Thought for the Day - Canon Dr Alan Billings

My younger son said something to me the other day that took me completely by surprise and haunts me still. We were sitting in a café at St Pancras Station - where we occasionally meet when I'm in London - talking about the financial crisis and the unrest that seems to be building across Europe - the background to the weekend G8 summit. He suddenly looked up and said very earnestly, "Have you ever felt frightened for the future?"

I was startled. I have never felt frightened for the future, but clearly he did.

This was not the result of our different generational circumstances. My generation has enjoyed a welfare state, steady employment and may be debt-free before the end of the working life. His generation starts with student debts, quickly adds a mortgage and the cost of child care, and faces insecure employment prospects. No, his worries were wider. He spoke about pre-war Europe when recession and austerity led to civil unrest and the rise of the dictators. Was history going to repeat itself?

On the train after our conversation my mind turned to those Old Testament passages where the writers wrestle with the problem of debt. Of course, they wrote in pre-industrial times. Even so, it was a period when poverty was often the result of indebtedness. It troubled them that the people of Israel had escaped slavery in Egypt only to fall into a different kind of slavery – in hock to money lenders. Could these writers have any wisdom, any solutions?

They had one very radical solution – the law of Jubilee - the idea that every fifty years all debts should be cancelled and everyone given a chance to start again. There is little evidence that Jubilee was practised. It's hardly realistic. The nearer you get to the fiftieth year, the less willing people would be to lend anyone anything. Economic activity would soon dry up.

Yet there is a kernel of wisdom here. Working from the assumption that economies should work for the good of all not just some, they understood two things. First, that reckless borrowing implied reckless lending. Both parties, therefore, had an obligation to find a workable way through. And second, there comes a point where the burden of debt is so great that the more the debtor is squeezed, the less likely the creditor will be repaid. It is in the interests of both to allow a period of grace.

If that is true for individuals it cannot be less true for nations. A solution for troubled nations must lie in finding some version of that period of grace where an economy can grow itself again – for the common good.

Until we can do that, my son's question, "Have you ever felt frightened for the future?" should haunt us all.

Release date: 20 May 2012

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