Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sin as Debt, Debt as Sin

Reader feedback, Sin as Debt

By John Taylor; 2008 Dec 1, 8 Qawl 165 BE

Yesterday we broached the subject of the crash and economic quagmire. Lynnea in response, wrote:

"Thank you, John. I've been puzzling about the economic and spiritual situations and very much welcomed your thoughts. Rather than passively sitting back and waiting and worrying, on a personal level I need to ensure my finances, from household expenses to Huquq', are in good spiritual order with as little debt as possible. Still got a mortgage. I'm glad your children are young enough to learn from your example!"

Another reader, Sen, wrote,

"Be of good cheer. The world economy has in fact been lifting millions of people out of abject poverty every year. It could do better, perhaps much better, but the improvement requires not so much a better economic theory as more political will."

I ended the essay with the question: "To what extent is our ignorance a matter of sin, a wilful affront to God, as opposed to a lack of technical know-how?" In response to this question, evidently, Sen wrote:

"I don't see anything inherently sinful about ignorance of economics. There are matters, such as medicine, that are inherently complex and in which we should consult the expert and follow a prescription. Mere intelligence is not sufficient - as Chomsky shows. One has to actually go to school and study the subject, to be able to distinguish the good doctor and the plausible prescription from the quacks."

I am glad you brought that up, Sen, because the role of sin in economics is just what I wanted to talk about next. Sin may not be the same thing as ignorance, but it certainly is wrapped up in it. Sin leads to ignorance, and ignorance compounds sin like a runaway credit card debt. For example, nations today are permanently owe money to the tune of trillions of dollars; even when the taxes we pay are not eaten up by interest payments to private lenders, a sizeable percentage still is burned up paying down huge government debt.

This may not be a sin in itself, but let us not forget that throughout history the position of religion on this matter was not a neutral one. Usury was strongly discouraged if not strictly forbidden. For example, the following Psalm says,

"Yahweh, who shall dwell in your sanctuary? Who shall live on your holy hill? (he) ... who keeps an oath even when it hurts, and doesn't change; He who does not lend out his money for usury, nor take a bribe against the innocent. He who does these things shall never be shaken. (Ps 15:1, 4-5, WEB)

As for Christianity, the entire sixth chapter of the Book of Matthew is devoted to money matters, the giving of charity and how to make financial matters not only more ethical but actually a major spiritual expression. For example, in the Lord's Prayer Jesus has us ask: "And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." (6:12, KJV) Today this is more often translated "forgive us our sins as we forgive the sins of others." Both renderings are correct because in the Aramaic language spoken by Jesus the same word is used for both "sin" and "debt."

The Qur'an similarly forbids usury (2:274-280 3:128-134, 4:160-162) and, like Jesus, equates sin with debt,

"Allah does not bless usury, and He causes charitable deeds to prosper, and Allah does not love any ungrateful sinner." (Qur'an 2:276, Shakir)

Note that this also suggests that charity and almsgiving are more effective ways to general social prosperity than the present split between slavery to debt payments on one side and idle, leach-like income based on living off interest on the other. Baha'u'llah, in the Ishraqat, points to what was certainly the intent of earlier laws against usury, discouraging excess and instability while encouraging kindness, prudence, temperance, sobriety and simple moderation in financial matters.

"Many ecclesiastics in Persia have, through innumerable designs and devices, been feeding on illicit gains obtained by usury. They have contrived ways to give its outward form a fair semblance of lawfulness. They make a plaything of the laws and ordinances of God, but they understand not.

"However, this is a matter that should be practised with moderation and fairness. Our Pen of Glory hath, as a token of wisdom and for the convenience of the people, desisted from laying down its limit. Nevertheless We exhort the loved ones of God to observe justice and fairness, and to do that which would prompt the friends of God to evince tender mercy and compassion towards each other. He is in truth the Counsellor, the Compassionate, the All-Bountiful. God grant that all men may be graciously aided to observe that which the Tongue of the One true God hath uttered. And if they put into practice what We have set forth, God -- exalted be His glory -- will assuredly double their portion through the heaven of His bounty. Verily He is the Generous, the Forgiving, the Compassionate. Praise be unto God, the Most Exalted, the Most Great.

"Nevertheless the conduct of these affairs hath been entrusted to the men of the House of Justice that they may enforce them according to the exigencies of the time and the dictates of wisdom." (Baha'u'llah, Tablets, 133)

John Taylor


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