There’s nothing like a bit of personal experience to set you thinking. And when that bit of personal experience collides with undoubtedly the most stimulating and perhaps most important book I’ve read in the last two years, well, who knows where it might lead.
In my case the personal experience is the impending reality that in a year or so my eldest son will, God willing and predicted grades fulfilled, find himself with a place at a university. He wants to be Prime Minister. Inspired by Obama and undeterred by parliamentary scandals, as yet uncommitted to any particular party, but increasingly aware that few arenas have the opportunity to create greater positive change for large numbers of people than the righteous use of political power, he wants to study politics, philosophy and economics.
His name is Matthew Greene and his electoral campaign begins here.
Of course, there might be many things to concern a parent about their offspring’s departure to university and indeed their desire to serve in such a difficult and currently disdained sphere. Here, however, is what’s concerning me.
After three years at uni, Matthew will, like the vast majority of British students, be around £30,000 in debt – unless 100,000 people buy my next book. £30,000 is a lot of money. But he, and we, have been told that it’s ok, that that is the way things are done round here, that it is, in a word, ‘normal’. Certainly, it is really the only way most young people could possibly conceive of going to university. Still, I wonder, what kind of culture sees such a huge level of debt as ‘normal’? So what will he learn from university? A lot about politics, philosophy and economics. And how to live as a debtor, and to consider the borrowing of money against possible future earnings as normal.
Indebted to the future
Debt, however, constrains the future. Debt creates a bond, obligations that limit freedom. Debt is a form of slavery. Not just for impoverished African nations but for ‘rich’ Westerners. Indeed, isn’t a debt of £30,000 likely to change the kind of job students look for? Isn’t it likely to make them less entrepreneurial? Less concerned to make things, or make things better, and more concerned to get a job that swiftly rids them of that debt so they can be in a position to accrue another debt in the more alluring shape of a mortgage? In other words, isn’t it likely to lead talented people down a road where they deploy their God-given gifts and talents in arenas where there is the likelihood of the greatest personal monetary return, as opposed to a place where those talents might make the most significant difference to the society they are called to serve – whether in manufacturing or engineering or some entrepreneurial endeavour?
Isn’t that precisely what has happened in the last ten years to our brightest graduates? Haven’t too many of them beensiphoned off into the big banks to learn how to make money on money? Indeed, as former bishop of Worcester Peter Selby long ago pointed out, the real source of our indebted society is this: “Lending money has become the best way of making it, and there is a large constituency of people now with a strong interest in maintaining that situation.”
The reality is that high levels of debt have become normal in wider society – huge numbers of people have high levels of personal debt and even larger numbers of people, myself included, have a mortgage that well exceeds £30,000. It’s the system. And we are often told that the system, the current form of capitalism, is flawed but still probably the best one there is. So, we’re told, let’s work with it, regulate it where it’s prone to abuse, and be as generous as we can to its inevitable victims.
However, this too quickly dismisses the extraordinary scale of suffering that the system contributes to and colludes with. As Christianity made clear last month, the impact of the credit crunch is having terrible consequences on the world’s poor, but it’s vital to see that our economic arrangements were having a terrible and lethal impact on them long before the credit crunch. And our economic arrangements are having terrible impacts on many of the world’s rich nations. And that all requires deeper scrutiny.
Economies of truth
Our present economy is based on lending money at interest and that is in direct contradiction with the biblical revelation. Who is the righteous person of Psalm 15? Yes, he who tells the truth, he who keeps an oath but also he who lends his money without usury. Who is the righteous man of Ezekiel 18? Certainly, he is not an idolator or an adulterer, certainly he is generous to the poor, and: “He does not oppress anyone, but returns what he took in pledge for a loan… He does not lend at usury or take excessive interest…. (Ezekiel 18:7a, 8a)
Furthermore, Jesus is clearly opposed to an economy built round debt. It’s a truth that has been spiritualised away, as his teaching on debt is too swiftly turned into metaphors for sin. Consider the Lord’s Prayer. In corporate or private settings we use the words “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”, or perhaps “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” However, Matthew 6 does not speak of sin or trespasses but of debts: “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.”
Moreover, the context makes a monetary interpretation the obvious one. After all, there is a clear connection between the previous line, “Give us this day our daily bread” and “Forgive us our debts”. If you’re in debt it may be impossible to buy your daily bread. Similarly, if you require your neighbour to repay a debt they can’t afford it will make it very difficult for them to eat any bread that day.
Maybe Jesus means precisely what he says.
Indeed, in Luke’s Gospel, he proclaims the year of the Lord’s favour, the Jubilee, when all debts, and he means financial, will be cancelled. Jesus comes not merely to alleviate poverty but to change the systems that enslave people and perpetuate poverty. Jesus inaugurates the new kingdom economy. It’s a grace economy, not an exchange economy. A gift economy, not a take economy. A gratitude economy, not an entitlement economy. A freedom economy, not an economy that enslaves rich and poor. An economy with other people’s best interests at heart. A love economy. Of course, I’m not anti-business, any more than the Bible is. And it isn’t. Business is critical to wealth generation. Indeed, there’s no poverty alleviation without wealth generation, no real future for the poor without good, productive jobs. And there are increasing numbers of Christian businesspeople who are taking this challenge seriously and seeking not only to create jobs but to do so in ways that genuinely liberate other people’s talents, without long-term ties. Indeed, there’s a huge difference between a person who invests in you and shares the risk and the profit (or loss) and a person who lends you money looking for a return, whatever.
All of which brings me to the best book I’ve read in the last year. It’s Peter Selby’s re-issued Grace and Mortgage and it asks profound questions about what our message is to a culture in bondage by debt, who Jesus is for this culture, and with whom we are called to stand in solidarity. The fact that I haven’t yet worked out a six-step plan for applying all its lessons to my life and the global economy should not deter you. In our engagement with culture we do not begin by looking at the world, seeing what’s wrong and trying to fix it. We begin by looking to Christ, seeing what he thinks is right, what the kingdom is meant to look like and then work through the implications of that with him. Who knows where that may lead. Exciting though, isn’t it?