Category Archives: Debt

Why Giles Fraser is wrong about Greek Debt

This morning listeners to BBC’s Today programme will have heard Canon Fraser making a case that the forgiveness of Greek debt was a moral, practical and theological necessity.

He built this upon a linkage of three key concepts.

1 That the original Greek word for “trespasses” in the Lord’s Prayer translates better as “debt”, so we are/should be saying ” Forgive us our debts as we forgive others’  debts”

2 That in his newly published book  ” Debt- the first 5000 years” author David Graeber argues that debt as we understand it, grew out of demands made by conquerors upon the defeated.

3 That the logical requirement to repay was challenged by Socrates , (no less” is implied”), who asked “Would you give an axe back to a madman”.

Does this logic add up?

The checking of etymology is always a good idea, and a practice commonly employed by preachers looking for a springboard for their thoughts.

Brother Ivo is not a Greek scholar neither has he Aramaic, but he does have a nose for the whiff of snake oil, so he consulted the Jewish Encyclopaedia for guidance where he found this.

Repentance being another prerequisite of redemption (Pirḳe R. El. xliii.; Targ. Yer. and Midr. Leḳah Ṭob to Deut. xxx. 2; Philo, “De Execrationibus,” §§ 8-9), a prayer for forgiveness of sin is also required in this connection. But on this point special stress was laid by the Jewish sages of old. “Forgive thy neighbor the hurt that he hath done unto thee, so shall thy sins also be forgiven when thou prayest,” says Ben Sira (Ecclus. [Sirach] xxviii. 2). “To whom is sin pardoned? To him who forgiveth injury” (Derek Ereẓ Zuṭa viii. 3; R. H. 17a; see also Jew. Encyc. iv. 590, s.v.Didascalia). Accordingly Jesus said: “Whensoever ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have aught against any one; that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mark xi. 25, R. V.). It was this precept which prompted the formula “And forgive us our sins [“ḥobot” = “debts”; the equivalent of “‘awonot” = “sins”] as we also forgive those that have sinned [“ḥayyabim” = “those that are indebted”] against us.”

So it appears that the better understanding is not “debt” but “sin”.

Whoever would have guessed that?!

Apparently not a Liberal Canon who writes for the Guardian.

The idea of debt is closely bound up with sin – something to be avoided- yet one rarely hears our economically progressive brothers and sisters rendering the following instruction as ” borrow no more”.

When a company fails, the assets are gathered and distributed in accordance with a formula set by the State. What is the order of repayment. First category – the State! The Inland Revenue, and the Customs and Excise secure first pickings, even though their claims may have been instrumental in forcing the company into liquidation as politicians vote taxes with out reference to the ability to pay.

Do we ever hear anyone of the Left suggesting that priority should be challenged? The State comes first; a plain example of “To he who has much , much all be given” which is not. of course. Biblical egalitarianism at its strongest.

The notion of debt as the imposition of the powerful is similarly dubious.

Ordinary debt begins with a request for help. Such voluntary engagement is what differentiates it from that which is demanded by the conqueror. The rapacious army imposes its will in a relationship far removed from a mutually agreed scheme for the repayment of debt on schedualled terms.

In conquest, the payment is at best reparation, but usually more plainly described as tax. Danegeld was protection money, not transactional or in any way voluntary. One rarely hears Canon Fraser calling for the forgiveness of tax liability.

The analogy offered by Socrates is equally suspect.

The suggestion that one would not return “that which is due” – the Axe – to the madman, confuses the question of where the disorder  actually lies.

Canon Fraser suggests that in this application of logic, it is the countries that conduct themselves with fiscal responsibility who are the madmen. ” Don’t give them the money/axe – they will cause mayhem” he impliedly charges.


Is there not a closer analogy to be drawn.

The Germany of Angela Merkyl knows madness.

The German people have had Governments printing money and ruining the economy. They have had the politics of “Equality ” and “anti-Capitalism” in both its Left and Right incarnations. They have had Populist solutions offering an easy way out. They have undergone austerity and by abjuring the easy solutions, and by old fashioned hard work, and embracing personal and civic responsibility, they have shown the world how to live within their means. In that direction lies true sustainability and wealth creation.

It is Germany that had embraced the positive meaning of the parable of the talents, it was Greece which chose the easy options and failed to use its opportunities. The parable is not an encouragement to profligacy or relying on others.

A better analogy to returning an axe to a madman, is returning the key to the drinks cabinet to an alcoholic.

Until the root causes of Greece’s debt are recognised, acknowledged and addressed, it is no kindness to return to ” business as usual” . Germany’s attitude is all the more valuable and caring because of its own hard learnt experiences. It has worn the National Socialist tee shirt and remembers where that led.

We need not simply dwell on the meaning of debt however. We also need to consider forgiveness and the last time Brother Ivo looked at Biblical teaching on the subject, forgiveness followed repentance.

The Prodigal Son was forgiven when he “repented” a term which carries the overtone of “turning” from past folly, self indulgence and waste. One does that when one realises that the wrong path has been taken.

It will be interesting to hear the Canon explore Greek debt in the light of the parables of personal responsibility.