Credit cards, usury & the new slavery

There was a time when usury was a punishable offense. Now, it is business as usual. And it has created a whole new form of slavery called massive credit card debt.

Usury is the over-charging of interest on loaned money. It is prohibited in the Bible and was also illegal in these United States. But in 1979, our government gave up on regulating usury and Americans have become increasingly underwater since.

The prophet Ezekiel compares usury to rape, murder, robbery, and idolatry (Ezekiel 18:10-13). It is idolatry, because it makes money a god. It is robbery, because it takes from the poor money they don’t even have yet. It is murder, because it strangles people to death. It is rape, because it looks like love but is really just domination.

The Romans limited interest. The Torah forbade charging interest to fellow Jews. Medieval canon law threatened excommunication to those who charged interest. Dante put usurers on the lowest ledge of the 7th circle of hell (below murderers). After 1776, all 13 initial states capped interest at 6%.

But in 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that banks could export their interest rates to any other state they did business in. So, South Dakota summarily got rid of its interest cap laws and banks quickly began moving their headquarters to the badlands.

In 2006, Congress passed a law that capped interest that can be charged to active military at 36%, since soldiers are often the prey of pay-day loan vendors. 36%! Throughout most of human history, anyone charging 36% would be imprisoned or worse.

The average American household has a ridiculous amount of debt. The worst of this is $15,762 in credit cards debt, none of which adds any lasting value. The best of it is mortgage debt, averaging $168,614 but bringing equity with it. The average student loan debt comes in at $48,172, but it brings the potential of value with employment. And car loans add another average debt of $27,141, with the resale value of the used cars coming in well below what is owed.

Of the four kinds of debt mentioned above, three of them have some kind of value associated with them — a house, an education, a car — even if that value doesn’t always match the debt. Credit card debt adds no value. And the much higher interest rates associated with credit debt make it that much worse.

In many cases, Americans are paying only the minimum payments each month, watching the balance they owe increase as their payments only apply to interest and not to principal. According to NerdWallet.com, the average household spends 9% of its income just on debt interest.

I call this slavery. But in this case, it’s completely voluntary. The system is set up to enslave us, but it is we who enter into this slavery one purchase at a time.

This slavery doesn’t care about race, enslaving each ethnicity in America at almost exactly the same rates.

Ironically, the unemployed and underemployed are much less likely to have credit card debt than those who are employed full-time. Similarly, those who make more money carry a much larger credit card debt load.

The more you have, the more you want. The more you want, the more you spend. The more you spend, the deeper in debt you go.

The following is what a friend of mine wrote to me about the journey she and her husband went through with credit card debt:

I fell into debt as innocently as a kid stumbles when running outside. I was young, newly married and ready take on life. We started out solid, albeit with little to our names. We had odds and ends to fill our home. We took a worn out mattress and bed frame that someone was getting rid of. Our couch came from my grandmother’s sister. We threw a blue slip cover over the pea green colored couch. My entry level salary paid our living expenses while my husband finished college and waited tables. We didn’t have much, but we were happy.

Life started to pick up pace and it was exciting. We moved across the country for a job when my husband got out of school. And then, his college roommate got engaged. Of course, my husband would be in the wedding. He couldn’t miss that once-in-a-lifetime event. So, we got a credit card and charged tickets for the two of us. A year or so later, a family member passed away tragically and unexpectedly. We had to make sudden, and expensive, travel arrangements to be at the funeral. We charged the trip. And at Christmas around then, we really didn’t have any money to buy gifts for the family. Everyone was exchanging gifts and it was just too embarrassing to say we couldn’t, so we charged our Christmas gifts. Then, the next time we just couldn’t quite make ends meet, we would charge just one thing here or there. I was shopping and a clothing store clerk told me how much I would save if I opened a credit card and charged my purchase. So, I did. Every so often I would buy a few things with every intention of paying it off at the end of the month. I ended up with a couple of store accounts. A few years went by and we were sinking in debt. Our expendable income went to paying the minimum payments on our credit cards. We didn’t have anything left at the end of the month and we weren’t happy.

We were frustrated. When we tried to talk about financial decisions, we fought. Simple things like delegating money for a necessary purchase caused tension. We fought. We went to church and came home with a desire to give to the church, which created tension. We argued about giving an offering. One of us thought we had nothing left to give and giving would only cause more financial strain. One of us thought giving anything would be better than nothing. Naturally, this created a breakdown in our spiritual connection. The struggle of not giving created a guilt and frustration in both of us. We prayed individually and we’d pray together. And the tension was still there. We’d have good days and bad days as a couple. 

We had heard about several great financial classes. While we didn’t take a class, one suggestion we had heard was to tackle the smaller credit cards first. Pay them off and then work on the larger ones. We decided to do that. It felt good to get rid of debt. Those small victories felt amazing. But our cards with larger balances were going to take a lot longer to pay off. We started our family… and kids are expensive. We continued with a strong desire to be free from debt but our progress was very, very slow. We cut up all of our credit cards and made a commitment not to charge anything — ever. It was humbling. We had to decline to do things with friends and family. We didn’t give each other Christmas gifts. It was hard on my emotions. But, it was okay. 

Worship was still a challenge. It was hard to worship freely when there was a part of our lives that was enslaved. We had different opinions on giving an offering, so we gave minimally and intermittently. But we came together with a commitment to be faithful to each other and with our resources. Prayer was essential. And I am not talking about beautiful prayers of dedication. I’m talking about soul aching prayers to release frustration and guilt and to be able to work together as a couple. Our prayers as a couple were usually seemingly simple. But our prayers individually were deep. 

The descent into the slavery of credit card debt isn’t exotic. It’s fairly boring. But the system is set up to suck us in, and most of us are too caught up living in the moment to deny the urge to buy or do this or that.

I believe we need a new eschatology to deal with debt. We need to have a hope that is greater than the pleasure of the moment. We need the ability to say, “No,” to current desires because we know there is something better beyond the moment. We need a dream bigger than ourselves and our wants that we are willing to sacrifice our “pursuit of happiness” to pursue instead.

While worship was a tough part of my friend’s experience, it was also essential. Worship moves us out of ourselves and our immediate concerns and gives us new concerns and new priorities. Worship offers us a kinder master, a master who is a Deliverer, not an enslaver; a master who establishes rules for an economy of freedom, not of debt.

In the Lord’s Prayer, two of the things Jesus taught us to pray are: “Give us this day our daily bread” and “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”

May we be people who are satisfied with our daily bread and who live debt-free in every meaning of those words.

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