Recovering a Moral Critique of Debt


Recovering a Moral Critique of Debt | Robert Parham, Debt

The biblical witness underscores the danger of debt. Debt is destructive. It enslaves the borrower, Parham writes.
Progressive Christians have a truncated moral agenda when it comes to economic debt.

They prioritize immediate federal spending and gloss over the adverse, long-term consequences of the federal debt. They often disparage those concerned about debt as having selfish or greedy motives. Some charge those concerned about the government spending money it doesn't have as having a racist agenda.

I confess my own contribution to shrinking the moral agenda to the point that economic debt gets ignored.

EthicsDaily.com has argued vigorously that the Abrahamic faith tradition favors a progressive tax system – one that protects the poor and guards the poor against predatory taxes, such as the lottery. That is a theme in our documentary "Sacred Text, Social Duty."

We have rightfully critiqued those who want lower taxes on the rich and more taxes on the poor and middle class.

EthicsDaily.com has addressed often the destructive nature of payday lending, which drives mostly low-income citizens into inescapable debt. A 2012 news story title underscores that point: Payday Lenders Enslave Poor in Debt Cycle.

Regrettably, we've posted too few pieces that look at the national debt as a moral problem.

One piece that did was a news story about a panel discussion at Second Baptist Church of Little Rock, Ark., which asked, "What would Jesus do about the national debt?"

Granted, we have posted columns about the enslavement of international debt. Sri Lankan evangelical leader Vinoth Ramachandra has blistered lending by rich nations that harm deeply poor nations. Cooperative Baptist Fellowship missionary Bob Newell has written about Greece's debt crisis. British Baptist social justice advocate Tim Jones has called for support for the global Jubilee movement.

Alas, we've had few notes about the national debt, a number that is really unfathomable for most of us. That number is $17 trillion in federal debt with some additional $60 trillion in promised future spending that is unfunded.

The US Debt Clock brings the $17 trillion number into a more understanding orbit. Each American owes on that debt – at press time – $53,767.

If we are a morally responsible people, can we really afford to ignore or deny the federal debt?

Of course not. Debt is a moral issue.

The biblical writers saw the danger of debt.

The new Common English Bible uses the phrase the "Lord's year of debt cancellation" in Deuteronomy 15 for the sabbatical year. The passage begins, "Every seventh year you must cancel all debts." It spells out that Israelite creditors were to forgive Israelite debts, but not debts of foreigners.

The practice of debt cancellation would result in economic well-being – no poor in the land. The Hebrew writers understood that economic harm resulted from indebtedness and debt cancellation helped to remedy that problem.

1 Samuel 22 records a story that suggests crippling debt-fueled opposition to King Saul. "Everyone who was in trouble, in debt, or in desperate circumstances gathered around David," reads the text (italics added). They saw David as a deliverer from their debt.

Another story tells of a woman, a mother, whose husband had been a prophet. He had borrowed money before his death. When the woman was unable to repay the debt, the lender wanted to take her two children as slaves.

She sought advice from the prophet Elisha. He told her to sell the oil in her home to repay the debt (2 Kings 4:1-7).

The danger of debt appears in Proverbs 22:7, which highlights the role debt could play in slavery. The text reads, "A borrower is the slave to a lender."

Proverbs 22:26-27 warns that one without the ability to repay a loan could face the decline in well-being – the loss of one's bed.

Proverbs 11:15 notes, "Guaranteeing the debt of a stranger brings big trouble."

Habakkuk 2:6-8 underlines what happens when an individual – or a nation – "heaps up" their standard of living with loans. Creditors will plunder borrowers.

When Jesus announced his moral agenda, recorded in Luke 4:18-19, he said he had been sent "to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

That year was the year of jubilee, a time that incorporated the sabbatical year when debts were forgiven.

The biblical witness underscores the danger of debt. Debt is destructive. It enslaves the borrower.

Would we not do well to recover a moral critique of debt – the national debt – and stop pretending that it doesn't matter?

Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.

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