TetzelCoin — Debt, Sin and the Blockchain

The blockchain exists in a strange and new liminal space between nations and peoples. Run by nodes all over the world, the blockchain is everywhere and, consequently, nowhere. What happens to our social institutions when we begin to use the blockchain? How does this change our experience of being human?

TetzelCoin explores the relationship between debt and sin as well as spirituality and technology on the blockchain. TetzelCoin is a blockchain-based confessional that issues “digital indulgences” similar to Medieval-era indulgences leading up to the Protestant Reformation. Users confess a sin to the blockchain and pay an amount in ether that they believe their sin is worth. In return they receive SIN tokens, marking them as forgiven. All of the confessions are publicly visible on the TetzelCoin website. 85% of the proceeds go to RIP Medical Debt, a New York-based nonprofit that seeks out, buys and cancels medical debt, no strings attached.

Like many cultures, American culture is rife with guilt and obligation. We owe something to everyone — our friends, parents, society, country, a god or the cosmos, and so on. If you’ve ever felt like you need to “give back” on uncertain terms, you’re a spiritual debt holder. It’s not that this is wrong — social obligations and spiritual debt are some of the great levers that move the world. But the weight of these obligations can sometimes consume us. What do we do then? Can we ever experience relief?

We also hold financial debts. Student debt has ballooned tremendously; the national debt grows ever-upward; medical debt forces us to choose between our bodies and financial ruin. The language of debt is intertwined with sin. Most Americans are debtors and yet we still look down on debt, no matter how predatory the debt may be. Why? Is it really a sin? What does it mean to be in debt, financially or spiritually? Are we always obligated to pay our debts?

TetzelCoin invites us to explore these questions by stepping into the nascent financial world of the blockchain. The blockchain doesn’t inherently have a concept of debt. Nor does it know about your previous financial history when you start using it. Its pseudonymity means your social obligations are also wiped clean. On the blockchain, there are no debtors or creditors — just pseudonymous accounts, each of which look identical to the next.

What would happen if we tried to pay down a spiritual debt on the blockchain? The task of dealing with this sort of intangible spiritual debt is traditionally the realm of religion. Instead of asking us to grapple with our guilt and sins through a church or religious institution, TetzelCoin replaces this “spiritual bureaucracy” with the blockchain. Since debts always have a creditor, confessing a sin on the blockchain is an absurd and radical idea. To whom do you confess? Who can forgive you? We don’t owe anything to anybody. Left without a creditor to whom we are morally “obliged” or a power structure to force us to pay, we are suddenly free from our liabilities. In this new environment we are free to take a truly moral action and use this same spiritual liability to instead help liberate others from burdensome and unjust medical debt.

Can this impersonal technology make us feel whole? Being forgiven by a human can be a deeply moving experience. Notably, no human or human institution is involved in the forgiveness that TetzelCoin offers. Nor is there any judgment. Forgiveness is completely automated and unconditional. You can simply examine the code and look at your SIN tokens to see that you’ve been forgiven.

On a personal level, I’ve found the experience of using TetzelCoin to be cathartic in a way I didn’t anticipate. I’ve confessed many times over the last month while building TetzelCoin and I still find release from doing it. Owing to its lack of judgment, TetzelCoin gives me an unexpected space to reflect and be honest with myself. Enshrining my sin in the permanent ledger of the blockchain allows me to express vulnerability and be free of the guilt I feel, which really stems from shame. The value of the “sin” is not as important as the fact that I’ve admitted it to myself and let it go by committing it to the blockchain. In truth, I am the holder of my own spiritual liabilities. To let them go all I have to do is forgive myself.