The Morality of Debt by Dr Rowan Williams – Jubilee Debt Conference 29th March 2014

This was a short contribution by Dr Rowan Williams at the opening plenary of the Jubilee Debt Campaign’s Conference “Life Before Debt” held on Saturday 29th March 2014:

The question put to Rowan Williams by the conference chair, was about the church’s attitude to debt, and in answer he firstly referred to William Tyndale’s radical sense, that we must remember that whatever we have that is superfluous, we owe to those who do not have enough.

Then he referred to the system of “amnesty” laid out in Leviticus, in which there are four principles of value: (i) The assumption is that there will always be people in need, therefore you do not seek profit from another’s misery. (ii) The land doesn’t belong to anybody, it’s on loan to you from God, therefore in a world where you are dependent on what you have not made, we are all indebted, and what you are trading is “use”, not “ownership”. (iii) There will always be a spiral of asymmetry, and the gap widens unless you create policies to stop it. (iv) There should be a prohibition on unlimited collateral, i.e. you don’t take what people need for survival and human dignity.

So we need to guard against the spinning apart of the wealthy and the debtors: we don’t base our wealth on making others more dependent, on taking away what is essential for the life of another. The debt problem is to do with aggressive lending, and the watershed 1970s period unfortunately established this as normative in our society.

With doorstep lending, it’s no good talking about the “morality” of having to pay back without taking into account the creditor’s responsibility in setting up that loan.

So what is “ethical lending”? In considering the ethics of pushing debt at people, there is a blindness of creditors to the cost of debt. There are plenty of resources for looking at what might constitute an ethical principle of “resource exchange”.

Dr Rowan Williams: former Archbishop of Canterbury.
Contribution to the Jubilee Debt Conference held on 29/3/2014
Draft at 2/4/2014

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