7/11/12 - debt and religion

In today's excerpt - in ancient times, taking out loans for land or dowries was often necessary for people to eat or have families, but not repaying those loans could bring the risk of their children or themselves being sold into slavery. All of the world's great religions emerged amid the anguish of this burden of debt and debates about the role of the market in life. The language of these religions is permeated with the language of debt -- with words such as redemption being borrowed directly from debt transactions:

"Even the very earliest Vedic poems, composed sometime between 1500 and 1200 BC, evince a constant concern with debt -- which is treated as synonymous with guilt and sin. ... In all Indo-European languages (such as English and French), words for 'debt' are synony­mous with those for 'sin' or 'guilt', illustrating the links be­tween religion, payment and the mediation of the sacred and profane realms by 'money.' For example, there is a connection between money (German Geld), indemnity or sacrifice (Old English Geild), tax (Gothic Gild) and, of course, guilt. ...

"Why ... do we refer to Christ as the 'redeemer'? The primary meaning of 'redemption' is to buy something back, or to recover something that had been given up in security for a loan; to ac­quire something by paying off a debt. It is rather striking to think that the very core of the Christian message, salvation itself, the sacrifice of God's own son to rescue humanity from eternal damnation, should be framed in the language of a financial transaction. ...

"The authors of the Brahmanas were not alone in borrowing the language of the marketplace as a way of thinking about the human condition. Indeed, to one degree or another, all the major world religions do this.

"The reason is that all of them -- from Zoroastrianism to Islam -- arose amidst intense arguments about the role of money and the mar­ket in human life, and particularly about what these institutions meant for fundamental questions of what human beings owed to one another. The question of debt, and arguments about debt, ran through every aspect of the political life of the time. ... We have spent thousands of years contemplating sacred texts full of political allusions that would have been instantly recognizable to any reader at the time when they were written, but whose meaning we now can only guess at.

"One of the unusual things about the Bible is that it preserves some bits of this larger context. ... It would seem that the economy of the Hebrew kingdoms, by the time of the prophets, was already beginning to develop the same kind of debt crises that had long been common in Mesopotamia: espe­cially in years of bad harvests, the poor became indebted to rich neigh­bors or to wealthy moneylenders in the towns, they would begin to lose title to their fields and to become tenants on what had been their own land, and their sons and daughters would be removed to serve as servants in their creditors' households, or even sold abroad as slaves.

"[This is what the biblical book of Nehemiah is referring to in the passage,] 'Some of our daughters are brought unto bondage already: neither is it in our power to redeem them.' One can only imagine what those words meant, emotionally, to a father in a patriarchal society in which a man's ability to protect the honor of his family was everything. Yet this is what money meant to the ma­jority of people for most of human history: the terrifying prospect of one's sons and daughters being carried off to the homes of repulsive strangers to clean their pots and provide the occasional sexual services, to be subject to every conceivable form of violence and abuse, pos­sibly for years, conceivably forever, as their parents waited, helpless, avoiding eye contact with their neighbors, who knew exactly what was happening to those they were supposed to have been able to protect. ...

"Through most of history, when overt political conflict between classes did appear, it took the form of pleas for debt cancellation -- the freeing of those in bondage, and usually, a more just reallocation of the land. What we see, in the Bible and other religious traditions, are traces of the moral arguments by which such claims were justified, usu­ally subject to all sorts of imaginative twists and turns, but inevitably, to some degree, incorporating the language of the marketplace itself."


David Graeber


Debt: The First 5,000 Years


Melville House Publishing


Copyright 2011 by David Graeber


56, 59, 80-81, 85, 87
barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment