The Common Good

A Spiritual Glossary of Debt

Debt, multitudes think, is bad. It could be good, by helping more people manage the energy of money. The Lord’s Prayer helps the confusion along: some pray to be forgiven debts, others to be forgiven trespasses. Good debt does not trespass. Bad debt is most often done by banks, and trespasses inside people, insidiously, and shames them. Religious institutions help the shame along by mispraying the Lord’s Prayer.

Debt might be good. In his book on Debt: The First 5000 years, David Graeber opens with a story. The story is paradigmatic. A woman tells a man the story about a person who is “under water.”  “But, shouldn’t she have to pay her debt?”  Should. Have. Pay. Debt. Those four words go together. They mispray the Lord’s prayer. Instead we might pray, “forgive the banks their trespasses into our souls first and then our pocketbooks.”   

The German word “schuld” means both debt and guilt. What would happen if the word debt were morally neutralized, in both those who pay and those who are paid? In market terms, a debt is an exchange that has not been brought to completion. It is not a moral matter but an exchange matter.

It is economically sensible to have debt. It is not economically sensible to throw debtors in jail, psychologically, spiritually, or actually. The goal of the following glossary is to get the question of debt into an instrumental pragmatism and out of morality. Odd that a spiritual glossary would want to do that, right?  On the way to pragmatism, there is a spiritual transformation that occurs. We stop being embarrassed by debt and start being empowered to make justice for ourselves and not the banks.

Never forget that Germany, today’s enforcer of Euro-austerity, was the beneficiary of one of history’s most magnanimous acts of debt amnesty in 1948. It was called the Marshall plan. Today Germany thrives in relative terms, while enforcing punishmentalism around debt towards Greece. The Marshall Plan was good, not bad. It, rather than austerity, could be widely followed.

Right now the banks own too much, and the people own too little. Misunderstanding the word debt is at the root. Thus a glossary so that we can forgive ourselves the ways we trespass using words.

Austerity, the policy used to legitimate lowering union wages and decrease government spending.

Bad, the word linked to those with debt instead of those who benefit from debt.

Chapter 11, something for corporations not individuals and not Greece.

Debt, something rich people should have and poor people should not.

Envy, the way everybody wants to be richer than everybody else.

Fear, the delivery system of social control, as in fear of being bad.

Greed, what allows corporate executives to make 350 times what their lowest paid workers get.

Holy, what markets and exchanges and debts could be if there were justice.

Ignorance, what allows people to internalize shame about their mortgages being under water.

Justice, what happens when many people benefit.

Kitchens, things you finance at high rates.

Love, something that everybody thinks is the most important thing while also believing that markets are not to be effected by it.

Moral hazard, one of the arguments banks use to refuse to forgive mortgages because such forgiveness might encourage people to buy more than they “deserve.”

Naive, what people are when they say governments should reduce debt, which drives economies to grow and make room for more people to participate.

Ostracized, what many do when they internalize shame about their personal debt. “I must have done something wrong.”

Personal, how shame about debt feels.

Queer and questioning: what people become when we begin to question the mythologies around debt

Risk, what other people are supposed to do in the market.

Student loans, one way to get an education, by which banks and Sallie Mae benefit mightily.

Timid, what describes the American public who allow banks to remain unregulated, uncontrolled, unjust while paying their debts as though it was right so to do.

Untamed, what describes the American financial system, which works for the few at great cost to the many.

Voracious, the appetite of capitalism for capital.

War, what nation states do with our money and the root cause of the current stagnation.

X Factor, what might change if we re interpreted the word debt and understood that it is not a crime but a form of fuel, a fuel that belongs to us, not the banks.

You, the one who could change the system by learning to pray the Lord’s Prayer, with meaning, and teaching the financiers to do the same.

Zooming, what the economy and our spirits could be if we learned how to pray better, exchange money without shame, and took the wag out of our financial fingers.

Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper is Senior Minister at Judson Memorial Church in New York City.

Image: Business man underwater, Minerva Studio / Shutterstock.com

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