Posted by: Dan | April 27, 2007

Christianity and Capitalism Part V: Sharing and Debt

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
~ Paul, Gal 5.1

I would now like to move into some of the more concrete outworkings of what I have been exploring in this series on Christianity and capitalism by exploring some of the ways in which the nonsensical charity of Christianity should play out in our contemporary context.

First of all, I would like to envision both the sharing that prevents debt and the sharing of debt within the Christian community. Few things are so effective in ensuring the unchallenged sovereignty of capitalism as the structures of debt that pervade all areas of our society. Debt ensures that we remain in a state akin to slavery. We are held in bondage by the credit companies, the banks, the government, the powers (and just like slavery in days gone by, so also we have trouble imagining an economic system that does not rely on debt).

It is interesting to note that even at the time of Jesus, debt was perceived to be one of the main structures that maintained oppressive powers. Thus, first-century Jewish liberation movements addressed debt as a central issue. It is worth highlighting two examples. During the “Great Revolt” of the Jews against Rome (AD 66-70), one of the first things the revolutionaries did was burn the debt records (cf. Josephus' Wars, 2:427). However, some thirty years prior to this revolt another alternative had been initiated — Jesus began a community that “held all things in common” so that “no one was in need” and in this way a powerful, yet nonviolent, alternative to the structures of debt was established and quietly began to grow and move towards the heart of the empire. The first option, the option taken by the Jewish revolutionaries (which, by the way, is the same option as the one taken by Tyler Durden in Fight Club) is, however, one that is forever closed to those who pursue the second option, the option taken by Jesus.

Therefore, the first step to being liberated from capitalism is to also refuse debt as an option within our lives. However, if the avoidance of debt is to be a realistic option for many of us (especially those of us who are poor and on the margins) we must begin to share financially with one another. This means doing “nonsensical” things like having a community that sponsors a person's university education so that that person isn't driven into debt by a Student Loan. This means doing things like supporting poor parents so that they can raise children without taking out loans and cash advances in order to get by. This also means living in a community where possession of credit cards is mostly a non-option. Living as a credit free society means moving through a series of steps. The first step would be to limit the number of credit cards within a household. Then, as we realise that we are doing fine by sharing one another's expenses, we could limit the number of credit cards within a particular Christian community and, ultimately, I believe that we could arrive at a place where there is no need for credit cards within the Christian community. When we can rely on one another for financial assistance then the drive to maintain a credit card in order to have a “good credit rating” (i.e. the drive to ensure that the slave-masters stay happy with us) becomes unnecessary.

However, because few of us are living in a state where we are free from debt, we need to realise that, if we are to share in ways that offer a genuinely liberating alternative, we must also share the debts that have already been accrued by other members of the Christian community. There are few actions that would be considered more nonsensical within capitalism than voluntarily paying off the debt of another person, but to engage in this sort of activity is the only honest option for a community that has been taught to pray for the forgiveness of debts (remember the Lord's Prayer?). This sharing of debt, that shares debt in order to overcome debt itself, should be a central aspect of the Church's proclamation of forgiveness. When we start living in this way, then maybe we will be able to remember that the gospel is literally good news to the poor, freedom for prisoners, and release for the oppressed. Of course, by describing the gospel in this way, I am quoting Jesus' “mission statement” as it appears in Lk 4, and it is interesting to note that this mission statement draws upon Israel's Jubilee tradition — a tradition that was centred upon the forgiveness of all financial and material debts!

It seems to me that the steps I have described here are quite simple to follow… but for one thing. That “thing” is the hold that a consumer lifestyle still has on most Western Christians. To pursue these simple steps we must begin to engage in a form of charity that restructures our lives and restricts our access to possessions, entertainment, and personal indulgences. The forms of charity that make sense within capitalism are forms that do not hinder my access to these things. Thus, just how genuinely Christian our charity is will be revealed by how willing we are to surrender precisely these things as we learn to share in new ways. I am reminded, once again, of the words of Mother Teresa who once said the following:

I don't want you to give from your excess. I want you to give in a way that hurts.

If we only give from our excess, our giving does not create an alternative to the structures of capitalism; rather it ensures that we remain the slaves of credit companies, banks, and governments. Only when we give “in a way that hurts” do we begin to embody a Christian alternative to capitalism that liberates us from debt.

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