In June, ProPublica published the results of an investigation into a Memphis, Tennessee, based healthcare nonprofit that ran its own debt collections agency and sued 8,300 persons for unpaid medical debt over a five-year period, including some of its own employees. Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, is affiliated with the United Methodist Church. After pressure from the UMC and the public following scrutiny from the article, the hospital recently announced that it had suspended its lawsuits, raised its minimum wage for hospital employees, and was implementing a new financial assistance program, although questions remain about how some of the cases originally mentioned in the article will be settled.
We might not always notice it, but financial language, including language about debt and debt collection, isn’t only relegated to the secular world. It is easy to find the language of debt in theology as well. You might have heard sermons about how deeply in debt we are to sin, how weighed down by sin-debt we are. We are reminded that Jesus needs to pay the penalty on that debt by suffering on the cross. It’s in our preaching, and it’s especially in our hymns: “Jesus paid it all, All to Him I owe,” or, if you are a fan of contemporary Christian music, Hillsong’s Crowns: “How is it I should profit? / While He is crucified / Yet as His life was taken / So I was granted mine / My wealth is in the cross, / There’s nothing more I want…,” [Your wealth can’t all be in the cross with so much money to sunk in the production value of your Youtube music videos!] Or, to go way back, that Charles Wesley classic, “And can it be that I should gain an interest in the savior’s blood?” The more we lean into these debt-based theologies of atonement, the more we fall along with them into investing in the spectacle of the gruesome violence of Jesus’s death. Just think about that Wesley hymn for a moment. “And can it be that I should gain an interest in the savior’s blood.” We can buy shares of Christ blood? Like buying into the Lyft IPO, or Google, or Apple?
The more we use financial language to describe the cross, the closer we come to describing Christ’s body as a commodity which can be bought, sold, and traded on a violent marketplace where extra Christ suffering somehow equals more profits for us. In our current moment, when the law tells us corporations are people and ethics are built around corporate profitability as the ultimate arbiter of “goodness,” this kind of theology makes violence profitable, and therefore good. When we do this, we buy not into the teachings of Jesus but into the logics of the Roman Empire that executed and crucified the man from Galilee. We too invest in the profitability of violence, and in our voyeurism of the spectacle of it. Our vision blurs, and we become so focused on Jesus’s body on the cross that we miss the rich and complex tableau of the whole of Jesus’s life, suffering, death, and resurrection. Investing in bad sin-debt theology does not prepare pastors well to preach the abundant message of resurrection.
These theologies have painful costs. I can’t hear hymns or sermons about our impossible-to-pay-off indebtedness to sin without thinking about all the other predatory systems of lending: Pay day lenders are a $90 billion dollar business in this country; 12 million Americans take a pay day loan each year, and while rates in NJ are capped at only 30% (can you believe 30%!?!?), they can have rates at high as 677% (Ohio). If you don’t have the right kind of credit or bank account, you rely upon check cashers and payday lenders and their exorbitant fees just to get by. If you need to send money to loved ones, especially loved ones who live abroad, wire transfer fees shave precious portions of a paycheck just to share resources among families and communities.
Then there’s medical debt. 66.5% of all bankruptcy filings are tied to medical debt. Knowing that statistic, I can’t hear a hymn the same way that tells me that human life is in such debt to sin, a debt so steep it can’t be repaid, that it is a debt so steep that it deserves death. I can’t hear theology the same that tells me I can’t get saved from either death or debt, when people every day have to choose between death and debt that can never be repaid.
There’s also the issue of education debt. Student loans are one of the only kinds of debt that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. In fact, some kinds of private student loans, depending on the circumstances, cannot be discharged even in death! When our debts can live on past death, what is the good of a resurrection sermon after such a death-dealing message of debt?
We do a lot of moralizing and theologizing around debt outside of our churches, too. Society tells us that there is “good” debt (buying a house, investing in education, “building your credit score”) and there is “bad” debt (car loans, payday loans, credit card debt). It doesn’t matter if you can’t work without that car, or you can’t keep the lights on without that loan, or you can’t pay for your prescriptions without putting it on a credit card. Instead, we judge other people based on their debts, and we sometimes think about people with what society calls bad debts as sinful, bad people.
For folks already overwhelmed by these and other predatory systems of indebtedness, theologies of sin-debt can be truly crushing. These theologies are costly on bodies and souls. Now I’m not advocating for what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace…that we bestow on ourselves.” In fact, I think actually think it is a cheap grace to let our predatory debt culture dictate to us that the only narrative worth telling about the gospel is a profitable cross. That Bonhoeffer quote continues, “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” When “all our wealth is in the cross,” to quote that Hillsong piece again, we’ve actually invested in a cheap grace. It’s a cheap grace that makes all of the gospel about the cross, and all of the gospel about a violent death at the hands of the state.
Rev. Dr. Jennifer A. Quigley is Assistant Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Studies and Louisville Postdoctoral Fellow at Drew Theological School. Her research interests lie at the intersections of economy and theology in New Testament and early Christian texts, and her work regularly incorporates material culture evidence. A scholar and teacher deeply committed to feminist pedagogy, her most recent publication is a co-authored chapter with Dr. Laura Nasrallah on feminist pedagogy in MOOCs. She is an ordained elder in West Ohio Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, with nine years of experience in college chaplaincy at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel.