Time for Payback: debts and debtors

My grandfather was an elder in the Presbyterian kirk just behind our family home in Argyll where, as children, we always returned on holiday when my parents were not living and working abroad, and then later came back to from school and university.

The church was austere, with wooden pews lined around the pulpit that was its focus and centre.  The minister – I clearly remember at least three who held the office over the years – would stand below the pulpit to read the service and lead the congregation in prayer and – rather more shakily – in song.   My grandmother played an extraordinary electric organ – which seemed way ahead of its time in the 70s and early 80s – and she always ensured that the psalms and hymns rattled along at a brisk pace.    There was also an unspoken agreement about who sat where,  with my extended family in the pews around the organ, to the right of the pulpit, and the other families living on the estate or in the neighbourhood, to the left.

All this came to mind, however, not because of my grandparents but on account of the wording of the Lord’s Prayer, which the minister duly announced in stentorious tones.  Having got passed the opening lines, almost without fail I always tripped up on the phrase “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”, because at school in the “south” and at Church of England services attended with my parents, whether in England or elsewhere, the words were different.  In the Anglican service we prayed for the ability to “Forgive our trespassers and those who trespass against us”.  The potential for confusion was very real – particularly because “No Trespassing” was still a sign that appeared on gates in those days, before the idea of the right to roam had become established.  Who exactly were the trespassers we were supposed to be forgiving – the families who regularly picnicked in the beautiful sandy bay below the kirk?

Over the past few months, debts and debtors have become extraordinarily topical – let alone the state’s or our credit card company’s attitude to forgiving them. So I was fascinated to read an article that appeared in last Saturday’s FT in which Margaret Atwood looks at “our attitudes to debt and the shadow-side of wealth – from never talking about money to how to play Shylock”.    She too remembers the confusion between the two versions of the Lord’s Prayer.

The word “debt” – blunt and to the point – was well fitted to the plain, grape-juice-drinking United Church, and “trespasses” was an Anglican word, rustling and frilly, that would go well with wine-sipping for Communion and a more ornate theology.

She goes on to analyse whether the words mean the same thing.

Between the 1940s and now, the search engine has providentially come into being, and I’ve recently been trolling around on the web. If you do this yourself, you’ll find that “debts” was used by John Wycliffe in his 1395 translation and “trespasses” in Tyndale’s 1526 version. “Trespasses” reappears in the 1549 English Book of Common Prayer, though the King James 1611 translation of the Bible reverts to “debts”. The Latin Vulgate uses the word for “debts”. But it’s interesting to note that in Aramaic, the Semitic language that was spoken by Jesus, the word for “debt” and the word for “sin” are the same. So you could translate this word as “Forgive us our debts/sins” or even “our sinful debts”; though no translator has chosen to do this yet.

It’s all there in Matthew 6:12.  For this, it really does seem fitting that St Matthew is the patron saint of bankers, accountants, bookkeepers, customs officers, financial officers, money managers, security guards, stock brokers and tax collectors.  Was anyone thinking of him on his saint’s day, on 21 September this year, when in the UK bankers and government were frantically discussing the terms of the Lloyds buyout of Scotland’s once venerable institution, the Bank of Scotland?  Probably not, I would imagine.  However, I think Margaret Atwood’s suggestion of translating the phrase as “sinful debts” might prove edifying.

The timing of her new book is certainly extraordinary.  Payback was released this week and in an interview Atwood confessed “I feel bad about [the timing]. Sure it makes my book topical, but I would rather do without the global crisis.”

She started to write the lectures earlier this year, but now the situation has worsened, making Atwood’s comments uncomfortably relevant.  The following passages have been taken from an article by Fiona Anderson in the Vancouver Sun.

“When the great house tumbles down, these miserable wretches fall under it unnoticed,” Thackeray wrote and Atwood quotes in her book.

Closer to home, a bank failure causes Matthew Cuthbert’s heart attack and death in Anne of Green Gables, Atwood points out.

When a big person falls, a lot of little people get squashed.  It won’t be until faith and honesty have been restored to the system that things will change, Atwood said. And she believes that can only happen when there is more regulation.

“Life is not all about money, and in fact money is an imaginary thing we’ve invented. That’s why it’s so volatile.  What we’re really living off is not money, it’s food and water and air and heat.”

About Lucy Byatt

I'm a translator, from Italian into English. I also teach Italian Renaissance history and write.
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