Part 3: Elizabeth Warren and St. Luke
When I was a young college student, I was probably not the only one bailed out by my parents from credit card debt. Because you don’t see your accumulating debt as you spend, and the minimum payments they require you to pay are often less than or equal to the interest they charged for that month. I won’t sit here and blame the credit card companies only for my previous predicament, for I really should have known better. I had a job, I could have budgeted. But not everyone has those means. And while it may not be the most rational thing to apply for a credit card in such a situation, one must understand that people are not rational actors in the market place, and people who can ill afford it are often the most desperate.
The moral thing to do is to help the poor, share resources, donate money, etc. The Free Market thing to do should be to leave them alone, and perhaps make sure you do not give too much credit to them. But what we have is some credit card companies targeting the poor, so that the poor cannot escape debt. Now the companies may keep poorer people’s credit limits low, but what few who remain in debt know, is that the credit card companies are paid decent fees from sellers each time a consumer uses their card. So, even though a consumer may not make any payments on the card, the credit card company is still making some money off of consumer usage. This acts as a disincentive for credit card companies to collect on their debt, so long as they are collecting the interest. It also acts as an incentive to the credit card companies to have their cards used as many times as possible. And if anyone is going to be making frequent small payments with the credit card, it will be those who can least afford small things in life: the poor. The perfect target.
There are plenty of Christian blogs touting the importance of the government’s involvement in helping the poor, and there are other Christian blogs telling us of the danger of government involvement in anything. Most Christians are already decided on the issue, and their hermeneutic is often determined by their view on this issue. Let’s be honest, the Bible was not written in a democratic market society. Making the jump from the agrarian, oppressive Empire of Rome to today’s society is no easy task. And as a Bible scholar, I have no easy answers for how to end debt abuses at home and abroad. I would like to say that I am open various methods. But as I’ve argued in this series, to ask God to forgive one’s own sins, when one has not sided with the poor or participated in debt-relieving activities (Lord’s Prayer), is to misinterpret the Gospel. You can be a Socialist, Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Communitarian, or Independent; but if you are not biased towards, or if you are not seeking the welfare of the poor and the marginalized, then in my opinion you’ve missed a major aspect of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Enter the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a government agency to regulate lending companies, somewhat the brainchild of Elizabeth Warren. I’ll be honest, I really like Elizabeth Warren. When she speaks, she convinces me that she understands that just because someone enters into a contract, that does not make it a fair, free market, rational process. The complaints against the Bureau have been that it itself is not regulated, and it has too much power over the banks. This may be true, and while I would have love to have seen the Bureau run under Elizabeth Warren (o, well), it could easily have been abused by another. But, in my mind, that criticism is not good enough, particularly from anyone who considers themselves Christian. Because at the end of the day, the Gospel is heavily biased towards the poor and marginalized. And any critique of the Government’s attempt to help the poor of society, should be accompanied with an equal or better suggestion of how to do it. If you don’t like the CFPB, give us something better.
I’m well aware that America is not a Christian country, and it is unlikely that my ‘gospel’ should be the guiding principle for non-Christians. However, in my experience, all the resistance I’ve had against arguments for public help for the poor has come from Christians. It is for this reason that I make this biblical argument that a Christian must always be looking for ways to help the poor. You don’t have to be a Democrat or Socialist. Libertarians too have the ability to live in such a fashion (check out Jeff Miron of Harvard).
In conclusion, another Lukan passage I’ve referred to already:
Luke 6:32-35 32 “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. 35 But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.
In 32-34, the words benefit and credit are marked because they are all the same word in Greek: XARIS. This is the word we translate as ‘grace,’ one of the founding ideas of the Protestant faith. To cancel an unpayable debt is grace. To act always in a market fashion, love for love, good for good, money for money, this is evidently graceless. The challenge of the gospel is to lose, to love inefficiently, against the trends of the dominating powers, to forgive debts in order to forgive sins, to live biased towards the poor and the marginalized.