The Common Good
July 2005

Forgive Us Our Debts

by David Batstone | July 2005

This is probably the biggest moral story of the year that went unnoticed.

Based on recent developments in federal legislation,

Based on recent developments in federal legislation, I propose that we tweak the Lord’s Prayer uttered by American congregations each and every Sunday. The words "Give us our daily bread" are as relevant as ever. It’s the subsequent request that needs some updating: "Forgive us our debts, Lord, for surely no one on earth is willing to forgive them."

Debtors, you see, receive scant mercy in America today. Congress made sweeping changes to bankruptcy laws this past March, setting strict rules that block individuals from wiping out their debt.

Chapter 7 long has been a refuge for people who are so deep in debt they have no prayer of repaying what they owe. Under Chapter 7 standards, debtors turn over to the courts all but their essential assets (their shelter, for example, is off limits) in exchange for a clean start. But the new legislation dramatically narrows the gate to Chapter 7 protection, and pushes many debtors into Chapter 13 bankruptcy instead. In Chapter 13, debtors pay off their debt under a stringent schedule, and typically their wages are garnisheed well into the future.

No one wants to see irresponsible spenders rewarded, of course. If my neighbor buys plasma screen TVs and spends winters on a Caribbean isle, I don’t have much sympathy for his or her credit card woes. No question, financial discipline is in order for those individuals whose consumer appetites outpace their personal assets.

Most people who seek bankruptcy protection, however, are not living at the Ritz. A Harvard study released earlier this year found that nearly half of all Americans who file for bankruptcy do so because they are burdened by excessive medical expenses. Costly illnesses doom even those families with health insurance, according to the study, underscoring that private insurance plans often provide worst-case catastrophic coverage but inadequate security for less severe medical problems. It is ironic—and cruel—that Congress refuses to act to bring medical costs under control but hammers away at those who are the victims of skyrocketing medical bills.

Another large slice of Americans seek bankruptcy after an unexpected job loss or a divorce. Once I began to think of all the people close to me who sought Chapter 7 protection in the past few years, all of them fit into one of the above categories.

SO WHY THE deafening silence from the pulpit when the bankruptcy laws were being altered in Congress? The lack of forgiveness to debtors is surely as big a moral crisis as we have had to face in public life this year. The Bible is unambiguous that making profit off the debt of others is reprehensible. Sacred scripture also condemns using interest on debt to drive people into poverty. The Hebrew scripture even calls for the cancellation of all debt in a periodic "Jubilee year" because God is the ultimate owner of all that we own.

The Christian church did not abandon this moral standard for most of its history. The church treated usury, or commercial gain from loans, as a violation of the common good. Pressure came to bear on the church to change its stance with the rise of the capitalist system, but concern for the poor and vulnerable remained steadfast. In his encyclical letter in 1891, Pope Leo XIII pulled no punches: "It has come to pass that working [people] have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hard-heartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition. The mischief has been increased by rapacious usury, which, although more than once condemned by the Church, is nevertheless, under a different guise, but with like injustice, still practiced by covetous and grasping [people]."

No better phrase—"covetous and grasping people"—could we find to identify the real actors behind new federal debt laws. Credit card companies are now in line to recover millions of dollars in debtor assets. The new laws do nothing, however, to punish credit card companies that offer cards to people they know to be bad risks. Obviously, the big investments that bank credit companies have put into political campaigns over the past decade have paid off.

People of faith who take the Bible to be their guide, on the other hand, ought to consider carefully how to pray, and act, on behalf of debtors. As the book of Proverbs warns, "Whoever blocks their ears at the cry of the poor, they also shall cry, but will not be heard."

David Batstone is executive editor at Sojourners.

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