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Forgive Us Our Debt (Part One)

Do our theologies suggest that balance sheets can never be the mark of our virtue, or even our value, within God’s economy?
by Center for Stewardship Leaders | October 22, 2019

Lutheran theologian Katherine Shaner offers us a theological lens to frame our thinking and judging about our personal economic lives. Lutherans aren’t the only Christians who are cheerleaders for grace—other religious traditions have this lens as well. 

Though this may not be front-and-center for your next stewardship missive, it is a helpful gut-check on our tendency to judge ourselves, and others. It’s a two-part contribution. Be sure you catch next week, too!

Catherine Malotky, Center for Stewardship Leaders

Good debt = good people?

By Rev. Dr. Katherine A. Shaner

This blog started from a very practical place. I was looking at my monthly set of bills: mortgage, student loan, medical bills, credit cards. As I slotted each into my budget, carefully balancing the amount in my bank accounts, I felt really, really good about paying my mortgage. I am starting to build some equity. I felt like a good, responsible, stand-on-my-own-two-feet person. 

I felt equally good about my student loan payment—this bill represents the opportunity I had to become the pastor and professor that I am today. I love my vocation. I felt like a good, God-listening, deeply fulfilled person. Then I turned to my medical and credit bills. I felt panic rise when I realized that I was going to have to choose between paying medical bills in full and paying credit cards in full. What had I bought on my credit card, anyway? Did I really need it? Why would anyone decide to pay interest on debts like this? What if people found out that I have credit card debt? Might they start scrutinizing my clothing a little more closely? Would they judge me for my Calvin Klein dress? Or my new computer? And why wouldn’t I have foregone those things knowing medical bills were coming? I was a debtor. I felt like an irresponsible, deeply shameful person.

Value and virtue

Our society judges virtue by balance sheets. Don’t get me wrong. I know the value of balance sheets, whether for homes, churches, organizations, businesses, and even countries. But value is something different from virtue. Value is an organizational tool. Virtue assumes the state of one’s soul.  

I’ve noticed that we rarely distinguish between the two when it comes to thinking about money. “Good” money management is both a valuable skill and a virtuous condition. “Bad” money management is the absence of this valuable skill and—worse yet—the absence of virtue in our condition. 

But, wait. I’m a Lutheran theologian. Don’t our theologies suggest that balance sheets can never be the mark of our virtue, or even our value, within God’s economy?

Grace and financial literacy

Lately, I have been working with colleagues across the nation to think about and create solutions for the student debt crisis that is in full catastrophe mode at the moment. One of the solutions has been financial literacy programs for clergy, for congregations, for individuals within congregations. Teaching people how to keep balance sheets and make choices about borrowing, spending, and saving is a good thing, right?

Yes, but. 

Notice our language. These programs place the final (and only) responsibility for financial health and wealth on an individual. We believe that if a person lives austerely, makes smart choices, puts cash in the right envelopes every payday, she will eventually, even inevitably, be financially invincible—or at least not a burden on the system. Individual discipline, modesty, and sacrifice will create wealth. 

Notice that last sentence. We often use theological and spiritual terms to describe financial management: discipline, modesty, sacrifice. If we thought theologically the same way we think economically, every individual would make decisions about discipline, modesty, and sacrifices—decisions that will impact whether God judges us as virtuous or not, worthy of righteousness or not, loved or not. Our balance sheets with God would follow our individual responsibility for keeping ourselves in God’s good graces. 

Yet, a theology of grace is directly opposed to the way this kind of money-theology works. Especially as a Lutheran, I assert that we are freed from the condition of sin by God’s grace, through the faith/trust of Jesus regardless of good works. In other words, God’s trust-fund of grace, given in Jesus’s name, holds enough to erase the condition of debt regardless of what created the debt. Virtue is God’s alone to give. What difference might that make in the way we think about our money and our debts?

About the Author

The Rev. Dr. Katherine A. Shaner is Associate Professor of New Testament at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem. She is also an ordained pastor in the ELCA. She enjoys digging in the dirt, whether in her garden or on an archaeological excavation. She also hikes, makes a mean turkey sandwich, and argues theology regularly with her dog, Karl Bark.

Photo by Sabine Peters on Unsplash

About the Center

Center for Stewardship Leaders

The Center for Stewardship Leaders seeks to shape a faithful, multidimensional culture of stewardship in congregations, households, and society. The center strives to consider the full spectrum of stewardship practice and theology, including financial stewardship, holistic stewardship, and leadership. See all posts from CSL.

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