Monday, July 21, 2008

National Usury Law?

In an interview with Bill Moyers about the current financial crisis, William Greider, a former Washington Post editor and author of The Soul of Capitalism, said:
Eventually you have to draw very precise boundaries, I think, and restore some structure that says, okay, you can get a return of X on credit cards, but you can't get a return of triple X, right? And that kind of regulation. And that's not easy to draw. It takes a while.

But the first law that would just reassure the public, we're against usury. Muslims are against it. Christians are against it. Jews are against it. And we're going to develop a government laws that prohibited and penalized [sic] these institutions when they get caught doing it.

What Gardener is talking about is the type of pan-religious movement, united around an issue of social morality, that Seventh-day Adventists have tended to avoid for fear it will bring about a universal Sunday law that will force us to compromise Sabbath worship or face persecution. And while I believe that type of end-time scenario will happen, like the people who founded the Adventist Church, I don't believe that is an excuse to not join with other faith groups in public advocacy of moral positions we hold in common. But since our pioneers' involvement with the temperance movement, subsequent generations of Adventists have generally limited their public advocacy to the area religious liberty.

In the same way that Seventh-day Adventists have taken the Sabbath principle and used it to advocate freedom of worship in the public square, I believe we should use the Sabbath principle to advocate freedom from high interest loans for our nations' economies. This will sound strange to many Adventists because we have always placed the Sabbath commandment, together with the three that precede it, under the principle expressed by greatest command "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind" (Matt 22:37). And we have placed the remaining six under the next greatest command, "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt 22:39). The first "table" of the law tells us how to love God and the second how to love each other.

In doing this we have overlooked the second part of the Sabbath commandment which obligates us to give those for whose labor we are responsible a day off on Sabbath as well. When combined with the Torah's mandated Sabbatical and Jubilee years; it becomes clear that part of Sabbath keeping includes giving my neighbor the opportunity to be free from endless labor and indebtedness (If you want to know who "my neighbor" is, check out this story). As an Adventist pastor, I can also testify the the biggest impediment to Sabbath worship is Sabbath labor necessitated by the need to pay off the house, car, credit cards, etc.

Yes, we can and should hold debt seminars; and yes, people need to be responsible for their decisions. But the Sabbath command, which straddles both tables of the law, compels us to take it one step further and work to hold financial institutions responsible for their usurious abuses of the public trust. God has made it clear that human government has a role in protecting citizens from exploitative loans. Other faith groups realize this as well, and as a Seventh-day Adventist citizen of a nation where people vote the government into power, I'll gladly join in advocating against the destructive practice of high interest loans.

[Crossposted to Spectrum 7-25-08. Please comment there.]


  1. This is especially true with private student loans. My wife was basically told that she had to take out this loan in order to stay in school. What they didn't tell her was the interest started accruing immediately and that the rate itself was variable. By the time she finished two years later it had already accrued $6000.00 in interest and rose to a 9.5% interest rate! needless to say that if we hadn't had good jobs at the time and been very diligent in paying that loan off quickly, it could have festered indefinitely! Reform is definitely needed to keep these banks from preying on unsuspecting victims.

  2. True Travis.

    I was just sitting around with a group of students and we've all been bamboozled with student loans. Good as many of us couldn't have paid for college, but often with hidden fees and secret interest rates.

    There are groups that are organizing students to at least make it better for us and the next generations.

  3. My personal problem has been more with credit cards. I went to school and worked in Canada, where student loans are heavily regulated by the government and where student loan interest is tax deductible (same here?). I should have included student loans in my list.