The Divine Economy & A Theology of Debt

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Debt and Reciprocity: Anthropological and Biblical Principles
An anthropologist whose thinking is very akin to Long’s is David Graeber. In his recent book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, we learn that all cultures are held together by a sense of mutual and reciprocal obligation that members have toward one another. This matrix provided a base for the informal yet complex systems of credit that preceded monetary exchanges for thousands of years before money was even invented. In these societies, everyone owed everyone something and therefore there was not a sharp class and moral distinction between debtors and creditors. Everyone was both a debtor and a creditor. The class distinction between the two is, therefore, something more recent in the long trajectory of human history. And in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, there is a concern to create a human community based on reciprocity and mutuality. This is what “law” in Judaism and Islam and “koinonia” in Christianity seek to accomplish. The biblical term for this is justice which also translates as righteousness.

Debt in and of itself is not bad when it is based upon a system of exchanges that assures everyone receives what is owed him or her according to the operative cultural norm. Alexander Hamilton regarded the national debt as a blessing for America because he thought it would help bind the colonies together as a new national entity. Of course, Hamilton was talking about reciprocity and mutuality among Euro-Americans. He had no intention of calculating in monetary terms the debt the nation owed Native Americans (American Indians) or the African Americans whose labor contributed significantly to its overall wealth and prosperity. The descendants of slaves who took a chance on the aspiration “not to owe anybody anything” in the late 1990’s and 2000’s by purchasing homes at then attractive mortgage rates are now being consigned by governmental decisions and the economy to the debtor class and condemned as morally culpable.

If one’s cosmology is confined uncritically within Adam Smith’s model then, yes, the poor, the unemployed, the hungry, the sick without health care, the homeless, and ill-housed have no one to blame but themselves because the fact that some one percent or less of the world’s population are multi-billionaires shows that wealth is being generated. The system works. Everyone will eventually benefit. God is rewarding the industrious and punishing the dullards and laggards. So extend tax breaks for the rich and impose more burdens on the poor by reducing their meager benefits even more because they do not deserve them anyway. We do not owe them anything.

This is a far cry from both the New Deal Franklin D. Roosevelt implemented and the Great Society President Lyndon B. Johnson championed. A new cultural ethos emerged in the 1970s during the Margaret Thatcher-Ronald Reagan Era. Giving a new twist to John Calvin’s notion of “double-predestination,” David Graeber wrote in his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years:

Actually, one might speak of a double theology, one for the creditors, another for the debtors. It is no coincidence that the new phase of American debt imperialism has also been accompanied by the rise of the evangelical right, who—in defiance of almost all previously existing Christian theology—have enthusiastically embraced the doctrine of “supply-side economics,” that creating money and effectively giving it to the rich is the most biblically appropriate way to bring about national prosperity (p. 377).

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Christian theology must explicate what is meant by the term “Kingdom of God” whose arrival Jesus announced throughout his ministry. In the Lord’s Prayer, which we say by rote, we pray: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven… Give us this day our daily bread… and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” It seems that the Kingdom whose arrival we seek to hasten is one wherein debtors are relieved of debt’s onerous burden and the hungry receive daily bread—not because they have necessarily earned it, through hard work, etc., but because they are entitled as God’s children to receive God’s blessing.

I ask my conservative friends in the audience [readers] if they can imagine God’s Kingdom arriving while there are still poor people? What about sick people without health care? What about homeless people? Of course not! I would argue that Christians are called to work with people of other faiths and anyone of goodwill to eliminate the presence and causes of human deprivation and dehumanization in the building of the Kingdom. This is how we express our gratitude for receiving from God what we did not earn and can never repay. This is how we operate in a debt-defined theology and society. On this side of eternity, we must endeavor to formulate a theology that protects the poor and does not condemn them. Martin Luther King Jr. made society the debtor when he said in his “I Have a Dream Speech” in 1963:

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir… It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

King, therefore, reverses the moral gaze, from the usual suspect of moral blame with regard to debt (i.e. the debtor), to focus on the entity that creates and polices its mechanism. He, in other words, has called American society to account for the debt it owes its citizens and people of other nations affected by its monetary policies.

If we wish to heed the call of scripture, to have ears to hear the words of Jesus Christ, if we wish to live into the dream prophesied by Dr. King, we as a church and as a society must seriously re-examine our understanding of economics and debt. Many of us think that the present economic crisis has to do with debt ceilings and bail-outs when in actuality, the present crisis has far more to do with a fundamental misunderstanding of human community (and the economics that bind members of that community) and a moral bankruptcy in which the Christian church has been either complicit or silent.

Debt is the natural condition of humanity: we are all, in our interconnectedness, indebted to one another, relying on one another for survival. Debt is the theological condition of humanity: we have received a salvation we did not earn. Since all are debtors, any class division between debtors and creditors is a false dichotomy predicated, at best, upon ignorance and, at worst, upon greed and sin. Again, since all are debtors, the appropriate and necessary mode of interaction is compassion, sharing, and mutual support. That is a theology of debt which might actually save this country.



James Noel, Professor of American Religion and the H. Eugene Farlough, Jr./ California Chair of African American Christianity at San Francisco Theological Seminary, is also a scholar, accomplished painter, renowned preacher, pastor, and 7th dan Tae Kwon Do Master. Noel has served as pastor at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Marin City, Calif., as well as interim calls at Sojourner Truth Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Calif., and New Liberation Presbyterian Church in San Francisco. His published works include “Black Religion & the Imagination of Matter in the Atlantic World” and “The Passion of the Lord: African American Reflections.” Noel’s play, “The Black Experience in Poetry and Song,” has been performed nationally and internationally. With a PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Noel helped create the GTU’s Black Church/Africana Studies Certificate Program. Courses include Modern Church Histories, The History Religions and Cultures of the African Diaspora, and African American Social, Political and Religious Thought.
Banner image by Jesper Noer.


Selected Bibliography
Blaney, David & Inayatullah, Savage Economics: Wealth, Power and the Temporal Walls of Capitalism.

DeAngelis, Frank, Reflections of a Bankruptee on Debt, Amnesty, Revolution and History: A Critique of Contract Theory.

Graeber, David, Debt: The First 5, 000 Years (Melvillehouse: 2011).

Greaber, David, Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams (Palgrave: 2001).

Hilton, Boyd, The Age of Atonement: The Influence of Evangelicalism on Social-Economic Thought, 1785-1885.

Johnson, Matthew V., “The Poverty of the Prosperity Gospel.”

Long, Charles, Significations: Signs, Symbols & Images in the Interpretation of Religion.

Lynd and Lynd, Middletown in Transition (Harcourt Brace: 1937).

Marx, Karl, Capital.

O’Connor, Alice, Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History (Princeton: 2001).

Smith, Adam, Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Smith, Adam, The Wealth of Nations.

Van der Liew, Critique of Heaven.

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