Debt is a concept that most of us are familiar with. Credit cards, overdrafts, mortgages, and personal loans underpin the existence of the average working adult in Ireland. But what does being in debt actually mean and how does it affect our humanity, as individuals and collectively? This issue of Working Notes posits that it is not as simple as it may first appear. Debt is not merely a financial construct, but even that narrow paradigm contains a complex and sometimes Faustian agreement in which the borrower ends up paying far more than just the sum of monies owed.
Enslaved by Debt
Anyone who has been in debt knows that it is about more than numbers on a balance sheet. It is a psychological burden that weighs heavily on the mind, and on the heart. It limits our options in a world that is boundless in its opportunities. Most of us take on debt out of necessity. It is less a choice than a compromise we must make to allow us to live an unexceptional, ordinary life.
Once in debt, whether it is from student loans for the degree we needed to get a job, or from the mortgage we needed to buy a home, we are trapped. Debt is where dreams go to die. We put aside ‘unnecessary’ things like our hopes of becoming an artist or musician. There are monthly repayments to be made, and so we need to work, and work, until (if we are fortunate) we can retire and enjoy a few years of glorious unproductivity before death. If we become ill and need to enter a nursing home for our last years, the state will take our home as payment for our care, ensuring we remain in debt until we draw our final breath.
As dull and depressing as this sounds, it is the good news. If we, who are not in possession of great wealth from our families (or perhaps a lottery win), get into debt and do not manage to repay it, we will incur the wrath of our legal and economic institutions. There will be consequences that will limit our lives even further. On a personal level, we are likely to feel embarrassment, guilt and even shame. For it is taken for granted that anyone of ‘good character’ i.e. a morally upstanding member of our society, repays his or her debts.
Debt as Sin
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary states that the word ‘debt’ was first used in the 13th Century and was then synonymous with ‘sin’ or ‘trespass’. This connection between owing money and morality remains in our 21st Century secularised society, but now it is the culture of individualism which is to blame. When we assume that we alone have responsibility for our successes, then it follows that if we find ourselves mired in debt, or even worse, are incapable of repaying them, it is we who are to blame. We may petition our financial institutions to ‘forgive us our debts’ but the contemporary gods of finance do not hear such cries.
This notion of agency and personal accountability assumes that we are disconnected from the world within which we live, and the people in it. But we are not. We are part of a society, domestic and global, with all of its attendant benefits and costs. We may enjoy the illusion of control over our lives, but in many ways we are just cogs in the machine of neoliberal capitalism; a system that relies on our indebtedness for its existence.
The association between not paying our debts and shame – the winners in the neoliberal game of life. If, for example, the property developers who defaulted on millions of euro during the crash, felt ashamed about their unpaid accounts, it was difficult to observe this in them. A lack of guilt and sense of obligation also appears to be absent in the very wealthy – who do not seem to think they must pay their debts to the state (and therefore society) and instead employ experts in ‘tax avoidance’, leaving the profits gained with the help of many, in the hands of the few.
Of course, we in the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice do not advise our readers to emulate the wealthy or to develop an attitude of blatant disregard towards the society we are part of. Quite the opposite in fact.
But… what if we changed how we think about debt?
It is not from your own goods that you give to the beggar; it is a portion of his own that you are restoring to him. The earth belongs to all. So, you are paying back a debt and think you are making a gift to which you are not bound. * Saint Ambrose/Ambrose of Milan
Ambrose of Milan, a bishop famed for his homilies which helped to convert Augustine and for his moral courage which faced down an emperor, was scathing in his appraisal of the wealthy, whom he admonished for their greed, excess, and shallow self-regard. In reading his sermons in which he verbally flays the rich, it is striking how it contrasts with our contemporary docile response to inequality. A world in which one percent of the population captures 82% of growing wealth would have been unimaginable to him. It should be equally hard for us to imagine.
When we take as our starting point that the earth and its resources belong to everyone, it necessarily changes how we view debt. The idea of there being enough for everyone, if everyone just took what they needed and no more, is still a radical one today. When most of us get into debt because the resources we need to live an unexceptional, ordinary life are just not there, who is really to blame? When the wealthy, in Ireland and around the world – the winners in the zero sum game of neoliberalism – have more than they need, in fact more than many countries need in some cases should the sense of shame and moral responsibility not lie with them?
The unequal sharing of the resources of our beautiful Earth is most obvious when we consider the relationship between the rich countries of the world and the Global South. In Europe, the US, Australia and other wealthy nations, we give international ‘aid’ to countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. But, if we take Ambrose’s idea of a world where we all own the same resources, this is not a gift, it is not charity; it is a debt we are attempting to repay. When we consider the harms done to the people of these countries by enslavement and the whole-scale theft of their natural resources to facilitate the building of our industrialised nations, that debt quickly spirals. And that’s just the past. The climate crisis which is impacting the poorest, least developed countries and harming their present and future prospects was caused by us. Now, we see, that some debts are immeasurable and ultimately unpayable.
Debts do not have to be so vast in scale as the global injustices above to be unpayable. They can also occur on an individual level. Prisoners are said to be repaying their debt to society, as if this was a simple, measurable accounting exercise. But when most of our prison population is comprised of people who come from backgrounds of poverty, addiction and intergenerational trauma, what debt do they owe those of us more fortunate? Were they not owed the same opportunities that we had, leaving us as a society in debt to them? As for those who are in prison for the most serious, heinous crimes – they are facing a debt that is literally unpayable. To have taken someone’s life is a crime too grave to be discussed in terms of being ‘in debt’ to their loved ones, or to society. The person whose life is lost is unique, irretrievable and irreplaceable. There is no possible recompense.
Who Should Pay?
Although it is impossible to repay some debts, and even the financial ones incur a greater cost than money, there are positive steps that would go towards a rebalancing of the accounts in some respects.
Debt forgiveness for arrears – for rent and mortgages, such as in the case of people who lost their jobs during the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, seems like an obvious, fair thing to do, after a year where a certain sector of the population amassed personal savings and the rest found themselves without income. Instead, many can look forward to two years’ worth of rent hikes in the next few months, and banks will demand mortgage payments, leaving thousands of people in serious danger of homelessness.
The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice has written reams about the ideology of successive governments in Ireland who prioritise tax breaks for international corporations and institutional vulture funds while starving essential services like housing. Maybe it is – finally – time to think of people living ordinary, unexceptional lives, who could do with similar consideration? A government with the commitment to the collective good that ensured nobody would need to take on debt for education, housing or healthcare. Let the shame rest with them.
Explorations in WN88
In this issue, we have gathered pieces that explore this fascinating question from a range of perspectives that inform Irish policy and cultural life. Robert Sweeney critically introduces an important new conversation in economics known as ‘Modern Monetary Theory’ which promises a radical transformation of how states should view debt. Kevin Hargaden delves deep into the past to consider how our understanding of debt can be illuminated by the 11th Century theological writing of Anselm of Canterbury. A team of brilliant young scholars from Cambridge – Ben Jarman, Alice Ievins, and Thea Thomasin Reimer – probe the common justification of prison based on the idea of ‘paying a debt’. We interview the former Lord Mayor of Bristol, artist and activist Cleo Lake, who succeeded in passing a motion in that city – made wealthy by the slave-trade – that acknowledged the harms of colonialism and racism. How we account for such debts accrued long in the past is always relevant in Ireland.
Two essays in this issue were first published in Revue Projet, the journal of CERAS, the Jesuit social centre in Paris, and have been translated from French by Niall Leahy SJ. In ‘Do You Always Have to Pay Your Debts?’ Marcel Rémon SJ considers the moral obligation, if any, we have to our debtors. In her essay ‘Debt Addicts’ philosopher Nathalie Sarthou-Lajus compares the human cost of debt to an addiction. And finally, in a beautiful reflection from the Australian theologian and pastor, Dr Byron Smith, we are offered an insight into the vast ecological debt we are accruing through the harm we unknowingly inflicted on a tiny mammal called the Bramble Cay Melomys.
There are profound ideas here, which resonate with the very core of the Christian message. It is hard not to conclude that there is a need for debt jubilees for those who suffer under our economic system and that there must also be some tangible, material response to the debts history leaves at our door. Locally, we must wrestle with the widening inequality created by our debtor-society. And on a global scale, though it can never be sufficient, we must sincerely begin reparations, both to people enslaved by those who built our nations, and to all who live with the effects of a climate we destroyed with the carbon emissions of our industrialised countries.
Debt in our personal lives is not a personal failing, nor is it synonymous with sin or trespass. It is a consequence of living within an immoral, destructive political and economic global system.
Martina Madden is Communications Coordinator of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice.
 Diego Alejo Vázquez Pimentel, Iñigo Macías Aymar, and Max Lawson, “Reward Work, Not Wealth” (London: Oxfam, 2018), p. 10, https://doi.org/10.1163/2210-7975_HRD-9824-20180017.
 Infamously, Jeff Bezos alone is said to be wealthier than Iceland, Tunisia, Jamaica, and Estonia combined. Poppy Noor, “To Understand How Rich Billionaires Really Are, Use This Calculator,” The Guardian, August 5, 2020, http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/aug/05/billionaires-income-calculator-jeff-bezos-elon-musk.
 Reamonn Lydon and Tara McIndoe-Calder, “Saving during the Pandemic: Waiting out the Storm?,” Economic Letter (Dublin: Central Bank of Ireland, 2021), https://www.centralbank.ie/docs/default-source/publications/economic-letters/vol-2021-no-4-saving-during-the-pandemic-waiting-out-the-storm-reamonn-lydon-and-tara-mcindoe-calder.pdf.
 Hayley Halpin, “Landlords Can Impose Rent Increases of up to 8% under Newly-Discovered Loophole as Covid-19 Rent Freeze Ends,” TheJournal.Ie, May 28, 2021, https://www.thejournal.ie/explainer-8-rent-increase-5450610-May2021/.
 Kevin Hargaden, “Ireland Faces Homelessness Tsunami,” Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice in Ireland, April 30, 2021, https://www.jcfj.ie/2021/04/30/ireland-faces-homelessness-tsunami/.