Beyond our ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make sense any more.” Rumi
The Book of Debts is finding a natural resting place in its current home at Navigations, a group show at the magical Red Gallery exploring the nature of belief and part of the Urban Dialogues Arts programme supported by the 3FF – the Three Faith Forum. It sits alongside some very powerful works, curated by fellow artist Barby Asante (who invited me to be part of the show).
I wasn’t familiar with 3FF but it was always my desire (since it has been both at Birmingham Cathedral and part of the Jubilee Debt Campaigns conference ‘Life Before Debt’ ) to place the book at some point in an interfaith context and so it feels like wish fulfilled (or will be once we have burnt the book this coming Sunday). At the opening night festival I felt the energy and power, alongside 450 others, that creativity and dialogue across borders of belief and medium can create and I am expecting the same this weekend.
Many of the ideas for this project were rooted in questioning the impact of beliefs around debt – both positive and negative – for example, those that are synonymous with sin, wrongdoing, judgment and also confession absolution, redemption. Not to mention the core element of The Book, full of powerful words containing both broken and dishonoured contracts, praise for generosities bestowed, acts of social justice and often soul-searching question on the messy and magical threads of human relationships that bind us to one another. Then, it synthesized into its current form as I found my imaginary role in all this, reading Margaret Atwood’s enriching book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, where she charts many literary and mythological narratives to explore the multifaceted nature of debt and how it seems to rule us all from birth to death and beyond.
She introduces Thoth and Anubis in the Egyptian underworld, measuring and weighing, and acting as supernatural scribes; Archangel Michael weighing souls; Angel Gabriel, recording and keeping God’s ledger up to date. And then all those notions of last judgments, the scales of justice, sacred laws regarding fairness and charity (and debt itself, in Leviticus), laws regarding the payment of interest in Islam, and my favorite – the notion of the Jubilee, the periodical forgiveness of all debts and freeing of slaves that is in the Bible, Torah and in some form in other holy books. (Note: this has somehow been phased out centuries ago, though has its remnants in the 6 years duration of a credit record)
I have noticed how many of the debts coming into the current book are emotional /moral ones. Last week I was at the funeral of an old friend. I felt sadness at her loss, but greater sadness in the knowledge that there were a number of mutual friends with whom she had unresolved conflicts, as if something remained unfinished. Despite the English folk saying ‘Death pays all debts’, (though not true in contemporary financial culture where we are bound to pay our deceased relatives’ debts – or in the case of Argentina currently being pursued in court over debts incurred by previous authorities to fund the inhuman actions of the junta.), I still ask my self, what happens to these loose ends? If you’re Buddhist there is karma and in many theological stories these loose ends come back to haunt you in the next life.
How we negotiate our own set of human accounts, or own loose ends spoken or unspoken, may be dependent on our relationship to our own moral compass as either external – a third part god or deity, or internal – the god/divinity/deep knowledge in us that is more characteristic of the mystic and secular traditions. And on whether we believe in the power of an intermediary (Jesus, a priesthood etc.) or have simply our own selves to face in dealing with what remains unpaid, forgiven, unbalanced or unaccounted for.
Debt – like many grand themes – is a morally and emotionally dense subject with no clear cut answers and the only real elements that can penetrate the confronting moral confusion that often arise from reflecting or voicing it is the transformative power of sharing and making things public in appropriate contexts, of which are can be one. capacity that human beings to work together to address injustices in a human but rigorous way (truth and reconciliation hearings, jubilee debt campaign etc.) and to empathies, to feel compassion for suffering and to work on the idea that is at the core of a lot of social, political and cross-cultural initiatives right now, that one persons suffering is on some level, whether visible or not, everyone’s suffering, that every human action, interaction and response matters in an interdependent world.
So, as I work with this subject which can be so very divisive, evoking sometimes suspicious, angry or painful responses (as well as wide-eyed recognition and relief in being able to articulate on the subject), I get more and more inspired at the finales when either someone’s understanding of the subject, and compassion for themselves or another has visibly increased, in the alchemical process which is a communal ritual, which acts as the core of the final performance.
In Roman Krznarics recent book Empathy: a Handbook for Revolution (which I highly recommend) he talks about the role that culture has long had to play in the evolution of an empathic consciousness, beginning with literature, quoting George Eliot thus:
‘Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow –men beyond the bounds of our personal lot’
To read or contribute to the current Book of Debts, you can go online or visit the Red Gallery by Sunday afternoon. Volume VII will be recited and burned as the finale to the Navigations show at 5pm this Sunday September 21st, in collaboration with the Mixed- up Chorus. Events start from 1pm, Free. Info here.