…and forgive them their debts

I have always believed that solutions for the future should be searched for in the past. After all, the past is a kind of laboratory that has already tried out one thing or another, but has also often discovered certain ’laws’ that are repeated from one era to the next. Indeed, if we may need all the tools from ancient to slightly less ancient philosophy, we also need some of the ’wrenches’, ’screwdrivers’ and ‘hex keys’ that the rulers of yesteryear might provide. This search is not a system-building exercise, but a very practical one. If we find something that works, we should use it and put an end to the arrogant idea of a development that brushes aside earlier inventions as obsolete. In fact, I am absolutely convinced that if only the rulers would avoid ”great new ideas” a little more often, in many ways we would be better off. But this will not change as long as they do not look back in history and are given a development budget. You know, there’s a whole bunch of civil servants out there for development work and you’ve got to find them jobs. But let’s see what could be a ”great old idea”.

I am sure that at least one administrative action will have to be dragged from the past to the present, sooner or later. Without it, the heavy chains of humanity will only become heavier. It is a question of debt forgiveness. Michael Hudson has written a good article on this topic, based on his book ”…and forgive them their debts: Lending, Foreclosure and Redemption From Bronze Age Finance to the Jubilee Year” 

Hudson discusses Sumerian and Babylonian thinking on debt. After all, their economy was in many ways based on credit. I will try to summarise the essential points. Debts that were written down were always repaid at the end of the harvest season with grain. Sometimes, however, there was a war or some other disaster and the debts could not be paid off once and for all. The result was by no means that the debtor was made a slave of the creditor. No! The result would only be a slave society. The ruler cancelled all debts. Thus, for example, the farmer who owed money for beer did not have to pay the beer producer and the latter did not have to pay the palace. They understood that debt could otherwise grow unbearable, in which case it could no longer be paid, but it would enslave people. So in ancient times there was an understanding of helping those in need, however hard times might otherwise have been. In fact, harsh creditors were despised because they only impoverished society. We often overlook this, because we tend to portray the past as savage – which it certainly was in part, as is our time – and in turn to portray our own as sophisticated and advanced. 

Let’s get a little closer to the present, although still not very close. How did the Church take the matter? At this point we have already moved partly into the realm of monetary economics. So we are much closer to what might be considered a modern situation, where debts can no longer be paid once a year with grain. A situation arises in which money can be created with money if one is made to pay interest. For the Christians of old, this was wrong. The whole idea of creating money with money was seen as unnatural and repulsive. Indeed, the Third Lateran Council of 1179 had forbidden the lending of money at interest (Heikka 2016, 29, 31.) It would seem that in the old days people were more aware of the problem of constant debt and did not care about what today’s bankers and other ’big money’ men call moral hazard if debts are forgiven. 

So, we are inevitably facing the question of debt. It must be resolved – and the solution must be significant. In this task, it is not worth listening to the nearest banker, but diving into the world and minds of the people of the old days. To see how they posed this question, so that we can free ourselves from our own scales before our eyes. They can be dropped from us by Sumerians, Babylonians and Christians alike, if only we listen carefully to what human memory wants to tell us: ”Forgive them their debts.”


Heikka Mikko 2016. Poverello pelaa palloa. Kapitalismi, kristinuskon musta joutsen? – Esseitä uskosta ja rahasta (2016). Kirjapaja. Helsinki. s. 29-44