The Currency of Patience
I have never been passionate about statistics and never expected therefore that my attention should be caught by a report which I discovered completely by accident following a link on Twitter some months ago. The report is the Statistics Yearbook of Personal Debt in the UK compiled by Step Change, a highly esteemed and truly remarkable UK debt charity which offers free advice by phone or online on how to deal with unmanageable debt problems. What makes the report particularly interesting is that it challenges many commonplaces and prejudices we might have about why people’s debt spirals out of control and which categories are most likely to be affected by it
In 2019, a staggering 635.ooo people contacted the charity to request advice, 15.000 more than the previous year. We still do not have the statistics for 2020 but it is easy to predict that the increase in number will be exponential. 35 % of UK population say they have been kept awake at night worrying about their finances.
The three main reasons for people’s debts are unemployment and redundancy (16%), reduced income (18%) and injury or illness (16%). There is a variety of other reasons, but -and this point is crucial - only in 11% of the cases the debt results from a lack of budgeting.
Sadly, the categories most likely to incur in serious debt problems are people between 18 and 39 (66%) and women (62%) most of whom are single parent.
In addition to their financial difficulty, 44 % of the people requiring debt advice are in a vulnerable situation, that is physical and mental health conditions, learning disabilities, sight or hearing difficulties - which makes dealing with debt problems even more challenging.
The significance of this data was brought home to me thanks to a short video featuring the story of one of the beneficiaries of the work of this charity. The person in question is Carol. She was in her mid-fifties at the time of the interview and had worked since she was 16 years old as a freelance IT contractor and business analyst. When the recession hit in 2009 she lost her job and quickly burnt her savings to pay her house mortgage. However much she tried she could only find short term contracts which payed a much lower wage. Before she knew it, her finances had become unmanageable. One of the main points of her testimony is how easily people can lose control over their finances.
Then begins the nightmare of the debt collectors.
We heard in the Gospel how the first servant upon meeting a fellow servant who owed him a certain amount of money, “seized him by the throat and said ‘Pay what you owe’” and did not relent even when the latter pleaded with him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you'(Mt 18.28f). This is not ancient history.
Carol in her testimony relates a very similar scenario: "During this time -she says- I was getting phone calls from some of my creditors every half an hour, 24 hours a day with an automated message insisting that I call them and find a way to repay. I had to change my phone number. I had debt collectors turning up at the door – I live alone and was terrified most of the time. I was doing everything I could, searching for jobs every day, and I didn’t know what they thought they could achieve from turning up like that”.
This page of Matthew’s gospel and more generally the way Scripture talks about people crushed by debt invites us to review our unconscious biases - most of which, ironically, hardened as a result of influential Christian movements.
In the capitalist tenets of contemporary Western society are still discernible two aspects of the Puritan ethos that contributed to its development. First the idea that economic prosperity somehow is a visible sign of being a member of the elect. Then the deep seated conviction that if people end up in debt they only have themselves to blame. The Puritan emphasis on postponement of earthly gratification led to a particular stress on saving and on considering debt as sinful. It is telling, for example, that the German word for debt – Schuld – also means guilt.
Carol says: “I think a lot of people assume as soon as you’re in debt that it’s your fault, that you’ve overspent, that you’ve not managed your money and didn’t plan properly”. She also relates how even before receiving concrete advice on how to restructure her debt, the thing that relieved her most when she finally got in touch with the debt charity Step Change was that she did not feel judged in any way.
We might not act like Carol’s debt collectors nor seize those who owe us money by the throat like the first servant of the Gospel, but we might have to probe our often unconscious tendency to attribute debt to people’s self-indulgence or lack of responsibility. We are inclined to think that they should have been saving more or work harder or buy less. Taking the moral high ground gives us an alibi for averting our eyes and in any case, considering the magnitude of the problem and its exponential increase at the moment, we would be justified to feel that there is little or nothing we can do about it.
The pivotal moment in this page of Matthew’s Gospel happens when other fellow servants seeing what was happening, “were greatly distressed, and went and reported to their lord all that had taken place” (Mt 18.31). The characters of this parable are always named sundouloi, “fellow servants” and one of its key messages concerns the solidarity that we should feel for each other in this kind of situations. The main reason of the master’s anger at the first servant is the latter’s refusal to have pity on a fellow servant, on someone who is in the same situation, whether actually or potentially.
The fellow servants feel this solidarity, are distressed by the situation of their less fortunate colleague, do not avert their eyes, and even if they cannot intervene directly, they take some form of action.
The increasing dysfunctionality of our Western capitalist model may have led us to become fatalists and maybe a bit cynical. We struggle to believe that there might be alternative more human ways of dealing with these problems – and especially we do not believe that greater compassion may in the end prove to be much more effective even from a purely financial point of view than strangling people.
The truly striking feature of Step Change is where their funding comes from, since the service they provide is entirely free. Counter-intuitively, Step Change is funded almost entirely by creditors whom the charity managed to persuade that the most effective way of getting restitution is not harassing people but helping them to find practical and sustainable solutions: debt consolidation, settlement offers, re-mortgaging and a number of others – including, crucially, legal protection against abusive behaviour by creditors. This type of harassment increases stress, compromises people self-confidence and if anything makes them even less likely to ever be able to get up on their feet again.
Twice in today’s Gospel resonates the cry: “Have patience with me” (Mt 18.26,29). This is the cry of the categories that our present merciless financial system keeps pressurizing: young people, women, single parents, people who have suffered serious health setbacks – and for the foreseeable future the depressingly huge number of people who will lose their jobs because of the pandemic.
The main focus Jesus’s parable of course is forgiveness and shifting the emphasis on the issue of debt might seem something of a diversion. However, is it not telling that repeatedly the Gospel’s chosen image to express the reality of forgiveness should be the way we deal with debt both individually and as a society? This very connection is enshrined in the Lord’s prayer. In the sentence Forgive us our trespasses and we forgive those who trespass against us, the word translated in English with “trespass” is opheilemata, which means debt – so that the sentence can be translated just as well: “Forgive us our debts as we also forgive our debtors” (Mt 6.12) (which is the case in the Italian version of the Lord’s prayer).
We are invited to adopt the same attitude both with debtors as with those who trespass against: question our biases, be less judgmental, realize that in this we all are sundouloi, “fellow servants”, and that a bit more mercy, a bit more patience with each other can go a long way in creating not only a more human but in the end even a wealthier world – a wealth more evenly distributed.
The master says to the first servant: “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?”.
Mercy and patience are the currency that the Father has injected in our world. Truly Christian capitalism consists in multiplying this same currency. Circulating it more will make every one of us richer, not only those who receive it but especially those who generously dispense it to their fellow human beings.