An Easter story: earning redemption on earth

It’s Easter. A time of redemption. But of what?

The traditional Christian Easter story is of the redemption of sins through a symbolic death.

In behind it lies a notion of reciprocity — debt and obligation. Maori call it utu. We each incur debts to others of widely varying sorts (including money) which create obligations to others. The “others” might include nature and, in green parlance, the planet.

For a society to function well debts must be paid back. If not, trust will be damaged. Without trust a society cannot function, except through force and fear.

So all societies developed protocols to manage reciprocal obligations. Some of the protocols have been elaborate and ritualised. Many are not nice.

Money debt fits in this frame. If you borrow, you must repay. That’s the simple version.

Financial capitalism temporarily took debt into an ethereal realm where it was transformed into wealth. That was the madness of crowds at work. But back on earth the new wealth turned out to be debt all along. We can’t escape the human nexus so easily. For every debtor there is a creditor. For every debt there is a reckoning.

Of course, the hugely powerful can defy creditors’ claims on their debts, both of the money kind and of other kinds, and the creditors just lose. Also, there is the possibility of rescue — redemption — by some outside body or force.

So, for example, powerful United States felt at ease being $US1 trillion in debt to China because the United States economy has been the world “engine” and its dollar has been the world’s reserve currency, used for much of international trade and therefore necessarily a part of every economy’s reserves. (This has its ironies: China in effect funded the United States invasion of Iraq, of which it formally disapproved, by helping fund the budget deficit, which the invasion bloated.)

The United States assumed it could postpone its day of reckoning. Smaller, weaker economies which emulated the United States — Iceland, Ireland and Latvia are among many examples — face bailouts or bailiffs. The United States continues to borrow, in even larger amounts.

It will thereby — along with other big-borrowing rich countries — likely trigger inflation and devalue (in effect, renege on) its debts. Along the way other debts are devalued: virtuous savers are punished; feckless borrowers are rewarded.

This is not exactly the path to trust and harmony. Nor is it exactly the original Easter message. It trashes the debt-obligation human nexus.

But there will be a reckoning.

In past centuries rich nobles could live comfortably after ruining small suppliers by not paying for their services. But as the centuries passed the nobility lost economic power and, with it, political power.

Likewise, for now China can do little about its devaluing United States holdings. It has said it worries about the safety of its investments. It has proposed there should be a new reserve currency. But words are its limit. As the generations pass, however, this current big financial event will in retrospect be seen to have kicked along the transit of power from west to east. More debt is not a solution to already excessive debt.

Will a top-of-the-heap China be more trustworthy? Not if its maltreatment of Tibet and other ethnic minority regions — in blatant contravention of its signature on the United Nations indigenous rights declaration — is a guide to its future treatment of small countries. The powerful usually place themselves above the debt-obligation nexus.

But in the long term China, like the United States, will not escape a reckoning.

Take Margaret Atwood’s engrossing tour through history and the future in her latest book, Payback.

She scans notions of debt in ancient times, religion, fiction, the economy and the future — in a manner described by noted British political philosopher John Gray as having “combined rigorous analysis, wide-ranging erudition and a beguilingly playful imagination”.

Atwood re-imagines Charles Dickens’ Scrooge in a present-day allegory. A wealthy corporate boss is confronted by three “Spirits of Earth Day”, past, present and future. A bleak desert future created by the resource-hungry drive to greater material wealth of rich countries in the past and the Chinas of today leads him to conclude that:

“I don’t really own anything. Not even my body. Everything I have is only borrowed. I’m not really rich at all, I’m heavily in debt. How do I even begin to pay back what I owe? Where should I start?”

The Easter answer is the promise of redemption of past sins (spiritual debts, Atwood calls them). But redemption is not a one-way gift. It is reciprocal. To have justice done requires humility, a rare human virtue.

Apocalyptic greens will applaud, and sceptics deride, the planetary homily. But the debt-obligation nexus reaches into all human activity. Redemption does not fall from heaven. It is earned on earth. That is the Easter message. It is a very modern message.