Economics and Forgiveness
Revd. Dr Simon Perry
13th October, 2019
Some of you will find it difficult not to complete the following sentence – at least in your heads. ‘A Lannister always…’. Pays his debts. It sounds quite simply, like the right thing any trustworthy person would do. ‘Paying your debts’, sounds bizarrely uncontentious, as a basic moral assumption. People should pay … their … debts… But what if we live in a culture that has unwittingly sanctified debt? What if our culture was so saturated in an ideology of debt, that it has come to define who we are? What if debt has become so normalised, we can no longer assess whether or not it is moral?
Perhaps one of the most iconic images of liberation from this entire debt-shaped culture, is the Statue of Liberty, at the foot of which is a poem ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’ The poem, by Emma Lazarus, is actually borrowing from Bronze Age pledges of debt-amnesty. The word used for freedom is derived from the Mesopotamian word for debt-forgiveness. That is the kind of liberty celebrated by the Statue of Liberty.
Even more explicit is the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia – said to have rung out to proclaim independence across the land, when the US declared its independence. But, once again, is the Leviticus text we heard this evening: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof.” The word for Liberty here, is again rooted in that ancient Mesopotamian word for debt-cancellation.
It found its way into Hebrew law and ethics from ancient Sumerian and Babylonian cultures that regularly pronounced nationwide debt cancellations. Whenever a new ruler took the throne, or in times of war of famine, ancient Mesopotamian kings from as early as the Fourth millennium before Christ, issued nationwide debt cancellations. All personal debts were wiped clean, all land that had been forfeit to pay debts was returned to the original owners and all debt-slaves were set free. However - the kings who issued these debt amnesties were not acting out of kindness, but self-interest.
The danger of allowing debts to grow unregulated was simply that creditors would eventually gain sufficient power to establish themselves as an oligarchic class with the potential to challenge the authority of the king. Since common people fleeing debt-slavery would abandon their land to avoid being enslaved, kings would lose the taxes farmed from that land, they would lose the citizens who made up their armies, and they would lose the manpower required for public building projects.
Failing to cancel a nation’s debts would weaken the king’s authority over the nation. On the other hand, creditors would amass debt-slaves of their own, acquire lands formerly under royal control, and be capable of raising mercenary armies financed by their accumulated wealth. This, ultimately, is what happened – time after time, empire after empire. And it is what led to the collapse of empire after empire – right up to the fall of Rome.
Widening the gap between emerging creditor elites and the people of land had created widespread debt-slavery, depleted the population, and concentrated money into the hands of a tiny minority with the privilege to employ tax avoidance strategies. This in turn resulted in the breakdown of the money economy. The clearest accounts of this collapse are offered by Roman historians (Diodorus, Dionysius, Livy and Plutarch). Again and again, they lament how Rome’s oligarchic creditor elites impoverished and disenfranchised their populations to the point where they eventually crumbled under the weight of their own greed.
Debt cancelation was a widespread practice in the ancient near east. It is confirmed by the Rosetta Stone – whose text is pictured on our Term Card. Lots of people know, of course, that the Rosetta Stone has helped modern translators to decipher ancient languages. But what the text actually says – that escapes most people’s attention. It is, in fact, a decree of debt cancellation.
The Jewish tradition of ‘Jubilee’ is rooted in this Ancient Near Eastern narrative of debt amnesty, and a key theme running through Hebrew Scripture was the nation’s widespread failure to honour that tradition: Mosaic laws legislate debt amnesties and warn of the consequences of failing to issue them; Prophets demand that rulers honour them; Histories show how the great calamities to befall the nation were ultimately a result of failure to practice them. The Jewish contribution to the tradition of debt cancellation was to take the decision out of the hands of rulers, and codify them in law – making them a regular event.
Every 49 years, everyone in Israel would be given a clean slate, debts slaves are freed, family land is returned, all debts are cancelled. And although 49 years is a once-in-a-lifetime event – the weekly observance of Sabbath – every 7 days – is a constant reminder that however privileged or tough your current circumstances might be, they are by no means permanent. You and your family will not forever be trapped in debt. That is the primal promise of Sabbath.
Israel worshipped a God of gratuitous pan-dimensional forgiveness. Debt-amnesty is a fundamental and indispensable dimension of that forgiveness. If God himself has forgiven all the sin/debt of an individual, how can that individual remain in financial debt to a wealthy Israelite? If a Palestinian peasant is granted a ‘clean slate’ by Yahweh, how can any Israelite creditor fail to do likewise (at the very least on those jubilaic occasions required by Torah)? It may well be for this reason that for Luke, the petition ‘forgive us our sins requires forgiving ‘everyone indebted to us’ (11:4).
This is also the precise logic of the Matthean parable of the unmerciful servant (Mt 18:21-35). Forgiveness of sin, when granted by this God, delegitimises any economic credit one might enjoy, and delegitimizes any economic debt one might have to a fellow Israelite.
If this is the case, then the wealthy creditors of Israel are likely to oppose not only Jesus’ explicit teaching about wealth, but also his seemingly innocuous teaching on forgiveness. Those who oppose that teaching are highly likely to have financial motives for so doing. When Jesus initiated an era of forgiveness, his teaching not only undermined this religious and legal status quo, but threatened economic and political norms that were widely and deeply treasured. His good news to the poor was not good news to everyone, and the ferocity of the opposition he faced is hardly surprising. From the political perspective, Jesus was killed because of his economic views.
The forgiveness Jesus advocated was (AND STILL IS) a dangerously aggressive practice: liberation, whatever form it takes, requires that formidable forces (in the political world or the human psyche) simply let go of highly treasured assets (be they economic resources or dependency relationships).
In a world saturated with the ideology of debt, it is hardly surprising that this interpretation of Scripture is rarely heard. But to speak about forgiveness without speaking of its economic dimension is to ignore the core dynamic of forgiveness.
It may be the same reason that the Statue of Liberty both symbolises debt-cancellation and stands over a nation, seventy percent of whom today are in a state of serious economic debt.
Some even argue that the liberty bell has cracked because of the hypocrisy of its text is being ignored by the very people who venerate it.
What impact these texts might have on us today, is a question we will revisit throughout the rest of this term.
Intercession: Forgiveness and Debt
God of freedom, of liberty, of forgiveness in all its fullness – we worship you as fallen people in a fallen world.
Forgive us for compartmentalising your gifts to us – forgive us for judging people according to their economic status, for our lack of grace in relating to others, for separating spiritual truth from practical reality.
In a world submerged in so much debt, show us what it means to be a people who live and breathe forgiveness.
Where we are ignorant of the harsh realities faced by others, open our eyes to the world as it is. Help us to measure the health of our community, by the plight of its weakest members.
Where we are happy to admire the wealthy because they are wealthy, or to hate them because they are wealthy: liberate us from self-righteousness, jealousy, smugness and bitterness, and help us to inhale grace, and to walk in your footsteps.
Where we mistake greatness for success, where we measure wealth by how much we have, rather than by how much we need, reveal to us the nature of true riches, of the wealth that catastrophe cannot threaten.
Where people feel and are made to feel worthless because they are not creditworthy – help us to embody a different vision of what it means to be human.
Fill us with your Spirit that we might live in accordance with the Spirit of Jubilee. That our vision of you would eclipse the false utopias we have learned to treasure. That our commitment to you might spring from every dimension of our being. To the glory of your name.