Tuesday, March 2, 2010

a bit more on debt...

Ever since I went to that lecture last week, I have been thinking about debt and its relationship to theology.  I know frightfully little about economics, and only slightly more about theology, but it sure seems like so many theological types have not had to worry about debt that I fear we too easily spiritualize the Biblical language of debt.  Of course, I'm in the same boat - just because I've taken a vow of poverty does not at all mean I have any idea of what poverty or debt actually feels like - but I fear that we can theologize debt, real financial debt, into sinfulness, like we now owe God for all the things we have done wrong.  I'm not trying to nullify talking about sin, but I do want to avoid reading the gospel like it is just talking about our souls - the salvation of which Jesus speaks is integral, not just getting souls to heaven, but overcoming the crushing forces that warp the human situation.  Debt may not be the only one, but it is certainly a real one, and reading Torah, the prophetic tradition, the gospels makes clear that it is near and dear to the heart of the Biblical God.  An entire chapter of Leviticus (25) is about the jubilee year, when all debts were to be forgiven and land restored to families, and other institutionalized means of preventing debt from consuming the people.  Isaiah, Amos and Micah among other prophets rail against practices that condemn people to fall into debt (see, e.g., Amos 2:2; 3:11; 6:10-11.  Speaking about the crushing system of debts in the Palestine of Jesus' time, Walter Wink says, "It is no accident that the first act of the Jewish revolutionaries in 66 C.E. was to burn the Temple treasury, where the record of debts was kept." [Incidentally, if you want to read the article from which I got this quote, go here: http://www.cres.org/star/_wink.htm.  He reads the injunctions to turn the other cheek, give one's coat with one's tunic, and go the second mile in the context of Roman occupation - a very different view from our usual spiritualized thinking about those "impossible" injunctions!]  A number of theologians talk about Jesus' turning over tables in the temple in the context of the economic control that the necessity of making very expensive sacrifices would impose over the poor.  We tend to read parables like the unforgiving servant (MT 18:23-35) or the workers in the vineyard (MT 20:1-16) as if they are really about God forgiving sin or being merciful with us - and yes, that's true, but why would that extend only to the interior life, as opposed to also entailing the surface reading of economic debt, which is so common in the time of Jesus and in our own time?  What would have happened those people that Dr. Yunus lent the $27 to if they had borrowed money from loan sharks?  How long would that debt have dogged them?  Why in poor areas are there so many paycheck advance places that charge unbelievable interest rates?  Why when I was in Zimbabwe did I so often see endless fields of flowers for sale abroad all while so many people were hungry?  [Foreign debt, in case I was unclear there.]  The Church, talking about economic justice, makes clear that we are not isolated monads or self-made men and women - we are inherently communal beings, and our lives impact one another.  There is a social nature to our lives - we don't become the body of Christ by sitting together for an hour on Sundays, we become it by behaving communally, and that means that there is a social reality in every aspect of our existence: economic, political, familial.  Debt is not just a ready symbol for sin or a story to be allegorized, but a real and enduring source of human suffering that the gospel demands be alleviated.

No comments: