Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Margaret Atwood recently published an interesting reflection on the financial crisis for the New York Times with a number of references to aspects of Catholic legal theory. Some excerpts:
. . . [W]e’re deluding ourselves if we assume that we can recover from the crisis of 2008 so quickly and easily simply by watching the Dow creep upward. The wounds go deeper than that. To heal them, we must repair the broken moral balance that let this chaos loose.
Debt — who owes what to whom, or to what, and how that debt gets paid — is a subject much larger than money. It has to do with our basic sense of fairness, a sense that is embedded in all of our exchanges with our fellow human beings.
We are social creatures who must interact for mutual benefit, and — the negative version — who harbor grudges when we feel we’ve been treated unfairly. Without a sense of fairness and also a level of trust, without a system of reciprocal altruism and tit-for-tat — one good turn deserves another, and so does one bad turn — no one would ever lend anything, as there would be no expectation of being paid back. And people would lie, cheat and steal with abandon, as there would be no punishments for such behavior.
Once you start looking at life through these spectacles, debtor-creditor relationships play out in fascinating ways. In many religions, for instance. The version of the Lord’s Prayer I memorized as a child included the line, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” In Aramaic, the language that Jesus himself spoke, the word for “debt” and the word for “sin” are the same. And although many people assume that “debts” in these contexts refer to spiritual debts or trespasses, debts are also considered sins. If you don’t pay back what’s owed, you cause harm to others.
The fairness essential to debt and redemption is reflected in the afterlives of many religions, in which crimes unpunished in this world get their comeuppance in the next. For instance, hell, in Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” is the place where absolutely everything is remembered by those in torment, whereas in heaven you forget your personal self and who still owes you five bucks and instead turn to the contemplation of selfless Being.
I find her reflections on the human dimension of the crisis interesting, but the Dante reference confuses me a bit. Is she suggesting we'd all be more heavenly if we just ignored the crisis and prayed right now? Should Catholic members of Congress have voted against the recent bail-out (or at least abstained), and devoted themselves instead to prayer? Or is the bail-out an example of heavenly willingness to forgive people their debts?