Working toward God’s justice in our community

I have been very grateful over the past decade to work with Jeff Trask, one of New Covenant’s pastors, and to be pushed toward a deeper concern for God’s justice by Jeff’s concern and his gifts. Below are some of Jeff’s recent thoughts about the practice of predatory lending that is becoming rampant in our town, in our society and in the world. This is a justice issue that our fellowship’s Mercy Missions and Justice (MMJ) group will be focusing on in the coming months.

Jeff refers to a passage in Exodus that I’d like to make an exegetical note about before turning to Jeff’s challenge. The Torah was originally set in a rural barter economy with very little money involved, so the loans being addressed were at the level of daily, weekly, and monthly subsistence, not at the level of business deals, credit cards payoffs, or transportation. As early as Jesus’ time, it had become evident to Rabbi Hillel that a more urban and money-oriented economy would actually punish the poor if the commandments of the Torah were not adjusted to the realities of the urban and international context of his day. So, as is often true in living God’s word today, we need to respond to the original purpose, which actually may lead to a different praxis (practice, or incarnation of the purpose).

In our economy and highly technological/urban/money-oriented culture, the goal is not to pass laws forbidding any interest, since that would guarantee that most poor people would not get a needed loan at all, but to challenge our society to do what both Jesus and Moses taught and find ways to help protect the poor from being oppressed by the money system. This would mean making loans that can truly help, and limiting the amount of interest allowed.

Here is Jeff’s challenge to us concerning God’s justice:

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Some injustice is invisible, while some forms of injustice are sensed, but not clearly seen. Then there is injustice that is as clear as the best LCD picture the television industry has to offer. The practice of predatory lending is that type of crystal clear injustice.

In Illinois, payday lenders are legally allowed to charge 404% interest on a loan. Yes, that is not a typo—that’s four hundred and four percent. One may think, “Who in the world would get a loan under those terms?” The quick and easy answer is “Those who are desperate and have no other means to obtain money to pay for past-due rents, groceries, utility bills, car repairs (so they will not lose their jobs), medications, and a host of other necessary expenses.

Payday lenders are no less predatory than Jaws on an empty stomach. Instead of fish, payday lenders feed off of poor peoples’ desperation. And once someone gets caught in their jaws, escape is highly unlikely. What’s worse is that these places have favor with politicians who do not regulate the outrageous interest rates, as well as big banks who give them loans at 2-3% interest (so they in turn can charge poor people 404% interest). For example, Bank of America received 45 billion interest free dollars from TARP money (from taxpayer dollars), and in turn loaned out $170 million to payday lenders. This is the kind of deep-seeded injustice that slaps you in the face and dares you to say anything about it.

Fortunately, solutions do exist. Several states have already made laws prohibiting these outrageous interest rates, and therefore do not have payday lenders draining money from their communities. Furthermore, efforts are being made to have cities create interest rate caps of 36%, thus effectively putting these places out of business. On a national scale, Donald Rumsfeld led the charge that created laws prohibiting payday lenders to give loans to military personnel and their families (they face fines of $20,000 if they do).

This is one area of injustice that God even covered way back in Exodus saying, “If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it as a business deal; charge no interest.” I hope we all find a way to be a part of eradicating one of the most horrific, open acts of injustice in our society, including right here in Champaign-Urbana.

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For more information about the efforts being made to combat predatory lending in Illinois, visit the Illinois People’s Action website.

Also read about Grace Period, Inc., a non-profit loan alternative program in Pittsburgh that is being explored for possible replication here in Champaign-Urbana.

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