Morning Worship: Debt forgiveness a matter of compassion, not systems

“People say that religion and politics don’t mix, but that is a point of view I don’t have much time for,” said the Rev. James Walters at the 9:15 a.m. Thursday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. “Religion, people believe, can have some influence on politics with a moral perspective. Even more, people believe the religion and economics don’t mix; they are entirely different.”

Walter’s sermon title was “Debt Forgiveness or Schadenfreude,” and his text was Matthew 18: 21-35, the King and the Unforgiving Servant. Schadenfreude means taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others.

“Common wisdom is that financial systems should be managed by those with the right technical know-how and the New Testament is not much help in managing macroeconomics,” Walters said. “With all due respect, economics must not be a closed shop. It needs the insights of other disciplines. Money, markets and financial systems are things made by human beings and are shaped by our beliefs, attitudes and objectives.”

Walters told the congregation that people make money and markets into idols.

“We did not create God; God created us,” he said. “When we create idols, we allow those idols to control us and create what we become.”

He acknowledged that the monetary union and European integration is hanging in the balance. For some, the fight over the Greek debt is a technical matter — figure out how much is owed and how much needs to be paid back.

“Metropolitan Ignatius reminded us it is also a human issue,” Walters said. “The Greek people are suffering. Unemployment is over 25 percent and 1 million people have no healthcare. It is a heavy price to pay for the the tax evasion of the rich and the heavy borrowing of the government.”

Christian theology has a lot to say about debt.

Walters cited his colleague Giles Fraser, who sees a theological dispute in the response to the debt crisis. The national attitudes toward the debt crisis go back 1,000 years to the Great Schism between Western and Eastern Christianity.

“Central to Western theology is atonement as payment of debt,” Walters said. “Our sin was so great against God that it was necessary to repay the debt, and Jesus Christ paid the debt for us. The Eastern church does not emphasize payment; Jesus Christ set people free from death. It is more like a prison break with an emphasis on the resurrection rather than the crucifixion of Jesus. The West accuses the East of having a free lunch theology of the atonement, and the East accuses the West of having a sadistic theology of the atonement.”

Walters said it can be seen in the different responses to the debt crisis. The German Lutheran pastor’s daughter and chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, wants full payment while the Greek people want liberation from debt. Neither is completely right or wrong, he said, but the result of differences in how people imagine the economic order the centrality of religion.

The modern economy, he asserted, passes around debt, and the Christian contribution to the discussion can be when and by how how much the debt is written off to provide a more humane, cohesive and compassionate world. He recalled the Jubilee Principle, of completely canceling debt every 50 years. Not long ago, people realized that developing countries were paying more in debt service than they were receiving in aid. The debts were forgiven.

What the king does in the parable, writing off the debt of the slave, is related to European economic stability. After World War II, the German war debt was forgiven to maintain stability and keep Europe from falling into the same pit it did after World War I.

“In failing to write off the Greek debt, Germany is failing to have mercy as God has had mercy on it,” Walters said.

There are obvious difficulties of precedent, he said, but if the rules are inflexible, we forget we made the system, and the system has become an idol and is making demands of us.

“We need to join the conversation as people of faith about what the monetary systems and financial systems are doing in the world. We used to think that the ‘men in suits’ were the high priests, but we need a reformation now to challenge that priestly power and have more public discourse.

“As we pray ‘forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,’ we have a lot to bring to that conversation,” Walters said.

The Rev. James Hubbard presided. Linda Thompson Bennett, a member of the Chautauqua and Motet choirs, the Community Band and a newly wed Chautauquan, read the Scripture. Jared Jacobsen, organist and worship coordinator, directed the Motet Choir. The choir sang “Agnus Dei (Winter’s Dream)” by Paul Halley. George Wolfe accompanied the choir on the soprano saxophone. Barbara Hois, flute, and Joe Musser, piano, performed “Sonata in C Major” by George Frederick Handel for the prelude. The Alison and Craig Marthinsen Endowment for the Department of Religion supports this week’s services.