Haiti, ONE and this week's gospel...

Sometimes the lectionary texts say NOTHING to me - and that is part of the rhythm of an ordered life - exploring what is flat, closed-off and all the rest rather than flitting from one buzz to the next. But sometimes those ancient texts sound like God is blasting a boom box at us with a vengeance - and this week's gospel text from Luke 4 is one of those times. It reads

As he always did on the Sabbath, he went to the meeting place. When he stood up to read, he was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Unrolling the scroll, he found the place where it was written:

God's Spirit is on me;
he's chosen me to preach the Message of good news to
the poor,
Sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and
recovery of sight to the blind,
To set the burdened and battered free,
to announce, "This is God's year to act!"

He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the place was on him, intent. Then he started in, "You've just heard Scripture make history. It came true just now in this place."
(Luke 4: 16-21 - the Message)

As I was thinking and praying about the reality of Haiti in the light of this text - to say nothing of the Wall Street banks announcing their massive bonuses and profits - I got this invitation from the ONE Organization. It was a call to action to forgive Haiti's international debt:

ONE today called on global creditors to immediately cancel Haiti's $890 million debt and help give the earthquake-stricken country a fresh start by ensuring that new aid comes in the form of grants, not debt-incurring loans. In a petition email sent to the group's more than two million members, ONE's U.S. Executive Director Sheila Nix said:

"One way we can help Haitians build a better tomorrow is to convince global creditors to cancel Haiti's $890 million international debt. Thankfully, the United States has already forgiven Haiti's past debts and now only gives assistance in the form of grants. We need Haiti's other creditors-the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, and countries like Taiwan and Venezuela-to follow our lead and do the same. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has the power to help make that happen."

Let me remind you of the biblical context: Jesus has just read to his synagogue from the prophet Isaiah - what some consider to be II Isaiah (speaking to Israel after their return from exile in Babylon) about the year of Jubilee. Peterson call it "God's year to act" and the more traditional English translations speak of "the acceptable year of the Lord." However you put it, the words reference Jubilee - that celebration of Sabbath celebrations - where debts are forgiven:

+ land is returned to their original owners
+ debt prisoners/slaves are set free to return to their families to start over
+ farms are to lay fallow and be replenished through Sabbath rest

+ and all of society is allowed to experience - and practice forgiveness: God's grace in the flesh

So one of the ways we can live into the promise of Jesus is to join ONE and urge the international financial community to embrace Jubilee: forgive the Haitian debt and let the poorest of the poor rebuild in dignity. (For more information on the ONE Campaign, check out: www.one.org/us/actnow/drophaitiandebt/

Another thing that is essential - if we want to move beyond the necessary acts of mercy to the more lasting acts of justice - is to fight social amnesia. Consider a few important highlights:

+ The island we know as Haiti was colonized for Spain by Columbus in 1492; the presence of Europeans on the island - and their bacteria/germs - essentially decimated the indigenous population through disease.

+ When Spain found gold in what we know as Latin America, the island slipped into disregard and became a haven for pirates; in 1664 France took control of the island under the work of the French West India Company and began to cultivate tobacco and sugar production which was becoming increasingly popular in Europe

+ African slaves were introduced to the island under the French so that production could increase at the lowest possible cost; by the late 1700s 40% of European sugar and 60% of Europe's coffee came from this island through the labor of approximately 790,000 African slaves

+ A slave revolt took place in Haiti following the inspiration of the French Revolution and in 1794 Haiti had completed their bloody break from France; France, however, did not officially recognized independence until 1825 when they demanded a payment in gold for each freed slave; the result cost the new Haitian government over $150 million gold francs.

This is the beginning of a nation born into debt to their former owners. Two other important facts are critical to recall in an effort to combat social amnesia:

+ First, after decades of being in debt to European banks to both pay-off France and strengthen their cash crop economy, the United States intervened under Woodrow Wilson. Haitian debt had been transferred to American banks by this time and from 1915 - 1934 the US essentially controlled the island of Haiti. The Great Depression brought an end of overt US control over Haiti, but the nation remained financially dependent on US Banks until 1947.

+ Second, after a brief time of political freedom, the military coup of Francois Duvalier - Papa Doc - took place in 1957. Papa Doc Duvalier, the former minister of health, was known to be a humanitarian but soon established a cruel and corrupt regime committed to amassing personal power and wealth. It is estimated that he had 30,000 Haitians murdered and forced the emigration of thousands of others, leaving behind only the poorest of the poor. Hison, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier ruled with increasing violence and corruption between 1971-1986.

By the time the Roman Catholic priest, Jean-Bertraud Aristede, was elected two additional tragedies had fallen full blown on Haiti. The "good neighbor policies" of FDR had tried to make Haiti into a West Indian economic success with an emphasis on agricultural export. When their projects failed, US aid was seriously diminished creating more poverty with fewer options. The same idea was at work under the Free Trade agreements of the 90s that flooded the Haitian economy with cheap American agricultural goods but no real market for Haitian exports. The result was a massive imbalance of trade that forced Haiti into greater debt with no way out.

What is critical to recall - in addition to the brutal realities of the events I have just noted - is that most of our founding Christian fathers - Pilgrims and patriots alike - not only participated in this deadly history, but sanctified it. And while the English colonists did not set in motion the ugly legacy of slavery and debt in Haiti, we were instrumental in the other West Indian slave/molasses/rum economies. In fact, our founders took captive Native Americans and traded them for African slaves throughout the West Indies.

So in many ways the words of scripture about the sins of the father and mothers lasting for three and four generations has become the tragic truth in Haiti. Not only is spiritual forgiveness a necessity, it must become enfleshed - incarnated - in debt forgiveness, rebuilding and deep support after the initial tragedy is over. This is what Jubilee demands for this IS the year of God's action.


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