Eric LeCompte is the Executive Director of Jubilee USA, where he represents a diverse coalition of faith communities in the common cause of eradicating extreme poverty and building an economy that serves, protects and promotes participation of the most vulnerable.
Jubilee USA is well-known for its non-partisan approach to financial issues. How are global financial reform and debt relief something that folks of all stripes can get behind?
Our religious voice seeks to build common ground. Both Republicans and Democrats understand that one out of five people live in extreme poverty around the world and that’s one out of five too many. From Congress to international decision makers, we’ve built awareness about how debt burdens, lack of financial regulation and corporate tax avoidance trap the developing world in poverty.
In 2008, when the global financial crisis hit, these issues that long plagued poor countries spread to wealthy northern economies along with the same failed austerity policies from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and big banks. The global economic turndown, spurred by the debt crisis and speculative investments, drove more than 70 million people—mostly women and children—into extreme poverty. Because many multinational corporations don’t pay taxes, countries lack the revenues to protect the working poor. It’s heartbreaking that those who had least to do with creating the financial crisis were hurt by it the most.
In a secular sense, Jubilee USA wins solutions to the global financial crisis. We work to build an economy that works for all of us.
Biblically, our work enfleshes the Jubilee as described in Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. The prophets speak of Jubilee; Leviticus and Deuteronomy even illustrate the very Jubilee laws that governed flourishing ancient communities. From Deuteronomy 15: 1-2. “At the end of every seven years you must cancel debt. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the LORD’s time for cancelling debts has been proclaimed.” Essentially this ancient legal framework, that societies actually lived by, protected everyone from becoming too rich or too poor. Then the prophets encouraged people to return to the Jubilee concepts that taught us to love one another, all of creation with our Creator.
In Luke 4 Jesus’s ministry begins in the Synagogue and reads Isaiah invoking the year of Jubilee or the year of the Lord’s Favor. Jesus closes the scroll and declares Jubilee as the mission of his ministry.
This religious imperative brought together Christians, Jews and Muslims to forge Jubilee USA. We persuade the White House, Treasury, IMF, World Bank, United Nations and Congress to build Jubilee. In policy terms, we’ve won 130 billion dollars in debt relief for poor countries. We pushed the G8 to curb corporate tax avoidance that robs from poor people in the developing world. We’ve passed legislation to make international financial institutions more accountable and stemmed corruption that hurts the poor the most.
In April, there was a Senate committee hearing that addressed how large corporations—in this instance, specifically Caterpillar—avoid paying billions of dollars in taxes by shifting profits offshore. How do these types of activities harm the global poor? Is there a Biblical basis for closing tax loopholes that allow this profit-shifting and tax avoidance?
Corporations benefit from operating in the US, but don’t pay a dime in taxes. In fact, some companies like General Electric boast record profits, avoid taxes and then receive a three billion dollar tax rebate. These policies widen gaps between those who struggle to find daily bread and those who live in excess. These companies also avoid taxes in the some of the poorest countries of the world who need the revenue most.
On a global scale, the resulting inequality is staggering. As of today, the 100 richest people in the world own more wealth than 3.5 billion people, or half of the world’s population. In fact, for every ten dollars in aid that developing countries receive they lose $150 in debt payments and tax avoidance.
The biblical imperatives for addressing these injustices flow from the Jubilee scriptures that remind us to live how Our Lord intended.
As you mentioned previously, in Luke 4:18-19, Jesus says, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” “The year of the Lord’s favor” is in reference to the legislation of Jubilee. This was a big deal for Jesus to say, because the powers that be weren’t interested in Jubilee. In what way are the powers that be still fighting this concept and why?
Jesus founds his ministry on concepts that teach us to live together, protect our environment and maintain a relationship with The Creator. After reading from Isaiah, Jesus says these words are “fulfilled in your hearing, ” startling the audience. This guy from Nazareth, the carpenter’s son just proclaimed that it is the Lord’s Jubilee year of old?
More people heard his stump speech, more people followed. The powerful were challenged by his message and were afraid that so many were following him. They conspired to kill the message and the messenger.
Today, a small elite benefits from exclusionary policies. They influence our governments, financial institutions and courts. This reality moves us into action. Because the lives of millions of people literally hang in the balance, our religious voices must influence global decision makers to build an economy that works for all of us—not just a few of us.
Jubilee recently filed an Amicus curiae brief in the ongoing Supreme Court case of Argentina vs. NML Capital. In a nutshell, what is this case about, and why should Christians care about its outcome?
Jubilee’s got involved in this case because it profoundly impacts global poverty in our lifetimes. The case began in 2001when Argentina defaulted on its debts. Predatory hedge funds bought up some of the debts for pennies on the dollar. Even though most legitimate investors restructured their debt payments, these predatory funds held out. Because debt global contracts are governed by New York State law, the funds sue Argentina in New York courts. When a country is in recovery or when it receives debt relief that is earmarked to help a country’s poor population, the holdout hedge funds sue for the full amount and target the assets dedicated for poor people. Now the case is awaiting a possible hearing at the Supreme Court.
The final Supreme Court ruling impacts future debt cases. The final outcome will either deter or embolden destabilizing behavior. The behavior is so extreme that governments, the IMF and United Nations decry the predatory hedge funds.
So Jubilee, along with eighty religious groups filed with the Supreme Court urging them to hear the case. Our brief begins like a prayer, becomes a doctoral thesis summary and then ends like a sermon. Jubilee’s Supreme Court opens, “…using law to dispossess the poor for the pleasure of the powerful offends not only the sense of justice embodied in United States policy, but the even more ancient principles of biblical justice revealed in the scriptures of our faiths.”
“Debt relief” and “tax reform” aren’t words that tend to get peoples’ blood pumping, but they are essential topics for alleviating global poverty. How can we get advocates—especially millennials—passionately engaged in this important issue?
These global policies impact us as much as the very oxygen we breathe. One of the ways that we work with students to understand these issues is by running campaigns on student loans and student debt. For the past two years we have won US legislation to keep certain types of loan interest rates as low as possible. The local and global are connected and our future depends on our actions today.
What should our prayer for your work be?
We survive on prayer. We are backed by the power of the religious community in this David and Goliath battle. Somehow our deliberate faithful actions are impacting the lives of millions of the poorest people in the world every day.
Please pray that we at Jubilee USA have the resilience of Jonah, the courage of Daniel, the strength of David, the tenacity of Jeremiah, the clarity of Hannah, the willingness to sacrifice as Mary and the faithfulness of Disciples to build the Lord’s Jubilee.