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The “Paid His Debt to Society” Metaphor Is Useless Chaff From a Superstitious Era

"He paid his debt to society."  Have you ever paused to ask where this haggard, mindless line came from, or what in blue blazes it means?!

Every time a high profile person is released from prison this line launches from the larynx of every pundit and commentator from sea to dulling sea. The latest public extravaganza features former NFL quarterback Michael Vick.

He has just completed a 23-month prison sentence for bank rolling and operating the horrid and aptly named Bad Newz Kennels dog fighting ring.The controversy about whether Vick should be allowed to play pro football again is raging like a California wildfire on Sports Talk Radio and Football websites.  His former coach Jim Mora robotically delivered the unexamined standard line, “Vick deserves a second chance in the league because ‘he’s paid his debt to society.’"

My purpose here is not to enter the fray on whether or not Vick should be allowed to continue his NFL career.  I am aiming for a more expansive bulls eye.  What is the genesis of this saying?  I use the word “genesis” as a foreshadowing pun since my ministerial ear hears the phrase as a secular expression of an Orthodox Christian theological doctrine.  It is expressed with concise clarity in this popular youth group song from my Evangelical church days."

He paid a debt He did not owe, 
I owed a debt I could not pay.
I needed someone
to wash my sins away.
And now I sing a brand new song
‘Amazing Grace.’
Christ Jesus paid a debt
that I could never pay!"

The ten-dollar theological term for this sentiment is “substitutionary atonement.”  It comes from St. Paul’s interpretation of Jesus’ death on the cross; “the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

The bumper sticker version of this belief is “Christian’s aren’t perfect, just forgiven.”  

The roots of St. Paul’s assertions trace back to humanity’s early superstitious beliefs that good weather and bountiful crops are a result of sacrifices to the gods.  

These expiations ranged from offering "first fruits of the harvest," to animals, to human life.

We have evolved from blood offerings that “pay a debt to God,” to serving prison time that “pays a debt to society.”  

Neither of these anachronistic notions yield any practical, or transformative results.

"Paying a debt to society" could serve one aspect of a redemptive function if it referred to paying financial or moral restitution to those harmed by the perpetrator.  Our  quasi theological approach has people emerging from incarceration who may have well paid their mythical debt but neither they nor we have invested at all in transforming the psycho spiritual causes of their transgressions.  We are puzzled, shocked and blame them when they go back to their old tricks.  

The “debt paying” metaphor is useless chaff from a superstitious era.

Ironically St. Paul prescribes the spiritual cure in another of his letters; “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind."  

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Chuck Freeman

Chuck Freeman

Rev. Chuck Freeman has served as Minister of Spiritual Life with Live Oak Unitarian Universalist Church in Austin, Texas since 1996. He is the creator, producer and host of the radio program “Soul Talk” in its 14 year of broadcasting. The program currently airs on Progressive Blend Radio based in Washington, D.C.

Chuck is the Founder and President of The Free Souls Project, promoting the integration of spirituality, democracy and ethics from a liberal faith perspective.
You can hear Chuck’s podcasts at or peruse his blog at He is also a regular author on The Seminal,

His Op Ed Pieces have been published in the Austin American Statesman and with Austin’s NPR affiliate, KUT.

Chuck is a lively, reflective, down to earth man who combines irreverence, compassion, and a playful humor in his life and work.