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. "If the creditors are giving something substantial away ... there's nothing wrong with getting certain advantages from that," as in the case of opening markets in debtor nations to American goods.
Some religious viewpoints see conditions on debt relief as necessary for an improved world order that more fully reflects a biblical ideal.
"Without conditionality, evangelicals wouldn't support debt relief," says Richard Cizik, vice president for government affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals. Evangelicals have recently built upon the efforts of the Jubilee 2000 movement and its offshoot, the Jubilee USA Network, which have rallied for international debt relief for the past decade. At last week's ecumenical London Forum, Mr. Cizik signed an agreementurging debt relief and increased aid. "We aren't interested in propping up corrupt governments, and shouldn't be," he says. "The whole thrust of scripture in fact is that honesty, integrity, and faithfulness ... will give you entitlement to a greater amount of blessing; so I don't see a contradiction here [with] the jubilee tradition."
Setting conditions to ensure that funds help alleviate poverty in developing nations is also a must in the view of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, according to Gerry Flood, counselor to that group's international policy committee. Others who see physical well-being for all as a core characteristic of the jubilee vision agree.
But some point out a difference between conditions designed to improve people's lives and those designed to benefit the country forgiving the debt.
"The biblical tradition of canceling debt is designed to aid the debtor and keep the debtor out of perpetual poverty.... It should not be an occasion for the lender to try to get something for himself out of that process," says George Monsma, an economist at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., and a former development missionary in Africa.
For Presbyterian Church (USA) elder Michael Kruse of Kansas City, however, the big goal of jubilee is to establish "shalom," or peace. This would mean striving for "a country that is life-affirming, that creates prosperity...." Creditor nations might better attain that end by actually maintaining their note, says Mr. Kruse, a consultant with a background in international development.
"[It's a] simplistic idea that if we just cancel the debt, that's going to solve the problem," he says. "It may be the opportunity for debt forgiveness [in the future] is what keeps us able to hold leverage over some rather corrupt people or other systems that have gone wrong in these countries. So canceling the debt may be the worst thing [we could do] right now."