Sunday 22 December 2019

The Bible in Transmission (Autumn/Winter 2019) on Debt

The latest issue of The Bible in Transmission, from Bible Society, is available online here, offering a collection of articles on the issue of debt.

I have taken the summaries of articles below from Nathan Mladin’s Editorial.

Luke Bretherton... opens the issue with a brief and convincing plea for a richer and more nuanced understanding of the notion of debt. The language of debt, he shows, is pervasive across time as a means of expressing our personal and communal obligations: to God, to one other [sic], to society and to creation. At its best, debt can express social cooperation and mutually advantageous exchanges. At its worst, debt can be used as a means of bondage, exploitation and domination. Luke’s article ends with a clarion call for the Church to proclaim and embody the gospel story of the God who comes to liberate people from debt slavery and to lavish credit on those the powers-that-be deem to be high risk.

Eve Poole
Debt and Deformation [currently no working link to this article]
Eve Poole... helpfully introduces the idea of creation orders to explain how debt extends beyond the economic sphere. We are all born, she shows, into a form of debt, to our families, to society, and to creation. Eve also highlights the importance of institutions, which she describes as systems of rules. Where the rules are just, society runs smoothly. Where they are broken, they lead to injustice and harm. Student debt is then discussed as an illuminating example of a ‘rule’ that is doing more harm than good – effectively turning students from citizens into consumers, further extending the reach of the market into society.

Barbara Ridpath... looks at the most common form of debt: personal or household debt. She explains the reasons why people generally borrow, the warning signs of difficulties, the effects of unpayable debt, while also suggesting how practically to help the overindebted. A fruitful question is woven through the piece: what would a more just and loving approach to extending and repaying credit look like? To begin answering this question, Barbara distils the key arguments of the Forgive us our Debts report and offers the Christian ethical framework we put forward.

Hannah Rich... offers an insightful discussion of the Church’s response to debt problems. This has been mainly, but not exclusively in the form of debt advice, in partnership with Christians Against Poverty, but also through independent initiatives. Hannah shows how churches are uniquely placed to offer support that is deeply relational and holistic. Churches, she notes, generally address not only people’s economic burden of debt but also their relational and spiritual needs. Their support is inclusive, holistic, and joined up, integrated with other forms of provision. As an institutional voice, Hannah shows, the church has significant capacity to challenge unjust structures. The most notable initiative on this front has been what the media called the ‘War on Wonga’, the campaign led by the Archbishop of Canterbury against doorstep and payday lenders charging interest rates and fees of up to 5000 per cent. But there is, as she rightly points out in the conclusion of her piece, plenty of scope for the church ‘to go further in challenging unjust economic structures and create genuine alternatives’.

Philip Booth... and Stephen Nakrosis...approach the topic of government debt through the frameworks of Catholic Social Teaching, natural law, and virtue ethics. As with other forms of debt, government debt, they show, is not always and unquestionably problematic. It should be assessed on the reasons why it is incurred (e.g. spending while not taxing properly vs borrowing to invest in infrastructure) and its effects on, among other things, the relationship between generations, and between government and the governed, according to the principles of intergenerational justice and solidarity. They note, however, that any increase in the size and scope of government must be financed through adequate taxation of the current generation.

Paul Mills applies explicitly biblical wisdom on debt and stewardship to how Christians should think about government borrowing today. Paul acknowledges that there is no biblical material which speaks directly to the question of government debt, but offers scriptural principles focused on the ‘relational dynamics at work between borrower and lender, and between current and future generations’ which are still applicable to the issue of government debt today. The article ends with a set of suggestions to reduce and make government borrowing more transparent and responsible. In the end, however, beyond anything that policies informed by Christian wisdom may achieve, there is an urgent need, he argues, for ‘a change of societal heart’, away from selfishness towards self-giving. And it is in this context that Christians, shaped by the gospel, have a significant opportunity to embody a spirit of generosity and sacrifice.

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