Thursday, October 11, 2012

Deliver us…

“Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” I suspect everyone recognizes this snippet from Jesus’ timeless, Lord’s Prayer. Although, as we also know, several varieties are used. The churches of my childhood preferred, “Forgive us our trespasses.” But the original word- ὀφείλημα pronounced, o-feh-lay-mah- means “debts,” as in money or services owed by one party to another.

Of course, since Jesus originally uttered it, it’s been commonly understood as a metaphor for sin. But scholars tell us that Jesus wasn’t just being metaphorical. Among poor, common people of his day- i.e. 90% of the population and those to whom he ministered mostly- farming, land-use, and tax debt was everyday fair. More than that, debt was crushing, a cause of widespread poverty. Many families couldn’t own the land they worked, due to high indebtedness. And those who did own often lost land to wealthy city residents who piled high debts on these peasants. They, after all, had to buy seed, farm implements and daily bread, pay temple or imperial taxes, and when harvests were tight, emergency capital was scarce. Thus, a debt industry grew to tide peasant folk through tough times, but when better times came, rarely could they work out of trouble.

Not surprising, then, that Jesus used “debts” in his famous prayer. For his ministry partners and recipients, this turmoil routinely shackled their families. To be forgiven one’s debts meant, literally, a new lease on life. And to forgive one’s debtors- folk rarely viewed with kindness and compassion- meant an act of spiritual powerlifting, a profoundly daring idea.

The prayer’s on my mind this week because I just finished a remarkable book. Titled, White House Burning: The Founding Fathers, Our National Debt and Why It Matters to You, it’s a history of America’s national indebtedness, and a treatise on how our nation might respond to the debt we collectively face. I found the book quite accessible to those not fully versed in economics, like me. I wasn’t entirely ignorant before reading, but now feel much more comfortable with the subject.

And, frankly, I’m a bit worried, not terrified, but concerned. For, truly, the consequences of unchecked debt could be stunningly…icky. Many of us know this personally; I cringe monthly at the student loan payments I make. I’m not ashamed of that debt, since it purchased an education that helps me be a better minister for this church. Still, it’ll be decades until I can shout, “Yeah! I’m debt free!” And think of all the Broncos jerseys that money could buy in the meantime…

On a national level, too, I’m not (entirely) ashamed of our debt. As the book described, in many cases it resulted from decisions our people made to make our lives better. Factions from differing political camps might (do!) take issue with some of those decisions or others. Still, in theory at least, our historically high standard of living derives from collective action we’ve taken.

But we’ve financed some of that action, not from current income, but through future borrowing. And as everyone with loans knows, the paymaster always cometh. In the coming national election, both major parties appear concerned about the debt. At least in theory, they offer competing proposals for how to tackle it, eventually. I won’t weigh in on who I think offers the best proposal, except to say I’m skeptical that either side seems really, truly committed. Still, I’d hope that every voter has an idea for how s/he’d want us to “forgive us our debts”.

Because the issue, as I see it, is that indebtedness isn’t an acceptable long-term strategy. Whether that debt is to your neighbor, for having hurt her with rudeness, to God, for having denied God’s call for justice, love and compassion, or to future generations, for having avoided responsible decisions to avert potential catastrophes of national default or environmental devastation, we ought desire forgiveness and reconciliation, not shutting our eyes and ears. After all, the ultimate goal isn’t getting all we want, whenever we want, to heck with the consequences. It’s to help “God’s Kingdom come on earth,” as best we’re able. Working together.

Grace and Peace,
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