Thinking morally and theologically about debt
By Scott A. Kirkland
May 7 2019Australia has one of the highest per capita levels of household debt in the world. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported at the end of March that household debt to income levels had reached 200 per cent. There are a lot of reasons for these very high levels, which I am not going to go into here. Most of Australia, however, is full of people who are indebted. With this in mind, I would like to reflect on the way the New Testament often makes ethical claims that to us and its audience might seem absurd. Yet, we are asked to act in spite of evidence suggesting such action might be hopeless.
In Romans 13:8, Paul asks the church in Rome to “Owe nobody anything, except that you love one another, for to love the other is the fulfilment of the law”. In the Roman world, the language of debt was surrounded not just with economic implications, but also with social implications. It was a world dominated by structures of patronage. This meant that each person on the social ladder owed a debt of obligation to someone further up the ladder, and, likewise, potentially someone further down the ladder. The obligation went both ways; a patron may provide protection, representation or a loan to a client, and in return the client was to provide services to the patron if called upon. This went all the way to the top of the empire in the Emperor himself. Indeed, if we remember the passage immediately before this, Paul tells the church to fulfil its obligations to the Emperor.
In this world structured by patronage, Paul asks the church to refuse to owe anyone anything except love. Love, after all, is the fulfilment of the law, of obligation. For the weakest members of this community, this may have sounded like an absurd impossibility, trapped as they were by these systems. Likewise, for the strong, it may well have been quite offensive, a challenge to their social and economic position. Paul is turning the whole social world of these people on its head in one single command.
Debt, in our world, has an analogous relationship to its function in the Roman world. When I enter into a relationship with a creditor, I am taking on certain obligations that exceed pure economic obligation. For example, when I take out a home loan I tell the bank that I will continue in my employment and make sure I make my repayments. This is more than just a monetary obligation, it is an obligation to manage my life in certain ways, to better myself in my chosen career, to keep my employers happy, to be responsible with any extra money I might have, and to restrain other forms of spending (for example, giving) if it is an impediment to my obligations. Entering into this debt is a moral as well as economic obligation.
Debt starts to structure my entire world when obligations come in all directions, from grand things like education and healthcare, right down to smaller everyday expenses paid for on the credit card. For example, when an education costs me a loan in the tens of thousands of dollars, I might think differently about the kinds of ends which my education is geared towards. I might opt for the profession that will earn more rather than the one I love.
One of the key ways in which indebtedness then structures our lives (and our loves) is in the way it creates temporal rhythms for us. There are the ordinary pay cycles and financial years that we live within. But, there are also ways in which debt can squeeze hope out of time. For example, if I am in a situation where I need a payday loan, my financial resources will be depleted such that I will be unable to meet my obligations to my creditors in the current pay cycle. Time, therefore, takes on an intensity and urgency such that the potential to extend my time to pay another pay cycle seems to be a good decision, even in spite of evidence to the contrary. The pressure of time collapsing in on me as my debts come back to haunt me is enough for me to simply extend the time I have to pay, extend my credit. And for the creditors, there is incentive enough to lend to me in that I remain caught in their grip. In these conditions, in which debt seems insurmountable, a brute fact of existence, it becomes very difficult to hope for Paul’s world in which we owe nobody anything other than love.
To live in a world free of debt and full of love is every bit as radical now as it was for Paul. In fact, it might even be just as impossible to imagine. Hope can be like that, though. We know the world can be different, because we have seen something different in the messiah, Jesus. But, we also know that there is no guarantee of success. Sometimes we will look foolish for challenging something that is so structurally significant as to call into question the fabric of our life together.
Paul continues in Romans 13:11, “Therefore, knowing the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed”. The time Paul is talking about is the time of the coming of the messiah, and with him a different world. While the world is asleep, Paul tells the Roman church that they know things ought to be different, and, in fact, they are different in that Jesus has changed them in himself. He continues, “The night is far gone”, and it is at this point in the night that it is both darkest and hope is most appropriate for “the day is at hand”.
Dr. Scott A. Kirkland is a Postdoctoral Fellow & Research Coordinator at Trinity College Theological School
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