The Moral Case for Debt
If "debt" were a brand today, it would be in roughly the same place as Tylenol was in 1982, when the drug was pulled from the market due to concerns over tampering. In other words, debt would be associated with lethal toxicity and a corresponding loss in the value of the brand. "Collateralized debt obligations" and the fallout from their collapse in value have nearly brought down the economies of the developed world since fall 2008. Greece and Spain have become synonymous with excessive government spending and unsustainable debt levels, the national U.S. debt level is a critical issue in the 2012 presidential campaign, and student loans have reached levels where many are asking whether they'll be the next "bubble."
Amid these sobering developments, many individuals have sought to reduce their debt levels, while businesses have found it harder to get debt financing to expand their activities. This helps explain why recovering from the Great Recession has been sluggish. It also helps to explain why bankers are viewed by many as the moral equivalent of tobacco farmers: practicing a legal trade that profits from the ill effects it generates for others.
It's hardly surprising that a discussion of debt in our economic system elicits a variety of theological responses, all of which appeal in some way to biblical authority. Among theological conservatives are groups like Crown Financial Ministries (the successors to Larry Burkett, an evangelical voice who advanced a similar agenda late in the 20th century). Crown emphasizes reducing or eliminating individuals' debt as part of an effort to immunize Christians against the effects of financial crises. Among theological progressives are groups like the Presbyterian Church USA, which has tried to move money from the large banks associated with the foreclosure crisis, and called for a fundamental change in the global financial system, all in the name of biblical justice. In the meantime, businesses large and small continue to need capital, and Christians engaged in such businesses (or, for that matter, banks) need to understand how the Bible might apply to debt in the context of our modern economy.