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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Economic Recovery for All 6: Faith Perspectives, Pt 3

THEOLOGICAL REFLECTION ON THE ECONOMY
A Working Paper for North Carolina United Power
from an Interchange Among Theological Educators
July 2009


III. Faith Perspectives on Responding to the Crisis

B. Biblical, Theological, and Ethical Principles Guiding NCUP Actions and Campaigns in Response to the Economic Crisis

3. No permanent debtor class; no propertyless, hopeless poor

If there is to be a new beginning, a second chance, then the community must make a way to deal with debilitating debt and generational, propertyless poverty. The Lord's Prayer makes it plain that the Jubilee formula is the norm--we must forgive our debtors. In Jesus' parable of the unforgiving servant, the wealthy king says to the hypocritical man who had received mercy but refused to pass it on to his debtor, "I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?" (Matt. 18:33-34). Mercy demands that past misfortunes, mistakes, and failures ought not determine the entire future of any member of the community. Augustine of Hippo wrote, "From those things that God gave you, take that which you need, but the rest, which to you are superfluous, are necessary to others. The superfluous goods of the rich are necessary to the poor, and when you possess the superfluous you possess what is not yours" (quoted in Justo Gonzalez, Faith and Wealth, 216).

When economic prosperity shifts too far toward the benefit of a few, the ensuing shift in power allows the fortunate to maintain their advantage through a variety of means: low wages which prevent economic improvement of the wage-earners, high interest charged on loans, and systems of tenancy or share-cropping style arrangements. In such systems, the landlord claims first right to the products of the tenant's work. The landlord, or factory owner, can exploit the unequal power by "balancing the accounts" in such a way that prevent the tenant from making enough to get ahead. A just economic system would allow them to work and accrue sufficient income, so that they might eventually regain their land and livelihood rather than remain in perpetual peonage.

Families falling on hard times may have to sell their land to a wealthy neighbor and become tenants or share-laborers. Justice entails finding ways to make it possible for all who become impoverished to recover from an economic crisis. The words of the spiritual song say, "I'm so glad trouble don't last always." If God's compassion and justice can inspire this kind of hope among slaves, then God's people must learn to share in the divine mission of hope for the downtrodden. We ought to make this song's affirmation a reality. The community's responsibility includes sustaining the conditions for opportunity and flourishing for all of its people.

4. Limitation on interest charged—prohibition of usury

Biblical economics prohibit charging "points," or advance interest, and charging long-term interest to those who must borrow to eat, find shelter, and survive. Those practices perpetuate a permanent debtor class. Biblical teaching consistently condemns usury—the practice of charging exorbitant interest. When the poor are desperate, the power of the lender may coerce them to accept disadvantageous terms for a loan. Under such conditions, they may never be able to reduce the debt. A just system of lending recognizes the dangers to an economy when a permanent underclass is forced to pay their entire livelihood to a small class of wealthy lenders.

Usury, sometimes taken to mean any interest charged on a loan, is more usually understood as excessive or predatory interest. Many of the references to usury in the Jewish and Christian scriptures come in the context of how one treats the poor. Jean Calvin concluded that the Scriptures do not condemn all possible charging of interest, but that equity and justice require reasonable limits. He wrote in a letter to a friend, "[U]sury almost always travels with two inseparable companions: tyrannical cruelty and the art of deception. . . . [N]o one should take interest from the poor, and no one, destitute by virtue of indigence or some affliction or calamity, should be forced into it. The second exception is that whoever lends should not be so preoccupied with gain so as to neglect his necessary duties, nor, wishing to protect his money, disdain his poor brothers and sisters" (Calvin's Ecclesiastical Advice, 140-142).

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