"Debt is the new fat," someone said recently. Which led me to reflect that, not so long ago, fat was the new cigarette-smoking, and before that, cigarette-smoking was the new alcohol-drinking, and before that, alcohol-drinking was the new whoremongering. And whoremongering is the new debt; and so we go in circles. What all these things have in common is that at one time or another each has been considered the very worst sin of all but has then gone through a period of being thought, if not totally harmless, at least fashionable. I left out hallucinogenic drugs, though they fit in there too.
We seem to be entering a period in which debt has passed through its most recent harmless and fashionable period, and is reverting to being sinful. There are even debt TV shows, which have a familiar religious-revival ring to them. There are accounts of shopaholic binges during which you don’t know what came over you and everything was a blur, with tearful confessions by those who’ve spent themselves into quivering insomniac jellies of hopeless indebtedness, and have resorted to lying, cheating, stealing, and kiting cheques between bank accounts as a result. There are testimonials by families and loved ones whose lives have been destroyed by the debtor’s harmful behaviour.
There are compassionate but severe admonitions by the television host, who here plays the part of priest or revivalist. There’s a moment of seeing the light, followed by repentance and a promise never to do it again. There’s a penance imposed — snip, snip go the scissors on the credit cards — followed by a strict curb-on-spending regimen; and finally, if all goes well, the debts are paid down, the sins are forgiven, absolution is granted, and a new day dawns, in which a sadder but more solvent man you rise the morrow morn.
Once upon a time, people took the utmost precautions to avoid going into debt in the first place. There were various once-upon-a-times — as I’ve said, debt goes in and out of fashion, and today’s admired free-spending gentleman is tomorrow’s despised deadbeat. But the time I have in mind was the Great Depression, which my parents lived through as a young married couple.
My mother had four envelopes, into which she put the money from my father’s pay cheque every month. These envelopes were labelled Rent, Groceries, Other Necessities, and Recreation. Recreation meant the movies. The first three envelopes had priority, and if there was nothing left for the fourth envelope, there were no movies, and my parents went for a walk instead.
My mother kept an account book for 50 years. I notice that in the early years of their marriage — the late 1930s, the early 1940s — they sometimes went into debt — $15 here, $15 there — or took out small loans from the bank — $15 here, $15 there. Not such small sums either, come to think of it, when the bread bill for the entire month was $1.20 and the milk bill was $6. The debts are always paid back within weeks, or a few months at the latest. Once in a while an odd item appears — "Book", $2.80; "Luxury foods", 40 cents.
I wonder what the luxury foods were? I suspect they were chocolates — my mother told me that if they happened to come by any chocolates, they would cut each one in two so they could both sample all the flavours.
This was called "living within your means", and judging from the debt TV shows, it’s a lost art.
I remember the moment that I first connected the concepts of "debt" and "sin". This happened in a church — specifically the United Church Sunday School, to which I insisted on going despite the trepidations of my parents, who were worried that I might get religiously addled too early in life. But I was religiously addled already, since in my part of Canada at the time there were two taxpayer-funded school systems, the Catholic and the public. I was in the public one, which was interpreted then to mean Protestant, so we did a certain amount of praying and Bible-reading right in the classroom, presided over by a portrait of the King and Queen of England and Canada in crowns and medals and jewellery, watching us benevolently from the back of the room.
Since we had religion in the classroom, my Sunday school caper was an add-on. As usual, I was propelled by curiosity: wouldn’t I find out more about religious knowledge in a Sunday school than I could in an ordinary school? Not likely, as it turned out — the most interesting parts of the Bible, those dealing with sex, rape, child sacrifice, mutilations, massacres, the gathering up in baskets of the lopped-off heads of your enemy’s kids, and the cutting up of concubines’ bodies and sending them around as invitations-to-a-war were studiously avoided, though I did spend a lot of time colouring in angels and sheep and robes, and singing hymns about letting my little candle shine in my own small, dark corner.
It will no doubt astonish you to learn that I won a prize for memorising Bible verses, but such was the case. Among the things we memorised was the Lord’s Prayer, which contained the line, "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors". However, my brother sang in an Anglican boys’ choir, and the Anglicans had a different way of saying the same line: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us". The word "debt" — blunt and to the point — was well fitted to the plain, grapejuice-drinking United Church, and "trespasses" was an Anglican word, rustling and frilly, that would go well with wine-sipping for Communion and a more ornate theology.
But did these two words mean the same thing really? I didn’t see how they could. "Trespassing" was stepping on other people’s property, especially if there was a No Trespassing sign, and "debt" was when you owed money. But somebody must have thought they were interchangeable. One thing was clear even to my religiously addled child mind, however: neither debts nor trespasses were desirable things to have.
Between the 1940s and now, the search engine has providentially come into being, and I’ve recently been trolling around on the web, looking for an explanation of the discrepancy between the two translations of these Lord’s Prayer lines. If you do this yourself you’ll find that "debts" was used by John Wycliffe in his 1381 translation and "trespasses" in Tyndale’s 1526 version.
"Trespasses" reappears in the 1549 English Book of Common Prayer, though the King James 1611 translation of the Bible reverts to "debts". The Latin Vulgate uses the word for "debts". But it’s interesting to note that in Aramaic, the Semitic language that was spoken by Jesus, the word for "debt" and the word for "sin" are the same. So you could translate this word as "Forgive us our debts/sins," or even "our sinful debts", though no translator has chosen to do this yet.
If you keep searching on the web, you’ll come upon quite a few sermonlike blog postings. What their authors generally end up saying is that the debts and/or trespasses mentioned in the Lord’s Prayer are spiritual debts and/or trespasses. They are, in fact, sins: God will forgive the sins we’ve committed in proportion as we ourselves forgive those sins committed against us.
We are warned by the sermonising bloggers against making the naive mistake of believing that the debts in question are actual money debts. Here is an excerpt from a blog posting from the Reverend Jennie C Olbrych of the lovely old Saint James Santee Episcopal Church near McClellanville, South Carolina — I know it’s lovely and old because there’s a picture of it on the website — and this posting hits all the nails on the head, one after the other.
"In another church I served, I had a couple come for some pastoral counselling. They were fighting like mad, and somewhere along the way I asked them how much debt they were carrying — it was close to $75,000 in credit card debt. Their annual income was somewhere around $50,000. They were overcome by debt and could not hope to pay it off.
Think how relieved they would have been if someone from MasterCard, the person who had been harassing them previously, called out of the blue and said, we’re going to write off that debt. Or, if someone called and said, the bank is going to forgive your home mortgage or your student loan debts, or your business debt.
Wouldn’t [they]be praising American Express or Visa, or the bank to the high heavens? Because debt really is a form of slavery.
Now, some of you who are practical folks no doubt would be saying — well, that’s a nice idea but that can’t work practically because the whole system would fall apart. If everybody’s mortgages were forgiven, the banking system would collapse … someone has to pay … and you are right to think this. To become debt free is a wonderful thing — but more wonderful is to become debt free in a spiritual sense."
Here, in one nicely compact bouquet of meanings, we have: financial debt as a metaphor for sin; the horror and the burden of being in debt; the joy we would experience if all our debts of the financial kind were suddenly to be written off; the impossibility of that actually happening in the world of practical affairs, because "the whole system would fall apart"; and the notion that debt is a form of slavery.
If we connect the end to the beginning, we get an even neater equation: financial debt is not only a metaphor for sin, it is a sin. It’s a debt /sin, as in the original Aramaic.
This is an edited extract from Margaret Atwood’s Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, published by Bloomsbury, November 2008. RRP $29.95.
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