Monday, July 03, 2006

Christians debate the moral value of debt and bankruptcy

Here is an excellent piece by G. Jeffrey MacDonald of the Christian Science Monitor on Christian perspectives on the morality of bankruptcy. Do yourself a favor and read it.

My very short take is this: Those Christians who argue that bankruptcy is in all or most cases an immoral failure to take personal responsibility for your financial decisions overlook both the essential Judeo-Christian notion of Jubilee (debts are to be forgiven every seven years) and the myriad of systemic issues which play a role in extreme debt. They are also guilty of favoring the rich over the poor (which James would have a lot to say about) and the powerful over the powerless. Such callousness in the name of personal responsibility overlooks the compassion of Christ, and the Christian duty to care for those who cannot take care of themselves and have no one else to look after them.

Consider James 1:27, which in the NRSV reads

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

Religion, true religion, in other words, has both a positive and negative component. While those Christians who condemn people who file for bankruptcy may consider themselves to be keeping the second half, the negative component (and it is by no means certain that they are), they are certainly failing to live up to the first half, the positive component. This positive component calls us to have compassion on and come to the material aid of those who, because of circumstances beyond their control, cannot make a living.

In first century Palestine men were the wage earners. The orphans (fatherless) and widows have in common that they no longer have a man to provide for them. In that culture, then, the real problem was not the symbolic problem identified by those modern moralists who insist that every child needs to have both a father and a mother, a man and a woman, in their lives. Rather it is a very real, very material problem; a financial problem. They are incapable of earning a living, and need compassionate assistance.

Bankruptcy is one of the few legal protections available to debtors who are unable to repay their debts, and it is getting harder and harder to obtain. While it should not be used to escape legitimate and repayable debts, nor should it be used to shirk one's moral duty to live within one's means; it should be available for those whose debts are unpayable either because they are so unreasonable or because the debtor no longer has earning power. Without bankruptcy the poor and economically oppressed have no legal recourse when they are ground under by extreme debt, debt which is often obtained to temporarily sustain life or in response to some unforeseen tragedy.


Amy said...

These situations you speak of have been exacerbated by the rise of predatory lending - Companies who intentionally lend the poor more than they can afford to pay back, because of the profit they will make on the accrued interest. Predatory lending is destroying the livelihood, and undermining the safety net, of many of our nations poor.

Sandalstraps said...


Too true. And, as one of the people interviewed in the linked article argued, debtors should not be morally bound to immoral contracts.

Troy said...

And not just James, Chris, as you know. The Lucan beautitudes are very class conscious, as is much of Jesus' other teaching in the synoptics. Luke, of course, looking backwards tells us the earliest Christians shared with all who had need. The NT is full of anger at the rich and demands we care for those who lack.

And what about the parable of the forgiven servant who then demands exacting payment from those who owe him much less? Aren't we all in that camp? Jesus' anger at the comfortable and rich, at times, is chilling. His demand that we show mercy and forgive others uncompromising. How the Republican party appropriated the Christian faith is beyond me. Both sides have suffered.