By Seth Vopat
When in doubt, turn to the Gospels.
Uncertain where to go, trust in Jesus.
The red letters — which is Christian language for words attributed to Jesus — will show you how to follow.
Except for when the topic is money. Then feel free to mention tithing and move on.
Except this is the problem.
Jesus doesn’t say a whole lot about tithing — literally, zero times. It’s implied, the case can be made. But Jesus does have a lot to say about wealth and money (see Matt. 6:24, 16:24-26, 19:16-30, 20:1-16; Mark 12:41-44; Luke 4:16-21, 12:13-21, 16:1-13; for starters) and about the challenges which comes with possessing them.
When I was growing up, the most popular way I heard money talked about in some Christian circles was, and still is, personal finances, a.k.a. Dave Ramsey. As I prepare to shift into the reflective time of Advent, I have come to the conclusion that if I am going to grow deeper in my relationship with Jesus, I confess it’s time I stop omitting some of those red letters as if the words are not applicable to me and instead look beyond my own finances.
One of the perks of being a parent is getting to inspect my children’s Halloween candy to make sure it’s safe for them to eat. Mixed in with all their candy this year was a flyer with a piece of candy stapled to it. The advertisement was for a payday and title loan service. Silently I prayed, as I threw away the advertisement, that my children would never feel the need to enter into the doors of one of these businesses.
Payday and title loan services make credit card interest rates look cheap.
For many people who do not have the option of more traditional banking services they have become a way to get by when the money falls short. I knew payday loans were popular, but I did not realize how popular they are until I read Mehrsa Baradaran’s How the Other Half Banks: Exlusion, Exploitation and the Threat to Democracy. Mehrsa, who is an associate professor at the University of Georgia School of Law, writes, “With over twenty thousand stores, the payday lending industry make $40 billion in loans annually. There are more payday lender storefronts than Starbucks and McDonald’s combined.” All one needs to obtain a loan at most payday lenders is a check from an active checking account and a pay stub showing they are currently employed. No credit background check is needed, nor is consideration given to whether or not they can pay the loan back. In fact, payday lenders profit most from those who can’t.
As a United States citizen, I recognize payday lenders are considered a legitimate business. As a Christian, though, they force me to wrestle with my faith.
Jesus doesn’t speak specifically about practices of usury, but its prohibition is spoken of directly in Leviticus 25:35-37, Deuteronomy 23:19 and Ezekiel 18:12-13. The latter is particularly harsh, calling usury an abomination. Christians who have spoken out against the practice of usury throughout history include some of Christianity’s most noted names — Charlemagne, St. Ambrose, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and the current Pope Francis. Mehrsa even notes Adam Smith, who is considered by many to be the father of capitalism, thought usury should be restricted legally.
The opening line of Mehrsa’s book is both its introduction and conclusion. She writes, “One of the great ironies is modern America is that the less money you have, the more you pay to use it.” The truth of this statement can be found in our country’s access to credit. The less money you make and have, the more banks consider you a risky proposition, thus the higher interest rate you have to pay, if they decide to give you a loan at all.
And from a particular point of view the logic makes sense. However, it is the very same logic which makes that point of view appear logical that should also lead one to second guess it. For the high interest rates themselves are part of what makes people living in poverty a risky venture. If they are already struggling to make it financially, why would one expect they can somehow afford to borrow at a higher rate? They can’t.
It is not a sin to be rich.
It is also, and perhaps more importantly, not a sin to be poor.
Narratives which demonize either group as the scapegoat should be resisted.
As a Christian where do I start?
What is the proper posture in wrestling with poverty as a systemic issue?
Honestly, I am not sure. Mehrsa makes it clear education is not enough on its own to prevent people from taking out payday loans they cannot afford. People who were interviewed said they knew what they were getting into, they simply felt like they had no other choice.
Advent is a time to ponder and to hope and to imagine where the Spirit is calling the Kingdom of God into being. It is a good time to wrestle with questions. Questions which might be uncomfortable, often the questions one needs, are the ones which make one squirm the most.It is a good time to dialogue about issues which concern more than myself. Jesus through all his red letters invites me, and all of us, to live into the tension and wrestle with hard questions and not settle for easy answers which too often end up being wrong.