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Forgive Us Our Debts: a Christian Reflection on Debt Forgiveness

We all know that sense of dread when the month keeps going after the paycheck has run out.

But what happens when an individual owes more than he can possibly repay?  What happens if a territory is weighed down by crippling debt?

This week my Good Faith co-host David French and I were joined by David Skeel, one of the world’s leading experts on bankruptcy law and the Chairman of the Financial Oversight & Management Board for Puerto Rico, which was responsible for helping the territory restructure and cut its public debt by 80%. 

David brings a unique perspective as both a legal scholar and follower of Christ, particularly around how our understanding of debt can and should image Biblical values while not being strictly prescribed by Biblical law.

Specifically we discussed:

  • Why Christian attorneys might go into bankruptcy law;
  • What happened financially in Puerto Rico and why it should matter to us;
  • The morality of bankruptcy;
  • How the Bible speaks about debts and debt-forgiveness;
  • How bankruptcy and debt forgiveness plays into the gospel narrative;
  • How David Skeel feels about the proposed Biden forgiveness of student debt;
  • How poetry and the law echo each other; and
  • The proper way that Christians should view the possibilities of law.

CURTIS CHANG: I want to start with the observation that every Christian should be taught a prayer by Jesus himself, which is, of course, the Lord’s Prayer. And central to the Lord’s Prayer is this line, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

According to Jesus, an understanding of debt and debt forgiveness is actually central to how we relate to God and how we relate to other people. But if we don’t really grasp the nature of debt, it means we’re not grasping the most important prayer Jesus taught us.

In actuality, many Christians don’t grasp the full meaning of debt and debt forgiveness and therefore miss out on the full meaning of the most important prayer.

Our guest today has been a person that has helped me grasp the fuller meanings of debt and debt forgiveness, David Skeel.  Welcome to the Good Faith Podcast.

DAVID SKEEL: Thanks so much, Curtis. It’s really wonderful to join you.

CURTIS CHANG: And the reason that David has taught me about debt is not that he owes me money, at least not that I’m aware of anyways.

DAVID SKEEL: I probably do.

CURTIS CHANG: I think I picked up breakfast last time. The next one is on you. But David Skeel is one of the world’s leading experts on the legal framework around debt and debt forgiveness, particularly bankruptcy, which is a key way that our law structures debt forgiveness.

He wrote one of the defining legal histories of debt in America called “Debt’s Dominion,” and is widely recognized. And partly because he’s a world expert on debt, he has really not only taught and thought about debt, but he’s also influenced how an important part of our world handles debt. He’s done so with great thoughtfulness as a Christian.

In addition to that, in the last six years, he’s not just been a thinker about debt and debt forgiveness, he’s been a doer. Back in 2016, President Obama appointed David Skeel, our guest, to the Fiscal Control Board. This is a very powerful body that was given authority to restructure a huge debt problem in the American body politic, specifically the crushing debt load on Puerto Rico.

And it’s an issue that gets very little attention in sort of popular understanding, but actually is a very important issue in how Americans handle our affairs.

DAVID FRENCH: David, a lot of times Christian law students will feel they need to go into an area of law that’s Christian-y, whether it’s religious liberty law or pro life or a job at International Justice Mission or something like that.  But you became a world leading expert in bankruptcy law. And I love that.

Do not think because you’re a Christian law student, that there’s a certain specific career path for you.  There’s a need for salt and light across the entire spectrum of American culture, the American economy, American life.

How did you end up in bankruptcy law?

DAVID SKEEL: I ended up in bankruptcy for reasons completely other than my faith, or so I thought. In my first year of law school, I had a bunch of quite good professors, but I had two spectacular professors.

I decided at the end of law school that whatever those professors taught for my remaining two years of law school, I was going to take it.

I came into law school, as we’ve already been talking about, as a literature person, a poetry person, and had no interest in business law. But I found myself in this bankruptcy class because this spectacular law professor was teaching my second year of law school. It sounds so incongruous to people, but I fell in love with bankruptcy.

I had never realized just how important bankruptcy is to American history. If you go back through the 19th century and you ask the question, what were the most important issues in American life in the 19th century?

Obviously, number one, you would say, slavery. But there’s a pretty good argument that bankruptcy was number two.

[This excerpt was lightly edited for clarity.]

HOSTS: Curtis Chang and David French

PRODUCER: Kris Carter

The Good Faith podcast comes out every Saturday on The Dispatch. Listen and subscribe here or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Curtis Chang is the founder of Redeeming Babel.

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

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