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Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand
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September 9, 2004
Vol. 2, No. 21

  Don't be fooled: It's simpler than they tell us
"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

By Joan Chittister, OSB

Some things are naturally so complex we can't possibly resolve them, they tell us. I can accept that. We can't protect against hurricanes, for instance, because we don't know where they're going to be. All the extra food on the planet can't solve the problem of world hunger without roads and transportation and refrigeration facilities. Those things are complex.

It is also plausible, however, that there are some things we make complex so we won't have to solve them. Like debt. No, like the poverty that comes from debt.

Debt is a major American issue. We are a debt-paying people and we don't like people who don't pay theirs.

After all, we are a country that went through the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, and we have no intention of going through that kind of thing again. For years, my family paid everything by cash. What they couldn't pay for "cash on the barrelhead," they didn't buy. Instead, they saved their money in cookie jars and bought one piece of furniture at a time.

We are also the country that went through a Revolutionary War in which Little David pushed Goliath back into the sea, crossed 2,000 miles of open plains and then found its way, one horse, one wagon, one family at a time, through the Rocky Mountains to the ocean on the other side.

We are can-do people.

We became one of the most powerful commercial nations on the face of the globe. "Rugged individualism," they called it. "The pioneer spirit," they called it. "Yankee ingenuity," they called it.

What we are inclined to forget is that we also had the open land and slave labor that made it possible. We had new immigrant populations and investment monies. We had vast and incomparable natural resources.

We forget that those are what enabled us to take a land rich in natural resources and make ourselves even richer.

Which is exactly why we don't understand international debt.

Now we use our own historical circumstances from a previous time to judge the circumstances of others. "If we did it, they can do it, too," we say of those who are poorer, less developed than we. "If they worked harded, if they weren't lazy," we argue, "they could have what we have."

Otherwise, our unspoken Puritanism reminds us, they deserve to suffer for their irresponsibility.

But that may be making a relatively simple problem far more complex than it needs to be. Think of it this way:

Once upon a time, desert sheikhs were selling oil in great quantity at huge prices and putting it in Western banks. All of a sudden, the banks had so much money they didn't know what to do with it. So, they begged countries to borrow it from them who later couldn't pay it back.

Or let's put it this way: Say that in the years preceding mandatory insurance guarantees, your banker urges you to take out a $100,000 home loan at a variable rate of interest. You have a big family; you have the steady job it will require to pay the debt off and the new house will improve your family's life. You take it.

Mid-way through the project the price of brick goes up, a flood undermines the building, the interest rate rises from 4 percent to 10 percent, you get sick, lose your high-paying job and spend the rest of your life unable to pay more than the $10,000 a year you owe on interest for the uncompleted project.

That, of course, would be bad enough.

Unfortunately, there's another part of the process that they didn't tell you: Now your banker comes in and takes charge of your finances. Until you pay off the capital, too, they tell you, you may not own a car, send your children to school, have a telephone, or use your electricity over six hours a day. What's more, where you once grew tomatoes to sell from a stand on the street corner, you must now grow watermelons for the bank manager's children.

After 20 years of these "belt-tightening practices," you manage to pay the bank $200,000 in interest but your old living conditions get even worse. Now without an education your children can't get a decent job either. And the price of watermelons to the bank manager never goes up so you can't possibly get ahead. The question is: Have you or have you not paid your debt? And if so, why won't they forgive it? Is this ethical? Is this just? Are you and your children lazy, shiftless, irresponsible?

That's the story of the international debt.

That's why Jubilee USA has pressed so hard for so long to free small nations from the burden of debts their past governments accepted and no government since has been able to pay no matter how much money they pour into it. Generation after generation go without human services to pay a debt that never ends.

Argentine Nobel Peace Prize winner Aldolfo Perez Esquivel, says of the international debt: "Our foreign debt, or more appropriately our eternal debt, cannot and should not be paid. It is an immoral debt and a profound human rights issue. The debt is used to dominate people, and the impact is cruel and abusive."

Now that's not so complex, is it?

World leaders talk about calling for 100 percent forgiveness of the international debt, but they never do. In the meantime, 240,000 people could be saved each month if the debt service payments were applied to health services. In the meantime, 140 million children globally will not start school this fall because there are no schools to go to, no teachers to teach them, no supplies to give them. In the meantime, the gap between the obscenely wealthy and the obscenely poor nations of the world gets wider and wider.

If the largest creditors -- the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank -- were to cancel the debt from their own vast resources it would cost U.S. taxpayers nothing and harm the banks not at all. But it could help to develop underdeveloped countries. It could rebuild international alliances. It could reduce the terrorism that emerges out of unanswered rage.

What does the rest of the world need to get on its own feet? When George Bush meets with the finance ministers of the seven wealthiest nations in the world at the G7 Summit in Washington Oct. 1, they need to press the IMF and the World Bank to cancel debts.

From where I stand, the situation is not nearly as impossible, unthinkable, obnoxious as they want to make us think it is. On the contrary, debt forgiveness is a Christian obligation. It is a moral imperative. Furthermore, it is even in our own best interests to do so.

Maybe you and I need to send e-mails to the White House before Oct. 1 to tell them that we have finally figured out how simple it really is.

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