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Methodist Mission & Ecumenical
Occasional Paper No.25 October 2005
Secretary: John Roberts

“Forgive us our debts”

This article was written by John Roberts for Talking Cents, a group charged by the Anglican Diocesan Council to promote an alternative to current economic and political thought, and to encourage debate within the Church

Debt on the local scene

We live in a consumer society. That makes us a nation of spenders. ‘No deposit and no interest for six months’ terms, regular sales and competitive pricing, all entice us to spend. Many of us fund our spending by going into debt. Upper income earners with a good credit rating spend up on their credit cards and retail store accounts. For larger sums, as for cars and houses, they borrow from the more reputable financial institutions. Lower income earners don’t get these privileges, so are prey to the dodgy financial institutions and loan sharks, who readily hand over large sums of money with few questions or checks, on exacting terms, and with exorbitant interest rates.

What happens when the debt can’t be met? Those on higher incomes may consult a financial planner. Those on lower incomes are likely to be put in touch with a budget adviser. In either case the advice will be the same: “Get rid of the debt”. So strategies will be put in place to pay it off. For those on higher incomes this may mean little more than a reduction in ‘retail therapy’ spending. But for those of lesser means it may greatly reduce the amount available for essential household spending - on doctor’s visits, clothing, electricity, rent, etc., leading to an impoverished lifestyle.

Debt on the world scene

What happens when we translate this onto the world scene? There was a time when the wealthy northern nations and the multinational financial institutions, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, held more money than they knew what to do with. So they made their excess freely available to countries in the impoverished world for a wide range of projects, on appealing terms. Few questions were asked or checks made about the credibility of those being encouraged to take the money. Some were dictators, others corrupt politicians and officials. The people they ruled over were never consulted, but now they and future generations are made accountable for repayment of the debt. In time the economies of the affluent world tightened, and so did the demand for impoverished nations debt repayment. There was little these nations could do but go deeper into debt. They were encouraged to borrow more to pay off the debts of the past. But this time it came with more stringent demands called “structural adjustment programmes”. These nations were required to lay off public servants, sell state enterprises, and reduce funding to the health and education sectors. The effects were devastating. These already impoverished nations were driven deeper into the poverty and debt traps. African nations have been particularly affected in this way, but they are not alone in feeling the effects of the debt burden.

Addressing the world debt issue

Most of the focus for debt reduction or elimination has been on Africa. The British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and Chancellor Gordon Brown developed an initiative to address African indebtedness which they took to the G8 meeting of the leading industrialised nations at Gleneagles in Scotland in July 2005. Bob Geldoff’s Live8 concerts initiative also focussed on debt reduction for these the world’s most heavily indebted poor countries (HIPCs). The outcome was a 100% cancellation of US$40 billion of debt owed by eighteen of the world’s poorest countries. While this is an achievement, it is to be noted that no Asian or Pacific countries will benefit from this initiative, and at least another 42 countries are in need of immediate debt cancellation.

If we take another indicator, that of least developed countries (LDCs), then fourteen countries in the Asia-Pacific region area are in this category. A United Nations (UN) report “Voices of the Least Developed Countries of Asia and the Pacific”, published in July 2005 points out that the eligibility threshold to qualify as an HIPC is excessively high. It indicates that Asia-Pacific LDCs have in general succeeded in keeping debt servicing ratios relatively low by virtue of their more prudent economic management. The report states that these countries should not be penalised by exclusion from the HIPC initiative because their debt servicing ratios are slightly above the threshold. It goes on to say, “The international community ought not to obligate any country to spend money on debt servicing when that country does not have enough money to educate all its children at the primary level, or reduce the number of children dying of treatable and preventable diseases.” When debt is cancelled it does free up money for health and education etc, and evidence to date is that it is spent in these areas.

Debt in the Pacific Islands

Five Pacific Island nations fall into the category of an LDC. They are: Kiribati, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. The UN report points out that Vanuatu had an alarmingly high debt-to-GDP and per-capita outstanding debt ratios in 2003 – 71% and US$785 respectively. A recent report from the Australian Council for Overseas Aid states, that at the end of 1998 Samoa had a debt-to-GDP of 102%. The Solomon Islands had debt of US$152 million in 1998 which was a debt-to-GDP of 52%.

Let’s take a closer look at the Solomon Islands. It has a population of approximately 523,000 with a high population growth rate of 2.8% and an estimated 50% under twenty years of age. Less than 40% of children complete primary school and 36% of adults are illiterate. There is a high pupil to trained teacher ratio of 59:1 The populations missing out on access to basic education are the poorest living in remote rural

communities, the majority of whom are girls and women. 38 of every 1000 births result in death in the first year of life. The prime causes are respiratory infections, diarrhea, and malaria, all easily prevented and treated illnesses. Only 8% of the population is in paid employment. Incomes plunged by 30% from 1995 to 2005.

No wonder the Solomon Islands is leading the charge for debt relief in the Pacific Islands. Member of Parliament Alfred Sasako is calling for a debt relief commission to be established. He states: “Many countries in the Pacific are facing mounting debt burdens which must be addressed ? Some island states are spending up to 30% of their GDP on debt servicing leaving little for basic services and investment in education and technology. ? As the single fact that stunts economic growth in the Pacific, debt must be addressed as the priority of priorities.” Sasako has been supported by the Solomons Minister for National Planning and Aid Co-ordination, Fred Fono, who has asked the G8 countries and the European Union “to forgive poor African, Carribean and Pacific countries of their debts.” If it can be done for Africa it can be done for the Asia-Pacific region, he says. Vanuatu Trade Minister, James Bule, has also called for debt cancellation. The Pacific Islands Forum (of which New Zealand is a member) says it is following up on these calls to release the region’s poor nations from debt. The Manager of Economic Growth for the Forum Secretariat, Stan Vandersyp, sees the organization’s role as a broker between the individual countries and the loan providers. We need to watch this space.

Forgiving debt

Have you noticed how the Lord’s Prayer differs in its biblical and liturgical versions? The liturgical version has the petition, “Forgive us our sins”; while the biblical version has the words, “Forgive us our debts.” (New Revised Standard Version & Jerusalem Bible) There is a theology of forgiveness of debt that runs through both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, that is captured in this prayer. It forms part of a wider ‘jubilee’ theology, which you are invited to explore for yourself. As we recite that prayer let’s use the word ‘debt’ and hear the plea of people not only of Africa, but also of our neighbours in the Asia-Pacific region.

Methodist Mission & Ecumenical
Occasional Paper No.25 September 2005
Secretary: John Roberts

God’s October surprise

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow for ‘Tent of Abraham, Hagar and Sarah’ an interfaith movement based in Philadelphia, USA -

At just the moment of history when religious conflicts have re-emerged bearing lethal dangers for each other and our planet, God has given our spiritual and religious traditions a gift of time. During October 2005, a rare coming together of sacred moments in many different traditions invites us to eat together, walk together, learn together, pray alongside each other, listen to each other, and work together for peace, justice, human rights, and the healing of our wounded earth.

The sacred Muslim lunar month of Ramadan and the sacred Jewish lunar month of Tishrei (which includes the High Holy Days) both begin October 3rd - 4th; October 4th is the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi; and October 2nd is World (Protestant/Orthodox) Communion Sunday. October 2nd is also Mahatma Gandhi's birthday. October 4th to 12th is Navarathri (nine nights of spiritual struggle) for Hindus, followed on October 13th by Vijayadashami, the tenth day of spiritual victory. For Buddhists, Vassa (rainy season of spiritual reflection) ends on October 18 with the full moon day, Pavarana.

We could do much during these sacred times to heal our nation and the world. We call on all communities of faith and ethics to observe a ‘Nationwide Fast for Reflection, Repentance, Reconciliation, and Renewal’, from sunrise to sunset on October 13. That day is for Muslims one of the fast days of Ramadan, and for Jews is the fast day of Yom Kippur. Just as Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah welcomed into their tent thirsty travellers from all four directions, we welcome to this fast not only those of the three Abrahamic traditions but all who thirst for a world made whole. We encourage those who join in this fast to dedicate their prayers and their intention to serve the God who calls us to seek peace, feed the poor, heal the earth, and then later to take visible steps in the world to heed God's call.

Besides taking part in the October 13th fast, there are a number of ways to share these sacred moments:

· A synagogue, a mosque, a temple could arrange for each congregation to host one meal for members of the others, after nightfall on any of the evenings of Ramadan.

· Congregations could arrange public interfaith walks for peace and reconciliation that go between church, synagogue, and mosque, pausing at each for prayer.

· Jews could invite Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus into the Sukkah, a leafy hut that is open to the earth. Traditionally, "sacred guests" are invited in and the rabbis taught that during Sukkot blessings are invoked upon "the seventy nations" of the world. Traditional prayers implore God to "spread the sukkah of shalom" over us. These are perfect rituals for peacemaking among the children of humanity and with the earth.

· Muslims could invite other communities to join in celebrating Iftar (the break-fast) after sunset on a night of Ramadan. For Eid el-Fitr (the feast at the end of Ramadan), Jews and Christians could (as in Morocco) bring food to the celebration of the end of Ramadan's fasting.

· Churches could invite other communities to join in learning about and celebrating the teachings of Francis of Assisi. He was practically unique among the Christian leaders of his day in opposing the crusades, learning in a serious way from Muslim teachers (even to the extent of transforming his own prayer practice), and becoming deeply dedicated to kinship with the earth and all living creatures.

· Synagogues could invite Muslim scholars and spiritual leaders to teach on Rosh Hashanah when Jews are reading the Torah passages on the story of Abraham, Hagar, Ishmael, Sarah, and Isaac. They could explain how Muslims understand that story. Then there could be open discussion of the differences, the similarities, the wisdom held in each of the versions of the story. Synagogues could set aside a time to read and discuss the Torah's story of the joining of Isaac and Ishmael to bury their father Abraham, and then to achieve reconciliation at the ‘well of the living one who sees me.

· Congregations could undertake actions to protect human rights by making public the plights of those detained without trials, often without access to counsel or to families, those disappeared, and those being subjected to torture. Over a series of evenings they could look together at the texts in their traditions that have been misused to justify violence against other communities, and shape occasions of repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

Engaged as we are in war, violence, and repression with strong religious overtones, communities of the faithful, could instead take some action together during the Ramadan/Tishrei month to change public policy in favour of protecting human rights, healing the earth, and achieving peace in the regions where Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah sojourned.

People of all faith traditions are urged to plan with each other how to use ‘God's October Surprise’ with these sacred dates, to heed the call of the Holy One that we live in peace together. As we walk our path into this journey of sharing sacred seasons, let us make the deep connections that will keep us together long after our sacred calendars dance in other directions.

In the USA this Call was initiated by The Tent of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah. The Call has been endorsed by the National Council of Churches; the Islamic Society of North America; Pax Christi; The Shalom Centre; the Jewish Committee for Isaiah's Vision; ALEPH - Alliance for Jewish Renewal and its rabbinic body, Ohalah; the Disciples Justice Action Network; Northwest Interfaith Movement (Philadelphia).

The tent of Abraham, Hagar and Sarah

We are a new initiative of Muslims, Christians and Jews who are part of an upsurge in multi-religious prophetic concern for peace, justice and the earth.

Out of deep spiritual reflection came a call to action. October will be a wonderful opportunity to put these words into action: a confluence of holy days celebrated by Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus and Buddhists.

We have come together because the US government keeps threatening Muslim nations while some groups within the Muslim world keep threatening the US. Jews, Christians and Muslims – the families of Abraham, Hagar, and sarah – must address this negative dynamic together. Moving beyond religious ‘dialogue’ and coalitions for action’ we embrace public engagement rooted in deep personal sharing. It is a new model for this work.

Methodist Mission & Ecumenical
Occasional Paper No.24 August 2005
Secretary: John Roberts

A new quality of interreligious dialogue

By Gibert Friend-Jones for World Council of Churches 8 June 2005

A broad group of religious leaders, academic specialists and grassroots activists from virtually all the major world faith communities recently gathered in Geneva to reflect on a "critical moment" in interreligious dialogue.

Like the proverbial blind villagers trying to describe an elephant, conference participants began the meeting by identifying, from their various perspectives, different aspects of the "post-modern" challenge they face. Economic and cultural globalization, the massive migrations and dislocations of people, the growth of the "culture of violence", the confluence of religious extremism with political agendas, the abuse and impoverishment of millions of people - all factors accelerating the process of social change and religious upheaval in the world.

Beyond adventurous spirituality

This moment in history is "critical" for all religious communities. Many of the faith leaders hope to push the phenomenon of interreligious cooperation to new levels of relevance for a world in crisis. Their appreciation of the "adventurous" spirituality that dialogue has enabled in recent decades is exceeded only by the conviction that interreligious cooperation must now move further to involve more people in more creative ways to overcome divisions that threaten humanity.

Reminding participants of the World Council of Churches (WCC) 30-year history of interfaith dialogue, general secretary Sam Kobia asked, "How can we live together our diversity and differences in one world?" WCC moderator, Catholicos Aram I, went further, urging the conference to help the world's religions to move beyond coexistence into genuine community, and into nurturing a spirituality of reflecting, living and working together. "Religions must act, they must act together and urgently. Let us participate in God's transformation of His world, our common household. Let us commit ourselves to make humanity more humane. The new world situation with its complexities, uncertainties and challenges calls for a credible dialogue, greater partnership and closer collaboration between the religions," he appealed.

Widening presence at the table

Yet the gap between dialogue and local realities can seem striking. Dr Wande Abimbola, a high priest of the Yor?b? religion from Nigeria, was sharply critical of much interreligious dialogue which, he said, has too often been half-hearted and insincere, and often excluded authentic representatives of the worlds primal religions. "Even today Christians and Muslims continue to seek to convert adherents of indigenous religions; they wantonly destroy temples, icons and holy relics of traditional religions," he deplored. Abimbola urged the presence of all religious traditions at the table of dialogue and insisted that their contribution be taken seriously in efforts to solve problems facing the world.

Dr Heba Raouf Ezzat, an Egyptian Muslim political scientist and writer for the "Islam Online" website, sketched a different vision of the postmodern age. In our hunger for identity, she said, growing numbers of people are returning to faith, but not necessarily to organized, institutional religion. The real conflict is not between civilizations or religions, but between humanity and anti-humanity, she pointed out. We share a common human condition, and the role of religion is "to preserve, foster and secure civility" in an age that is extremely hostile to it. Ezzat argued that we must move to a "post-conversion" era, in which faith communities go beyond proselytism to transformation. Religions must not be concerned just with blatant eruptions of violence such as war, but with structural violence that governs many societies and relationships. People desire a return to a sense of community in response to the modern world, she said. All faiths share common values and live within the same modern conditions which both underline and undermine traditional understandings. Religions must give passion to people as a way of taming the sweeping capitalization of the world, she said. "We must keep the human heart beating. We will need each other to help people to respond."

Kobia echoed her concern, saying that if there is a "missionary impulse" today, it must be to convince people of our common community and values. "If there is anything that we need to convert, it is the mentality of people to become true human persons," he said. "Our common missionary vocation is to transform the world to be truly human, to recover our common humanity."

Towards a new quality of dialogue

Conference participants articulated a common concern when they urged a new quality of interreligious dialogue. Can dialogue enable the religions to identify common values for our common humanity? Can it strengthen the moral authority of religion in the public arena? Can it move from words to actions, and from actions to a deeper level of shared commitment? In the words of Swami Agnivesh, an Indian spiritual leader and social activist, "after a century of inter-religious dialogue, we now need a new approach. Dialogue must be seen as a spiritual tool, and not an end in itself. Our horizontal dialogue with each other must be directed by our vertical dialogue with God. We must integrate correct words with creative deeds, and so unleash the spiritual power that would liberate the people and transform societies. Nothing less than this is acceptable as the goal of the inter-faith movement for the third millennium."

In humility and hope

"Recasting interreligious dialogue as a practice of humility and hope offers a way of building greater trust," concluded participants in the international conference on a "critical moment in interreligious dialogue" convened by the World Council of Churches (WCC), 7-9 June 2005.

The conference outlined specific strategies which aim to shift the emphasis of interreligious relations from dialogue to common action, including new education and training programmes and exchanges which foster a culture of dialogue.

The conference enabled open discussion of divisive issues, notably those of religious violence and conversion, and called for repentance and humility that "opens a way to move from a dialogue of strangers to a dialogue of neighbours".

Participants expressed caution about understandings of dialogue that diminish particular identities and traditions, and that generate suspicion and hostility to dialogue within religious communities.

"Dialogue with other faiths has become a core issue for the WCC," confirmed general secretary Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia. "We can only be effective and successful in our search for hope if we work together. Together, we can go far towards restoring hope for another possible and better world in which all people may experience abundant life in dignity."

The conference organizer and WCC specialist on interfaith issues Rev. Dr Hans Ucko underlined the specific nature of this event among the many global multi-faith initiatives. "This event was unique because it sought to assess dialogue, and looked at ways of fostering relations which are more realistic and less idealistic. We confirmed the commitment of those involved, and this adds impetus to our own Christian engagement in dialogue."

Methodist Mission & Ecumenical
Occasional Paper March
Secretary: John Roberts

International issues addressed by World Council of Churches

The Central Committee of the WCC issued several statements on international issues at its meeting in February in Geneva. The use of WCC news release is acknowledged.

Iraq for the Iraquis

The WCC is seeking to open debate in the appropriate international forums about “a timetable for the reduction and termination of the United States-led coalition’s military presence in Iraq and for the removal of its military bases there. The statement, which calls “governments and intergovernmental bodies to greater accountability under the rule of international law both for the cause of peace in Iraq and for more effective management of such crises in future”, insists on the need of a greater role for the United Nations in helping the Iraqi people to gain effective control of their country. This implies the progressive transfer of “governance and resource management” as well as “security affairs” to Iraqi control, with the assistance of the appropriate UN agencies. The UN’s role should include overseeing “the post-war reconstruction” so as to ensure the “maximum feasible participation of Iraqis” while “greatly reducing the role of foreign contractors”.

The WCC central committee condemns “unequivocally the torture and humiliation of prisoners”, and deplores the “relegation of punishment for these crimes to low-ranking soldiers,” disregarding responsibilities “at high levels of the US Administration”. The statement also manifests deep concern “at violence that targets innocent civilians,” and calls on WCC member churches to speak out “on behalf of all who suffer violence, killings, attacks and kidnappings”.

Legal rights for Guantanamo detainees

The WCC has urged the government of the United States “to immediately grant the legal rights accorded to detainees to over 600 foreign nationals, mostly Muslims held at the Guantanamo Bay naval base Cuba “without due process and in total violation of the norms and standards of international humanitarian and human rights law”. The WCC has appealed “to the US Government to let the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA (NCCC-USA) fulfull its pastoral and humanitarian responsibilities to the detainees by giving it permission to visit them at Guantanamo Bay”. The WCC appreciates and encourages “the important work being done by the NCCC-USA in its endeavours to struggle for the rule of law and secure due process” for those suffering “unconscionable and illegal detention”. The statement also calls on the Council’s churches to “educate and conscientise their congregations to the situation of those presently under detention in Guantanamo Bay and to fulfil their responsibility as a community of faith in Christ by calling for the release of those being held in detention under inhuman conditions”.

Call to ratify International Criminal Court

The WCC asked “all governments which have not yet ratified the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court (ICC), and especially the United States, to ratify it promptly without reservations”.

The WCC affirms the ICC, which came into being in 2002, as “one of the most important steps forward in International Law in the last decades”. But it labels the attitude of the US Government, which “after having signed the Rome Statute, has declared its intention not to ratify it and is actively seeking bilateral agreements in order to exempt US nationals from persecution by the ICC,” as “an inexcusable attempt to gain impunity from the crimes defined in the Statute”. According to the WCC the ICC will also “strengthen the possibility for peace and end the cycle of violence by offering justice as an alternative to revenge”. The WCC therefore calls upon the Council’s churches to “urge for the universal ratification of the Rome Statute of the ICC, particularly in those countries which have yet to ratify it”. It also asks governments which have already ratified the statute “to adapt their national legislation to implement the ICC and effectively support any process under the ICC jurisdiction”.

Economic measures for peace in Israel/Palestine

The World Council of Churches has stated that churches have an opportunity to use investment funds responsibly in support of peaceful solutions to the Israel/Palestine conflict. It has encouraged its member churches “to give serious consideration to economic measures” as a new way to work for peace, by looking at ways to not participate economically in illegal activities related to the Israeli occupation. The WCC has affirmed “economic pressure, appropriately and openly applied as a means of action.”

As an example, the WCC mentions the “process of phased, selective divestment from multinational corporations involved in the occupation” now being implemented by the Presbyterian Church (USA). “This action is commendable in both method and manner, and uses criteria rooted in faith.”

The statement points out that “illegal activities in occupied territory continue as if a viable peace for both peoples is not a possibility”, and that multinational corporations have been involved in a number of “violations of international law” within that territory.

Other statements

New forms of migration

The WCC has called on Churches and Christians to insist as a matter of principle, that undocumented migrants and asylum seekers are detained only in exceptional circumstances, for only a limited time, with access to judicial review, and never in worse conditions than convicted criminals. The call is one of a number of recommendations on uprooted peoples, reflecting new patterns of migration as a result of globalisation and the effects of 11 September. The statement says “Global patterns of migration reveal an enormous gap between the gospel imperative to practise hospitality towards strangers and the actal policies and practices of governments to close borders.”

Indigenous languages

It is estimated that one of the world’s languages is lost every two weeks on average, and 90% of the world’s 6,700 languages will become extinct by the end of the century. Faced with this reality the WCC has recognised, “the need to revitalise the world indigenous languages which carry a storehouse of indigenous knowledge accrued and refined over millennia.” Expressing its concern the WCC urges a United Nations (UN) International Year of Indigenous Languages (in 2006 or a subsequent year), as well as calling on governments to sign up to the UN declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Living letters visit to tsunami affected countries

The Central Committee has proposed that a “living letters” visit by WCC representatives, be made to countries affected by the tsunami. In this way the WCC seeks to emphasise the importance of keeping the local people at the centre of the initiatives for relief and rehabilitation.

Initiative for African development

The WCC has welcomed the British government’s initiative to provide debt relief for poorer countries, particularly those in Africa, including a proposed finance facility and the recently created Commission for Africa.

“The WCC general secretary, Sam Kobia, has been asked to engage with the British government and monitor how this and other initiatives will affect African counties.”