for us to do well, we need others to do well.
Desmond Tutu says (God has a Dream, chapter 2):
A person with ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong in a greater whole.
Tutu also says that in southern Africa, when they wish to speak well of someone they say, ‘So-and-so has ubuntu.’ So-and-so is a person who recognises others as persons. I want to suggest that this African approach to life is one that we could learn from.
The rich man in the ‘Pearly Gates-type’ story that Jesus retold did not have ubuntu. He didn’t recognise Lazarus as a person. Lazarus ‘longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table’. But Lazarus went hungry.
Do you notice something about this story? About who is named and who isn’t? In most stories, the rich and powerful are named and the ordinary people are anonymous. It’s the other way here. Jesus names the poor man. The other—the powerful man—is just ‘a rich man’. In fact, the ‘rich man’ is every person who has enough of the world’s goods—shelter, food, health care, education—yet who closes his or her heart to the poor. The rich man’s name could very easily be ‘Paul Walton’.
Remember today’s psalm, Psalm 91? It says
I deliver all who cling to me,
raise the ones who know my name,
answer those who call me,
stand with those in trouble.
These I rescue and honour…
Lazarus calls to God; not only does Lazarus know God by name, but more importantly, God knows the name of Lazarus and rescues and honours him.
God knows the name of the poor; God stands with them. There are many poor in the world today. Do we see them as persons? As neighbours in need? Do we relate to them with a spirit of ubuntu?
In 2000, the world committed to achieving eight goals by 2015. These are the Millennium Development Goals, and you may have seen our new Foreign Minister—Kevin Rudd—contributing to this week’s debate in the United Nations. The eight goals are to:
1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
2: Achieve universal primary education
3: Promote gender equality and empower women
4: Reduce child mortality rate
5: Improve maternal health
6: Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
7: Ensure environmental sustainability
8: Develop a global partnership for development
It’s highly unlikely these goals will be achieved by 2015.
Last week, we talked about forgiveness and I said we’d spend three weeks on that theme. Next week, we’ll talk about when it’s hard to forgive others. Since today is Social Justice Sunday, we’re looking at forgiveness is a very wide context indeed—the forgiveness of national debt.
If developing countries are to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; achieve universal primary school education; promote gender equality and empower women and the rest, they need to have resources—including financial resources. One of the problems developing countries face is the repayment of the interest on loans. Sometimes the interest bill is many times the amount of the loan itself.
Goal 8 of the Millennium Development Goals is to ‘Develop a global partnership for development’. Part of this goal involves finding ways of giving debt relief to poor countries so that they can more ably help their people.
Some of the poorest countries have been crippled by the interest repayments required to service their debts. In 2006, the poor African country of Lesotho paid $US47m to its creditors; this is fully two thirds of the amount Lesotho received for development assistance.
Tanzania is one country that has received some debt relief, some forgiveness of its debt; because of this, it was able to abolish school fees. Over three million children were able to start going to school.
Sue is going to Nepal this Thursday. Nepal has had significant political problems and has also had help with debt relief. A World Bank report from May this year concludes that while there can be no room for complacency, Nepal’s debt level is now sustainable.
We’ve been talking about debt relief. That’s one of the pragmatic political realities. But the forgiveness of debt, the remission of debt rather than just the relief of debt, may sometimes be necessary. For example, the forgiveness of debt may well be central to rebuilding countries such as Haiti and Pakistan, following the recent dreadful natural disasters in those countries. These countries face immeasurable hardship following the earthquake and floods, and simply cannot keep repaying their loans.
These people are like Lazarus to us, sitting at the gate, waiting to be fed, to have their sores tended. We see them on our TVs. We read about them. We are not ignorant of their plight.
What can we do? There are several things.
We can pray. No matter who we are and what our resources, we can commit the poorest people of the world into God’s care and ask what God would have us do.
We can be informed. Google the Millennium Development Goals.
We can write to our members of Parliament, asking them to look at increasing Australia’s aid to poorer countries.
We can listen to the words of 1 Timothy:
…we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation…For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil…
These words are—or should be—hard for us to hear cheek by jowl with the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man. It is so easy for us to depend on our access to money rather than on God. It’s the life we’re born into.
So—having heard these words, and appealing to God for a clear conscience, we can give to organisations that help people in these countries. We can help with projects such as Operation Christmas Child. We can go to developing countries and see for ourselves first hand. Members of our congregation are from various places and have been to varied places: Zimbabwe, Zambia, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, India, Ghana and Fiji. Sue is going to Nepal on Thursday; we have a chance today to give in a retiring offering so that people in Nepal may be able to have solar cookers.
If we wish to do any of this well, we would do well to learn from the philosophy of ubuntu. People with ubuntu know that we need other people just to be human. People with ubuntu know something must be done when people live in poverty and hunger; when they have no chance of an education; when women are devalued; when children die or when women die in childbirth unnecessarily; when people suffer from illnesses such as malaria or HIV/AIDS; when their environment is degraded.
People with ubuntu live out of a sense of generosity, a sense of abundance. I know the words aren’t related at all, but I just love the way ubuntu and ‘abundant’ sound so similar! We need to live out of a sense of abundance so we can support efforts to forgive debt.
Friends, Jesus has promised us abundant life. He doesn’t mean for us to sit grumpily and wait for it to happen. The abundant life is here and now! The ubuntu life is here and now!
Forgiveness isn’t only about how we treat the people we come across day by day. It also encompasses the way that societies treat one another. The Millennium Development Goals give a framework by which this can be done. Ubuntu offers a philosophy by which societies as well as people can treat one another. And the way of Jesus mandates that we live out of a sense of abundance, so that we may find a way forward to forgive the debts that others owe to us.
Let us pray:
God of life,
help us to share with generously with others
and be agents of your Gospel:
that we may be proclaimers of the good news,
releasers of captives,
freers of the oppressed,
recoverers of sight,
and ushers for the coming time
of the Lord’s favour.
In the name of Christ.