Work, Debt, and Christian Witness

Kathryn Tanner ’79 B.A., ’82 M.A., ’85 Ph.D.

Last Fall I taught a class on “Work, Debt, and Christian Witness,” which attracted a diverse group of students in theology, ethics, and ministerial studies. A significant number of the students had worked previously in the corporate world, with nonprofit organizations, or in the field of law, which helped make the course a great learning experience for me.

The purpose of the course was to familiarize students with changes in workplace conditions and the growing prevalence of debt in American life, and to give them some sense of the ethical and theological issues posed by these new circumstances.

Beholding Economic Life

The fundamental rationale for a course like this is: Christians must live out their religious commitments in a terrain deeply etched by economic forces. In order to do so in ways that are both appropriately Christian and intellectually responsible, Christians need to have not just a good sense of how and why theology matters; they also need to have the best information available about what is happening in the economy. Too often, in my judgment, Christians approach economic life in an economically naïve fashion. Their evaluations of economic life on religious grounds are for that reason easy to dismiss and publicly discredit.

The course grew out of long years of research in preparation for my recent series of Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh. Those lectures in 2015-16 concerned the power of a new configuration of capitalism, dominated by finance, to shape the fundamental character of persons. I tried to show how Christian beliefs and practices might counter such an influence, form people differently so as to resist the demands placed on them by this particular type of capitalism. Entitled “Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism,” these lectures used a kind of Weberian method to reverse Max Weber’s own famous concerns in his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905). Rather than showing how Christianity helped shape capitalism at its start, by supplying people willing to do for religious reasons what capitalism asked of them, I tried to show how Christianity might hinder the excesses of capitalism, in its later forms, by producing economically recalcitrant subjects.

The changes in workplace conditions discussed in the Fall course were many: increased job insecurity, flexibility in job requirements, downward pressures on pay, overwork, near-impossible demands for performance that therefore bleed into time outside work, the need for ever-greater speed in reaction times to changing market conditions, computer-enabled surveillance, the move from full-time employees to the use of subcontractors or independent operators, and so on.

Taking Stock

What drives many of these changes in the workplace is the demand to maximize profit, by cost-cutting in the short term, usually at the expense of company employees. Companies make do with fewer workers and therefore need to work the ones they retain harder. And company costs for each worker – in ​terms of salary and benefits – are minimized (for example, by having pay levels set on the competitive market through subcontracting rather than inhouse). What lies behind this demand for greater profit margins is corporate management in service of shareholder value. Companies are run to keep their stock prices high, and achieving the maximum possible profit is the way to do that. Pay people more than one has to, keep more people on the payroll than is absolutely necessary, and the value of company stock might very well plummet. The financial market, in short, will mete out punishment.

The increasing role of debt in American life is in great part a function of these same corporate practices. People laid off, poorly paid, or facing stagnating wages year after year avail themselves of payday loans to make ends meet each month or amass credit-card debt, in the effort to maintain their standards of living or simply survive.

Unkind Cuts

Debt-strapped governments, financing their operations through the bond market because of insufficient tax revenues, also do their part to increase the likelihood of debt among the citizenry. In order to reassure their creditors and prove credit worthiness, debt-ridden nations engage in the same sort of practices typical of shareholder-value corporate management. They cut costs, laying off workers, keeping their wages low, working them harder. Debt strapped governments tend, moreover, to cut services (which, in contrast to the case of corporations, represents an expense rather than a potential source of revenue for governments).

Government employees, in short, are in the same boat as corporate ones – in need of the income supplementation made possible by going into debt. And the lack of government services means people are thrown on their own increasingly meager resources. In the absence of welfare to supplement poor wages, for example, loans will have to do. If governments are no longer willing to make grants to cover the costs of education, student loans will have to step into the breach. Financial organizations are more than willing to provide such loans – payday loans, consumer loans, student loans – for ​the same reason they were so willing, especially before the financial crisis, to provide easy credit for mortgages. Those loans can be repackaged into bonds and sold on the open market, thereby fobbing their default risks onto other parties. In great part, the riskier such loans are the better – payday loan borrowers, for example, are by definition bad risks given their often precarious job prospects. Bad credit means greater interest, which simply increases the attractiveness of the bonds that are then sold to investors.

A Decent Life

The whole of one’s person is a target for profit-making in these changed conditions of work and debt. In constantly assuming debt, for the meeting of almost every conceivable need, one obligates oneself to manage one’s whole life in ways that are compatible with paying it off. All the decisions one makes as a worker and consumer come to be affected, into an indefinitely extendable future – the need to be indebted never seems to cease. Companies attempting to maximize profit ask more and more of their employees, in ever-expanding demands for greater efficiency and productivity. The degree of their wholehearted commitment to the company is ultimately at issue – are employees really giving it their all? Workers whose low pay pushes them to work two or three jobs also know about giving it their all; the whole of their lives is consumed in the effort to make enough money to live a decent life.

Like the capitalism of today, Christianity also has an interest in the whole person. By shaping one’s fundamental identity as a person, one’s basic sense of self and of how one should orient oneself in the world, Christian commitment is something to be lived out across the whole of life. The fundamental question I continue to ask myself as a theologian – and what I asked of students in my course – is whether the Christian formation of persons is compatible with the present-day demands of capitalism.

Kathryn Tanner ’79 B.A., ’82 M.A., ’85 Ph.D. is the Frederick Marquand Professor of Systematic Theology at YDS. Her books include Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity: A Brief Systematic Theology (Fortress, 2001), Economy of Grace (Fortress, 2005), and Christ the Key (Cambridge, 2010). She is a past president of the American Theological Society and for nearly a decade has been a member of the Theology Committee that advises the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops.