Jubilee

INFOGRAPHIC: The New Indentured Servitude

While President Obama's "Student Aid Bill of Rights" is a prudent and necessary step towards aiding college students, his announcement comes late for the seven million borrowers already indentured to their education debt. In "Forgive Us Our Debts" (Sojourners, April 2015), Virginia Gilbert investigates the cause-and-effect battle of education debt and the way it is hindering a generation of college students. How big is the student debt burden? See below for the poor report card reveal. 

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African Catholics Embrace Jubilee Year As Time for Muslim Understanding

Image via REUTERS / James Akena / RNS

Francis marked the start of the jubilee on Dec. 8, when he opened the Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The yearlong celebration calls on Catholics to reflect on the theme of mercy and forgiveness and showcase a more inviting faith. That theme resonates in Africa, home to about 200 million Catholics. A sizable part of this population is tormented by war, violence from Muslim extremists, HIV/AIDS, and poverty.

Pope Francis Opens Doors to 'Year of Mercy' in a Time of Fear

Image via Osservatore Romano / Handout via Reuters / RNS

Pope Francis launched the jubilee of mercy on Dec. 8 with the opening of the Vatican’s holy door, joined by his predecessor Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and thousands of pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square, surrounded by heavy security.

“This extraordinary year is itself a gift of grace,” Francis told the faithful gathered at the Vatican.

“To pass through the holy door means to rediscover the infinite mercy of the Father who welcomes everyone and goes out personally to encounter each of them.”

What's That Jubilee Year of Mercy the Pope Keeps Talking About?

Image via  / Shutterstock.com

In the Catholic Church, a jubilee — or a holy year — is a religious event that involves the forgiveness of sins, as well as reconciliation. But the idea of a jubilee dates back to the Bible: “And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim freedom throughout the land for all who live on it,” Leviticus 25:10. For the ancient Israelites, the jubilee was a time properties were returned to their original owners or legal heirs, slaves were set free, and creditors were barred from collecting debts.

Pope Boniface VIII in 1300 declared the first Christian jubilee, beginning with the opening of the Holy Door, an entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica, usually blocked, through which pilgrims can enter. Other holy doors are also opened for this jubilee in Rome and around the world for the first time; the year ends when they are closed.

On Nov. 29 Pope Francis opened a door at the cathedral in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, as a symbolic start to the Holy Year.

Forgive Us Our Debts

SARA WAS DESPERATE. She was fleeing an abusive husband, living with her mother in a mold-infested house, and she needed to rent an apartment. A recent college graduate, Sara had a job at a hospital that paid well and provided benefits. Apartment rent was within her means. But the background check came back to the landlord: “Do not rent.”

Sara (not her real name) was $22,000 in arrears on her student loans. The more she tried to pay the debt, the higher the interest rate climbed. Only after she filed for bankruptcy did she learn that none of her student loans were eligible for even the basic bankruptcy protection afforded other debts. At any time, the lender could garnish her wages—even to the point of making it difficult to pay basic living expenses, such as rent and utilities.

Sara is one of the new 21st century debtors, in financial bondage because they borrowed money for education. In 2014, the education debt in the United States totaled $1.2 trillion. More than 7 million borrowers are in default.

Why are education loans so difficult to manage? Credit card debtors often can transfer high-interest debt to another lender for a better deal. Car loan borrowers can walk away from the loan and allow the car to be repossessed. Homeowners can refinance their mortgage or, if all else fails, default and save their money for a rent deposit while the lender goes through the foreclosure process. As a last resort, these types of borrowers can declare bankruptcy and have their debts forgiven or reduced in a manageable payment plan. Bankruptcy courts will not allow debtors to be made homeless just because they can’t pay their creditors.

But if the borrower of an education loan is late with a payment or goes into default, according to Andrew Martin of The New York Times, the lender can levy penalties up to 25 percent of the balance and legally increase the interest rate to several times the original rate.

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Degrees Without Jobs

RECENT YEARS HAVE witnessed a deluge of headlines such as “Jobs Become More Elusive for Recent College Grads” from Reuters and “For Recent College Grads, Recessions Equal Underemployment” from Inside Higher Ed—headlines that make even the most hearty college students experience heart palpitations. According to a 2014 analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, “the underemployment rate for 22-year-olds is about 56 percent, indicating that more than half of the people just graduating end up working in jobs that do not require a degree,” jobs for which they are overqualified.

To put this into perspective: I am a 22-year-old senior at a private Christian university. Of my close friends who graduated in the last year or two, the only ones who were able to find jobs in their fields were education and nursing majors.

Don’t get me wrong, I love liberal arts and feel grateful for the critical thinking skills, study-abroad opportunities, and philosophical discussions that attending a liberal arts school has afforded me. But learning in the same analysis that “only 40-to-45 percent of recent college graduates majoring in communications, liberal arts, business, and social sciences were working in jobs that required a degree” is troubling at best.

 In addition, seven out of 10 college seniors are graduating with an average of $29,400 in debt due to rising tuition costs for an undergraduate education. The National Center for Labor Statistics found that in the past decade, the cost of “tuition, room, and board at public institutions rose 42 percent after adjustment for inflation.” The situation was a bit (though not much) better at colleges in the private not-for-profit group, like my own, where the average price rise was 31 percent.

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Rivers in the Desert: Why New Year's Day Is a Christian Holiday

Design36/Shutterstock
Design36/Shutterstock

Growing up in Texas, fairly close to New Orleans, I knew all about Mardi Gras. It was a big deal in the South, replete with combinations of debaucherous consumption and self-exposure. What I didn’t understand, being the good evangelical Protestant that I was at the time, was that it actually was the celebration preceding the liturgical period of Lent.

It was only once I framed the excesses of Mardi Gras with the self-discipline and austerity of Lent that it began to make much sense. Not that the gratuitous self-abuse was then justified, but at least it made more sense, given the things everyone was supposed to give up during the weeks to come.

This got me thinking about how we approach New Year’s Eve, and framing it, too, by what we expect and anticipate from New Year’s Day. Yes, the celebrations of New Year’s Eve are, in some ways, just an excuse to indulge ourselves in excessive partying, but they also stand in contrast against the hopes we hold for the following day.

Texts of Terror and Wealth

JEREMIAH IS OUR uncomfortable and discomfiting companion this month. He is a vehemently emotional man of God. Far from struggling to bring his emotion under control, he instead prays for more raw grief and anger. He knows that even his current rage and tears in no way match the scale of devastation wreaked by unfaithfulness to God’s covenant. “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored? O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!” (8:21 - 9:1). To be a prophet is to risk letting our hearts resonate with the feelings of God. Jeremiah might help us discern whether our own witness for justice has turned into something too rational, measured, even routine. How do we re-engage our hearts and derive our passion from God’s divine passion?

Luke’s deep concern to show Jesus’ prophesying against the toxicity of Mammon, the power games of the wealthy, is ablaze in the gospel readings. Perhaps those who read them to us in church should preface them with a warning along the lines of Bette Davis’ famous quip in All About Eve: “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night!”

Martin L. Smith was an Episcopal priest, author, preacher, and retreat leader when this article appeared.

[ September 1 ]
Entertaining Angels
Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 112; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

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From the Archives: March-April 1999

IN A CROWDED auditorium [in Honduras after Hurricane Mitch] that served as a shelter for 900 people, the scarce supply of drinking water was kept in a bucket and labeled with a sign that said "Do not use your own cup." Five bored, mischievous children, however, could think of nothing better than to try to stick their cups in the water. Then one relief worker gave them a special assignment. "This water is very important," she said. "I need you to be the guardians of the water so that no one dips in their own glass." And they, feeling respected and needed, became the fierce, undaunted protectors of the water supply.

Similarly, countless Hondurans are saying, "If not us, then who?"—righting their relationship with themselves, assuming the task of rebuilding their homes and communities, recognizing that progress occurs when they participate. Women, who have never even valued their never-ending activity as work, are speaking up when the pay sheets are evaluated. "I planted a garden. I rebuilt the wall of my house. I earned my corn and beans."

What other relationships are being righted? First, Hondurans of all stripes in communities marked by division and distrust are working together in local emergency committees: men and women, evangelicals and Catholics, Liberals and Nationalists—debating ideas, prioritizing projects, participating in work crews. Mutual support and mutual respect are the expression of Jubilee.

Jennifer Casolo was coordinator of the Women's Pastoral Center in San Isidro Labrador Parish in Tocoa Colon, Honduras, when this article appeared.

Image: Water bucket, Dawn Hudson / Shutterstock.com

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What's Next for Jubilee USA?

IN LUKE’S GOSPEL, Jesus begins his public ministry by speaking of the “year of the Lord’s favor”—the year of Jubilee. The Hebrew scriptures lay out this process, in which a society regularly forgives debts, restores land, and sets captives free. This was actually practiced in ancient times and protected all people from losing or gaining too much.

Jubilee USA Network arose as a part of the global movement to forgive unjust debt and, together with Jubilee partners in 50 countries, continues to work to reform the international financial system to protect and ensure the participation of the most vulnerable. We are a coalition of 200 congregations and 75 organizations in the U.S., including groups such as Sojourners, the Episcopal Church, and the AFL-CIO.

Now that international debt crises have migrated from the global South to the North, we are seeing new opportunities to enflesh the biblical concept of Jubilee: We are advocating, and decision-makers are considering, real solutions to deal with the root causes of the international financial crises.

At Jubilee USA, we believe that to reduce the need for international lending, we need to restore revenue in poor countries. Between 2000 and 2008, the developing world lost $6.5 trillion in tax evasion and other illicit financial flows—if that money had been taxed even modestly, it would have eliminated the debt crises in the developing world. That is why this year Jubilee USA helped to launch the Financial Accountability and Corporate Transparency Coalition (the FACT Coalition) and helped introduce legislation to close tax havens, end corporate secrecy, and stop international tax avoidance to end the need for poor country borrowing and restore revenues to the developing world.

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