“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” – Matthew 6:12
Smack dab in the middle of the Lord’s Prayer, obscured by old translations and otherworldly assumptions, is a radical cry for Jubilee justice. In this most stripped down form of Jesus’ teaching -- the bare essentials of what a disciple should bring before God in prayer -- freedom from economic debt for all of God’s children plays a central role. Why is this? And what might it mean for the millions of Christians who weekly pray the Lord’s Prayer to live more deeply into this dimension of our faith?
It seems that Jesus recognized debt as not simply a matter of money rightfully owed. Many of those who responded with excitement to his message of the coming Kingdom had basically become slaves through the deceptive system of debt bondage, sharecroppers on their family land whose wealth went to enrich absentee landlords. One bad year could lead these Judean and Galilean peasants to become trapped in intractable cycles of debt, struggling just to feed and clothe themselves. The little money they made to provide for their needs was further whittled down by the heavy taxation policies of the Roman Empire.
As the one who came that they (and us) may have life and have it abundantly, Jesus saw that debt was (and is) a primary mechanism of social and even spiritual control; one which must be broken if his hearers were to live into the freedom for which God had called them. He invited his followers to return to the Jubilee wisdom of the Law of Moses, practicing an economy characterized by community and forgiveness rather than competition and retribution. Evidently this vision really caught on, for the book of Acts tells us that in the early church goods were held in common so that none were indebted and all had their needs met. Calling his disciples to turn to God and one another rather than an unjust system to provide for their daily bread, Jesus got to the deepest roots of the people’s bondage and enlivened their liberation.
Well, here we are nearly 2,000 years later and it is no secret that our country is in the midst of a debt disaster. While Congress and the White House debate this summer how to tackle the more than $14 trillion in federal debt, the average American household is saddled with $30,000 in consumer debt and the typical college student graduates with just as much in loans. Meanwhile, the ongoing foreclosure crisis led to a record high repossession of more than 1 million homes in 2010.
The squeeze felt in recent years by folks in the middle class has been more like a stranglehold for the economically marginalized, who have been the victims of payday loans that charge exorbitant rates of interest and subprime mortgages that quickly balloon out of control. Communities of color have been particularly targeted by predatory lending and have suffered significant losses in wealth as a result, contributing to the persistence of an economic divide along racial lines.
Responding to the crisis, churches, nonprofits, and community groups all across the country have launched financial literacy programs in order to help people get their debt under control and begin to build strong financial foundations. Such efforts should be applauded -- and multiplied -- for they provide indispensable answers to ordinary people struggling to navigate a system which is purposefully mystified.
The current situation also presents an opportunity to begin to ask deeper questions about debt and explore new possibilities for our economic life together.
Certainly there are a number of good things -- receiving a college education, owning your own home -- which most of us would have to go into debt in order to achieve. There are other things, though, which we have been told we need but do not. And some of these are not only driving us deep into debt but preventing community and harming the planet as well. What pieces of the American dream are worth working long hours and taking out loans for, and what might we need to let go of in order to more fully participate in Jesus’ dream? How can we discern the difference, and can we trust others enough to help us do so?
Often people become trapped in debt due to an illness or some other personal crisis. Our cultural motto of 'everyone for themselves' makes it difficult to reach out for help in such moments, only exacerbating the problem. How might we better provide for one another as families and faith communities so that we all can experience financial security?
And finally, it is important to recognize that the present debt crisis is not simply a matter of personal irresponsibility or misfortune. Rather, just like in Jesus’ time, such rampant debt serves as a sign of an economic system which has been set up for the benefit of few and the bondage of most. Following him on the way to Jubilee, we may find it needs to be dismantled.
Tim Kumfer is a former Sojourners intern and a graduate of Duke Divinity School. This post first appeared in the newsletter of Faith and Money Network.