A NEW BEGINNING: THE VISION & PRACTICE OF JUBILEE
By Lee Cormie
When the Canadian Ecumenical Jubilee Initiative (CEJI) was launched in the spring of 1998, the proposal was for a three-year program, coinciding with the transition to the new millennium. However, if the 150 participants at the event on "The Vision and Practice of Jubilee: Biblical Hopes, New Beginnings" were any indication, the Spirit is calling us to something far bigger, more challenging and inspiring. This five-day international theology event, held last May, was an opportunity to pause and reflect on the lessons learned and the new questions arising in the course of efforts to put the spirit of Jubilee into practice.
The best-known expression of CEJI activity has been its participation in the global campaign to cancel the debts of poor countries, with the gathering of 640,000 signatures on a petition in Canada. In terms of public education, the campaign was very successful and 17 million signatures were gathered worldwide.
While the Canadian government and the G-7 ministers to whom the petitions were presented in Cologne, Germany, in June 1999, affirmed the idea of debt cancellation, they have been slow to translate vision into practice. Meanwhile, Southern partners in the debt cancellation campaign have objected to the restrictive definitions of eligibility, the attached conditions, and the slow pace of relief.
Southern partners also object to having to repay the debts of dictators who used the money to oppress people, as for example, the apartheid governments of South Africa. They question social debts resulting from government cuts to basic health care and education programs in order to pay the interest on external debt and to meet the requirements of structural adjustment programs. They wonder about the unacknowledged debts owed by rich countries to poor countries from centuries of colonialism. Finally, they wonder, too, about ecological debt, the great bulk of which is due to the long-standing and continuing destruction of the planet by production, marketing and consumption patterns in the industrialized countries.
Those participating in the conference, aware that the Jubilee texts as found in the bible are rooted in that particular time, place and circumstance, realized that applying these same biblical texts today must take into account our own time, place and circumstance. The question must be asked: How much of a new beginning did the biblical community dare to hope for and how much of a new beginning do we dare to hope for as we read the bible in our day and age?
Sabbath is at the heart of the Jubilee traditions, so worship and celebration were central throughout the event. The opening liturgy celebrated the long tradition of witnessing to the Spirit of Jubilee here in Canada. This witness began with the contributions of the social Gospel movement and of organizations which struggled to forge a post-World War II Canadian society marked by concern for the common good and generosity toward the suffering. More recently it is seen in ecumenical coalitions and other organizations which, facing what is more often than not a destructive globalization, continue struggling for social and ecological justice.
We celebrated the fact that we are heirs to a long and honoured history of witnesses who inspire us, and from whom we can learn so much.
We then turned to still more recent experiences of Jubilee hope. Drawing on their own local experiences, participants were invited to weave together a broader, richer tapestry of Jubilee in Canada and around the world. Clearly the Spirit is at work far beyond the capacities of anyone to grasp. There have been mistakes and limitations, but there have also been successes and great creativity in pursuing new questions and possibilities for action. The feeling also emerged that one of the main challenges is institutional: limited organizational capacities to support people in their readiness to respond to the Spirit of Jubilee.
An entire day was devoted to 'globalization' in its myriad and bewildering manifestations. Participants wrestled with the way people's movements are responding to immigration and refugee flows, violence and peace-making, land claims and Indigenous rights, agriculture and crises in rural communities, challenges of global governance, shifting configurations of race and ethnicity, assaults on the welfare state, gender issues, debt and structural adjustment, and finance capital. These are more than economic and political issues; they involve the most fundamental questions of hope and faith.
We turned to the bible and to theology, especially to the 'new' voices of those long excluded and silent (poor peoples, women, Indigenous and people of colour, the Earth itself), and the discoveries of new faces and re-discovery of long-forgotten faces of God. We re-discovered the remarkable capacity of the bible to illumine, challenge and clarify.
On the final day of the event we reflected on the Church. Declining membership and rates of participation, especially among youth; lawsuits over sexual abuse; shrinking finances; and the increasingly multicultural and multi-religious character of our society all point to a historical crossroads for the Church.
We had the audacity to look beyond these and many other difficult situations and see a hope-filled opportunity for the Church's rebirth.
At the closing liturgy we celebrated a widely shared sense of renewal. We had not arrived at a program for resolving all the world's problems. However, the event testified to a deepening commitment to broader solidarities, wider dialogue and more effective forms of collaboration.
Debt cancellation, redistribution of wealth, and a new relationship with the Earth are not unthinkable. At the dawn of the third millennium, the Spirit of Jubilee is calling us and we dare to hope for a new beginning.
This event was co-sponsored by the Canadian Ecumenical Jubilee Initiative (CEJI), St. Michael's College, the Institute for Christian Studies, and Emmanuel College. It was funded by CEJI participants and the Millennium Bureau of Canada. Lee Cormie serves on the Theology Committee and the Steering Committee of CEJI. He is also on the Faculty of Theology at St. Michael's College.