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Forgive Us Our Debt (Part Two)

Does Good Debt = Good People? Read part two of Katherine Shaner’s look at the difference God’s grace can make in the way we think about our money and our debts.
by Center for Stewardship Leaders | October 29, 2019

In her second post, Dr. Shaner looks beyond personal economic matters to the economy that is the context for our personal financial lives. In the larger economic story, we see systemic economic biases that help some and hinder others.

I encourage you to explore some of these dynamics that are really impacting generational wealth accumulation. Our stewardship leadership needs to be sensitive to these realities.


Catherine Malotky, Center for Stewardship Leaders

Good debt = good people?

In last week’s post, I proposed that Lutheran theologies are diametrically opposed to the ways that our culture places virtue and shame on our spending habits, and particularly spending that includes taking on debt. One of the things I have noticed about my own debt payments (mortgage, student loans, medical bills, credit cards) is that some debt is culturally considered good. 

  • A mortgage builds equity. 
  • Student loans represent fruitful careers and are considered a worthy investment. 
  • Responsible borrowers take on good debt facilitated by lucrative careers, business successes, and home ownership—in other words, debt that amasses wealth. 

My other debt, though, culturally demonstrates the inability to properly manage money. 

  • Medical bills should be anticipated with savings, or flex-spending dollars. 
  • Credit card debt should just never happen because it always represents purchases that are above one’s means.
  • Irresponsible borrowers take on bad debt as proved by low salaries, cars and clothes that seem “too nice,” credit card debt, and financial insolvency. 

In fact, studies of debt in the U.S. over the past 10 years often sort debt into these good debt/bad debt categories. These categories of good debt and bad debt are even more starkly drawn when we turn to marginalized communities. Debt-generating systems target African-American and Latinx communities more aggressively than white communities. Practices like red-lining, school funding, and inheritance structures all construct an easier system for white economic aspirations than for people and/or communities of color. 

While most financial planners do not put this good debt/bad debt model in theological terms, American cultural sensibilities often do. Good debt is grace for the faithful. Bad debt proves the sin of trying to work one’s way into glory. Good debt leads to the righteousness of wealth. Bad debt is a sign of sin and leads to work that never achieves such righteousness.

I use this language deliberately. It is theological language. It is also economic language. And beneath this economic-theological-language world resides Lutheran confessional theologies about justification by grace, the perils of works-righteousness, and grace as gift in the sense of being unearned and undeserved. Part of the snag in our theologies here is our understanding of faith—pistis in the Greek. Pistis in its strongest sense means trust, or even a trust. Throughout Romans when our NRSV translation notes the power of “faith in Christ,” the Greek is better translated as the “trust of Christ” (e.g. Romans 3:21–26).

What would happen if we understood our theological and economic worlds as a gift drawn from Christ’s limitless trust? Christ’s trust has no limits. This means that there is neither good sin nor bad sin, but simply sin. This means that there is neither good debt nor bad debt, but simply debt. It also means that there is neither my faith/trust nor your faith/trust but rather Christ’s faith/trust working through us. 

Within an economic world where debt is used as a way to point out failings in financial management, and consumer confidence and levels of consumption are a measure of our collective economic health, ideas of good debt/bad debt will always be at work. If we deliberately work to change our economic system to fit our theology—if we really, materially live our theology—then perhaps we might truly live into God’s grace through the trust of Christ.

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 Tierra Mallorca 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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