The Church of Feasible Miracles

I’ve written previous newsletters about a couple of ministries we plan to start at Jubilee Baptist. You can read about Workers Anonymous here and our Financial Literacy Class here. For this week I wanted to write a bit about our plans to pay off people’s debts and form teams in which people pay off each other’s debts.

On September 22nd, I plan to preach at Jubilee Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I’ll use the gospel story Jesus tells in Luke about the “shrewd manager.” In the story, a guy working in middle management realizes he’s about to lose his job and has to figure out what to do to make sure he’s taken care of. He calls up all the people that owe his boss money and tells them to slash the debts they owe. He figures that when you let someone off the hook like that they’re more likely to take care of you when times get tough. Jesus uses this guy as an example of how smart and sly his followers ought to be in this world. Use the dishonest wealth of this world to care for one another because these people are all you’ve got.

I’ll conclude the sermon with “Amen.” We’ll sing a song, have an invitation, and then in front of the church I’ll hand someone a check for about $4,000-$6,000 that they can use to pay off a debt they have. They’ll share a bit of their story, we’ll offer a word of blessing, probably some commitments to them as a church, and then all together we’ll take communion. We’ll conclude worship singing the chorus to “Every Ditch, Every Valley,” and then we’ll all share a meal together.

We’ll repeat this (the debt and meal part at least) every fourth Sunday of the month until we’re all out of debt. At Jubilee Baptist, we don’t say “People really struggle with debt. How can we help them get out?” but “We all have a ton of debt. How do we help each?”

Seven years ago this week I started divinity school. The summer before, while living by myself working at a rural Methodist church in Summerfield, North Carolina, I read David Graeber’s book Debt. Between Occupy Wall Street and reading Karl Marx’s Capital, I had a growing sense of the depths of the problems caused by capitalism. Graeber’s book showed me one particular way capitalism kills us: it puts us into depraved relationships with one another because debt is a relationship we have with others. Debt carries a moral claim about who we are and how we have to relate to each other, how we have to be with one another. It has moral power because, as Graeber puts it, debt works as long as we believe that good people pay off their debts. Debt interested me because I knew I’d take out a lot of it the next few years, but also because I really just want to be with people in ways that are free from the trappings of exploitation.

I remember driving to Durham from that rural church one afternoon and talking to my dad on the phone. As I turned onto Guess Road, I told him “I think I want to focus on debt while in divinity school. I’m really interested in what debt does to our relationships. Debt changes our relationships and our friendships and so if everyone has a ton of it, it seems like that’d make having friends really difficult.” I came to divinity school hoping to find ways of being with each other that are a little less depraved than capitalism offers. People can and should enjoy friendship with each other and capitalism actively works against that in no small part by making us take out huge loans just to survive.

At the end of that semester, my church history professor assigned a final paper in which we had to write an imagined dialogue between a pastor and a congregant dealing with a particular problem. The dialogue had to sound as natural as possible and then we had to footnote it with theologians we’d read throughout the semester. I wrote a paper imagining myself as pastor telling a congregant we planned to pay off his debt. He felt ashamed and worried. Footnoting it with quotes from St. Anselm, I walked the imagined congregant through why our church had an obligation to pay off his debt. I don’t know how the theological justification holds up. I don’t really care.

Jubilee Baptist Church will pay off people’s debts and we will setup groups for them to them continue paying off each other’s debts faster than they could have on their own. We’ll do this because we believe that God calls us to it and will give us the courage to do it. We’ll pay off debt because, well, why not? What the hell else should a church do?

As best I can tell, you need three ingredients to get out of debt: math, sacrifice, and commitment. Figure out how much you owe and what you can pay, sacrifice some things you want in order to pay a bit more, and stay committed to the plan. In a capitalist economy this formula only applies to individuals. It forms the basis of financial literacy and budgeting classes. Financial literacy classes don’t work. They don’t work because as Louis Hyman puts it, “The danger of budgets, ultimately, is believing that they will tame not only you but the world around you.” We can’t tame the world around us because the world around us works together in ways that most of us can’t.

When you go into debt for thousands of dollars, you don’t usually take out a loan from your uncle Terry. Almost all loans of more than a couple hundred bucks originate with a corporation, a bank, a hospital, hell, even the U.S. government. As I’ve talked about debt over the years, I’ve found people often skip over the the fact that our relationships to our creditors are just as much relationships to real human beings as our relationships to our families, friends, and church. These corporations and institutions organize and incentivize people to live with each other in particular ways. That person calling you to collect on your loan has some sort of relation to you, their manager, and the investors that own the company. Why should creditors get to enjoy this level of coordination? Why can’t a church be just as shrewd in how we handle our money together as these people?

At Jubilee we want to apply the math, sacrifice, and commitment to our community not just individuals. The powers of this world do it. The CEO of the bank works with the tellers, the collectors, and the person that repossess a car. They all do so with the end goal of oppressing and exploiting people. The world around us forms institutions and pays wages and wields its institutional power to keep us indebted and worried. Any response that’s faithful to the Christian faith will have to meet the world with a similar power but on different terms. It’ll require putting math, sacrifice, and commitment to different institutional ends.

I don’t think people understand the institutional power churches have. On a very practical level, we have a bank account and systems to budget. We have ways to collect and oversee funds, cut checks, and pay for things. We do this because people commit to showing up most weeks and they give money. A congregation has ways of deciding what to do with that money. Hopefully they do this in ways more democratic than not. Every church has at least the potential for a communized bank account and in some sense is a communized bank account. Beyond that, they have some level of trust between members. They organize each week for worship and other ways of being with each other. When I say we have to meet the world in similar ways but on different terms, I mean we have to utilize the institutional power of churches, the math, sacrifice and commitment towards better, more liberative ends than the world. We can be with each other in ways that capitalism doesn’t dictate and to say we can’t is to make capitalism a god. Capitalism is a shitty god.

Over the last few months as we’ve led up to the our re-planting as Jubilee Baptist, I’ve had an almost uniform reaction when people hear that we plan to pay off people’s debts. They nearly always say, “Oh cool! Even if I don’t have a debt paid off, that’s something I’d like to be a part of!” and then right after, “Ya know, I bet some people will come just to have their debt paid off.” I haven’t had anyone say the opposite, “I’d love to have my debt paid off. I may or may not join your church though.” We too often underestimate how altruistic people can be with one another especially when they see institutional ways to love one another. This is partly because we’re taught that we don’t have it as bad as others. People want to be a part of what we’re doing and contribute and often admit that they do so because they themselves are in debt, but when it comes to talk about their own indebtedness, their own need, they assume others have it worse off.

I sat with a church member a few weeks ago and told him I thought he should apply to have his debt paid off. I told him we hope to pay off $35,000 total for the year and to shoot for individual debts in the $4,000-$6,000 range. I asked if he had debts that might work for that. He got a bit sheepish so I just said, “Okay. I have $47,000 in student debt, $7,000 in credit card, $3,500 I owe for my taxes last year and the only reason I don’t owe $9,000 for my car is because my denomination gave me a grant for pastors struggling with debt. Now you go.” I don’t know if he felt more comfortable talking about his debt or pressured to share because his pastor just revealed his own debt but he told me how much debt he had. We were in pretty much the same boat or, perhaps more appropriately, we both struggled to keep our heads above water in the same ocean.

I don’t fault that congregant for feeling ashamed about saying how much debt he has. The powers of this world have done a real number ingraining that shame in us. At Jubilee we want to pay off debt publicly in worship to show the powers of this world (and ourselves) that we don’t buy it. The power of shame won’t work on us because we believe in a power that’s defeated not only shame but the powers of this world that benefit from it. Capitalism will one day fade away and lose. We just want to get ready for that day.

One night in Winston while working at my previous church, I got a sense of how depraved debt and capitalism makes our relationships. I pitched the idea of paying off debt to a group of church leaders, people that liked and respected me and had enough pull in the church to potentially get this ministry off the ground. To prepare for the meeting, I had surveyed about twenty friends to ask how much they had in debt, how it shaped their lives, and what it would mean to them to have a church that facilitates them getting out of debt by paying it off.

You can probably anticipate the responses. Debt crippled people. Robbed them of generosity or the ability to care for ailing family members. They skipped dentist and doctor appointments. Debt limited their ability to think about or plan for the future. Even made some scared of success because it would mean they then had to pay more on their debt each month. They said a church that did this would change their mind about church. It’d show that a church actually cares about what people deal with here and now and that that church wanted to address it.

The group of church leaders around the table that night didn’t go for it. They asked questions about financial counseling. That led me to research its effectiveness. It doesn’t work. They asked about precedent. I didn’t really know of any contemporary examples so I shot back “Well in the book of Acts it says the believers shared all things in common. That’s a pretty good precedent in my opinion.” I was angry and anxious which wasn’t abnormal then. My anxiety was caused in no small part from having what I thought to be something like a calling to address people’s needs misunderstood.

One response to that survey said that the whole thing sounded like a “like a miraculous, yet feasible, proposition.” A feasible miracle. If churches need anything right now, it’s feasible miracles.

The feasible names the fact that churches have a bunch of practical resources like buildings, people, offering plates, budgets, the ability to cut checks and take applications and form committees in which people can hold power over all these things and use them as the congregation sees fit. When it comes to paying off debt, the excuse of infeasibility doesn’t apply to churches. There’s ways to make the math work.

We need the miraculous and I can only find that in the people willing to sacrifice and commit because they have faith or belief in something not quite here yet. There’s nothing miraculous about a budget or a committee. There is something miraculous about people willing to share that they have thousands of dollars worth of credit card debt because they had to pay for insulin. There is something miraculous about people willing to take a risk by paying for someone else’s debt and doing so because they believe in God. There is something miraculous about taking the feasibility of dishonest wealth and using it for your friend’s liberation so that together you can overthrow the powers that made dishonest wealth possible in the first place. There is something miraculous about knowing that when the time comes, you’ll get your turn too. That’s the church I want to be a part of right now: the church of feasible miracles.

I don’t know where all this will take us, but I know we’ll get there one feasible miracle at a time.

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