He mine by gift, I his by debt (Robert Southwell)
Happy New Year! I realize that the title of this posting flies in the face of the advice given at this time of year by every financial advisor. We’ve spent too much on gifts and entertaining and the bills are coming due and we know that we shouldn’t spend what we don’t have. Debt which doesn’t promise real return after all – of joy, of growth, of connection – is not a good thing. But I’ve written before about the power of good kinds of debt, and so my wish for a debt-filled new year is a joyous wish, I promise.
The choirs here at St. Alban’s sang an anthem by Richard Wayne Dirksen last Sunday, his setting of the words by 16th century poet Robert Southwell, A Child My Choice, and as happens often times, a word or phrase I’ve seen dozens of times jumps out at me with extra meaning. And so it was with the little phrase above from verse two of Southwell’s poem. The word debt crops up in several hymns, and many say it every week, or for some even every day: And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors so goes one version of The Lord’s Prayer.
I first wrote about Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s small book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth in July 2011. But hearing her recently on WAMU’s “Diane Rehm Show” reminded me of her wisdom around this issue of debt. In her book she notes that in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, the word for sin and debt is the same. A Redeemer offers us deliverance from sin and we are able to redeem our debts, after all.
Atwood makes the point that we are all in debt to the planet and its creator for sustaining our lives. She describes debt as being essentially a concept of fairness and a system that requires a level of trust and reciprocal altruism…I’ve done something for you and now you owe me. If that debt isn’t repaid in some form we fall into sin. How one repays a debt, however, isn’t always obvious. Repayment might be as simple as saying thank you and it might be as nebulous as the concept of “paying it forward”. Whatever form debt takes, the power of the common good is always at the heart of repayment.
Monetary debt would seem then to be the least of our various debts. Rather, we are most indebted to God for giving us life and for creating this planet. Sadly, we don’t seem to take our repayment to the planet very seriously. Debt is only ruinous when we are unable to pay it back, and it appears we’re quickly losing our ability to repay the planet for sustaining us. Atwood points out that credit is only a problem when it dries up, and we have to begin to wonder if the planet is drying up (sometimes literally) our line of credit. She uses Dickens’ character of Scrooge as an example – he is bad because he isn’t in debt, refusing to spend his money, and he is redeemed at the end of the story when he learns to be generous.
We might then be most grateful to God for making us with the ability to form communities – places where we interact in ways that demonstrate how much we are beholden to each other. By keeping our lives intertwined with each other and with the environment in which we live, and by cultivating generosity, you might even begin to think that debt is the very thing which keeps human life sustainable at all.