Post-Christmas Blues or Blessings?
Meizhu LuiMeizhu Lui took the mantra “Educate, Agitate, Organize!” as the theme for her life’s work. As a hospital food service worker and union activist, she organized to demand that “women’s work” not be undervalued and underpaid, and to challenge occupational segregation. Later, as a community organizer for Health Care for All Massachusetts, then as Executive Director of United for a Fair Economy, and finally as Director of the Closing the Racial Wealth Gap Initiative, she became known for her outspoken activism in ending race and gender inequities.
During this Christmas season, I thought about debt. No, I’m not talking about lay-aways (but will get to it). I’m talking about the Lord’s Prayer.
“Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” – or in another version, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We live in a self-described Christian nation, which insists that we pledge our allegiance to a republic that is not just one nation with liberty and justice for all, but one nation “under God.” Many of our leaders fall over themselves to assert their Christian credentials. However, I never hear any of them mention debt forgiveness, a bedrock Christian principle.
In the Bible, every fifty years came a Jubilee year. During that year, enslaved people were freed, and land lost to creditors returned to its original holders. Everyone got a fresh start, a new chance for life, liberty and happiness. Debt forgiveness is a teaching that appears not just in Christianity, but is found in many religions. For example, in the Jewish tradition, every seven years, personal debts are forgiven, and food that grows on any piece of land can be picked by anyone; it becomes a public good. In some Native American religions, respect by the tribe is earned by how much you give away to those with less than you, not how much you have. Religious attitudes toward debt include financial debt. Jesus chased the money lenders from the temple; Muslems cannot receive interest on money they lend.
Debt forgiveness served two purposes. First, a spiritual purpose. From the dawn of human history, people understood that land and natural resources were not man made but were gifts from the Creator, and therefore could not be owned in perpetuity by any one person or family. In Leviticus 25:23 it is written that God declared, “The land must not be sold permanently, for the land belongs to me.” To be so arrogant as to claim private possession would challenge and anger God. Second, a social purpose. Private ownership without debt forgiveness institutes permanent structures of inequality within the group, which leads to division and strife. And if an ancestor messed up and didn’t work the land assigned to him properly and got into debt, it didn’t mean that the grand-child should be denied opportunity to make good for himself. Debt forgiveness cemented the bonds of the group, provided opportunity for all, and was good for the economy as a whole.
Those ideas are still true. But today, debt bondage is common, with little respite in sight. While the joys of Christmas 2011 gave families a moment to forget their troubles, many are now suffering the post-Christmas blues. Yes, there is Christmas gift debt. But that’s the least of it. The Center for Responsible Lending predicts that there will be 3.6 million more homes lost due to foreclosure over the next few years, disproportionately in communities of color who were steered to usurious loan products. Our leaders need to act on their faith by promoting loan forgiveness programs. Such policy has historical precedent in the U.S. During the Great Depression, the Home Owners Loan Corporation, a New Deal agency, was formed to help stem the foreclosure crisis, helping a million families save their homes. HOLC had its shortcomings, particularly in that it failed to lend to families of color, thus exacerbating the racial wealth gap. We need to promote mortgage restructuring again, this time using the dollars to help close the race gap. Besides the spiritual satisfaction of creating bonds between members of our nation based on love and forgiveness, it also brings people back into the economic fold.
And there is college education debt. For young people, student debt has become an albatross. When the first colleges were started on land granted by the federal government back in 1860, college was free: it was understood that more education would not only help the people attending these institutions, but that their expertise would improve agricultural production and the economy. A nation’s investment in education will always produce a return greater than the initial outlay; forgiving students of a proportion of their college debt would allow them to use the dollars they earn to start businesses, buy homes, and buy goods that would stimulate the growth of other industries and create more jobs, rather than throwing dollars at unproductive financial institutions.
Unfortunately, our pious political leaders have strayed. Rather than protecting debtors, they have increased the power of creditors. The rules for bankruptcy have changed so that debts are not erased. While in the 1970‘s 70% of federal higher education dollars for students was in the form of grants, now 70% is in loans. Many Christian politicians opposed the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that would restore balance to the debtor/creditor relationship. And when banks overreached causing the current crisis, the politicians prayed, “Oh Lord, forgive the creditors, even though they have been caught performing acts of extreme usury, as we forgive ourselves for refusing to pay taxes that would fund opportunities for the less fortunate.”
Some ordinary Americans have taken the Lord’s prayer seriously. It was reported in the week after Christmas that in several places across the country, anonymous forgivers paid off the lay-away balances of perfect strangers. Such random acts of kindness do warm one’s soul.
But to truly live up to our religious and secular ideals enshrined in our pledge of allegiance, we should make debt forgiveness a national policy. Jubilee indeed! A great shout would certainly go up all over America, and post-Christmas blues would be transformed into post-Christmas blessings.