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Forgiving our debtor

Agnostics Anonymous

It's strangely appropriate that the Archbishop of Canterbury's attack on Wonga should be followed by revelations that the CofE has financial ties to the payday loans industry. Christianity has long had it in for the moneylenders. Usurers make it to the prestigious seventh circle of Dante's Inferno, alongside such big-hitters as the suicides, murderers, blasphemers and sodomites. Christianity anathematises the idea of profiting from debt. But at the same time, Christianity itself is a doctrine of debt.

Christian theology makes all earthly debts irrelevant next to the debt man owes to God. This is made explicit in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus teaches his followers to beseech God in these terms: 'Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors'. The Almighty offers no repayment plans; fortunately, through the medium of Christ's human sacrifice he has waived the charge. But only if we unconditionally throw ourselves on his mercy and accept that our debt is unpayable.

This seems very generous, if we accept that we do in fact owe an infinite debt to God. But despite the stern repeat warning letters issued by the Church over the past 20 centuries, it's by no means obvious that this is the case. How did we all, individually and universally, from the smallest embryo upwards, incur this debt? Simply because of Original Sin; that is, not because of anything we have done personally, but because Adam and Eve couldn't stick to their admittedly not-especially-demanding diet plan. All Creation thereafter bears the stigma of their transgression.

In its bare form, this story is less likely to induce a guilty sense of obligation than the most half-baked request for a pound for the train fare home in your average British city centre. And the least talented emailer in all of Nigeria could surely come up with something more subtle than Eternal Life in Heaven as the lure for accepting one's deep indebtedness to an, on the face of it, profoundly unfair Creator. Like some giant identity fraud, Original Sin implicates us for massive bills run up without our knowledge or participation.

No doubt, the Archbishop is right to deplore Wonga et al. Loan agreements with a rate of 5,853% are a Faustian pact for the hard-up. I expect the Archbishop also means well when he suggests using church buildings and resources to promote credit unions (first invented in the pious hope that 15th-century Perugia could expel its Jews). But anybody stepping inside a church ought to realize it has designs on them too; it wants to annul debts in this world only to subsume them into one that is infinite. This one is unpayable and means indefinite servitude for anyone who takes it on. 'I writ them a bill with mine own blood,' said Marlowe's Dr. Faustus; at least Mephistopheles' terms were clear from the start.