Tuesday, February 15, 2005

A Harvest from the Desert

One of the ugliest facets of poverty is the way in which the insecure position of the disadvantaged is exploited for financial gain. There are few grocery stores in poor neighborhoods, but there are plenty of "convenience" stores that sell non-nutritious foods at vastly inflated prices, and specialize in the more addictive forms of alcohol. There are almost no banks, but there are plenty of "payroll loan" operations that cash checks and offer "advances" at huge rates of interest, sometimes as much as 25% or more. Then there is the steady stream of "O% interest balance transfer" credit card offers through the mail, targeted specifically at low-income families who are juggling credit cards in a desperate struggle to make ends meet, with interest tiers and repayment terms deliberately designed to make them nearly impossible to pay off. And all the while, the current administration is tightening bankruptcy laws so that lending institutions can take even more of the money of those who fall prey to their tactics, a vicious cycle of "double-victimization." Perhaps, with all the current talk about the "politics of morality," it is worth remembering that the sin most consistently condemned in the Scripture is the lending of money at interest.

These "poverty surcharges," the hidden costs of being poor, have been documented of late in great books like Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, and David Shipler's The Working Poor: Invisible in America. And yet predatory lending practices are, of course, nothing new. St. Basil the Great, one of the most powerful voices for social and economic justice in the early Church, railed against those who seek a "harvest from the desert" and "make the hardships of the miserable an opportunity for profit." His words are well worth considering as we strive to envision and enact a more just and humane social order, as we "seek the Kingdom of God and God's justice."

Tell me, do you really seek riches and financial gain from the destitute? If this person had the resources to make you even wealthier, why did he come begging to your door? He came seeking an ally, but found an enemy. He came seeking medicine, and stumbled onto poison. Though you have an obligation to remedy the poverty of someone like this, instead you increase the need, seeking a harvest from the desert. It is as if a doctor were to go to the diseased, and instead of restoring them to health, were rather to rob them of the last remnant of their strength. Thus, you make the hardships of the miserable an opportunity for profit. And just as farmers hope for rain so as to multiply their crops, so you eagerly seek out deprivation and want, so that your money might produce a better yield. Do you not know that you are taking in an even greater return of sins than the increase of wealth you hope to receive through interest?

The one who seeks the loan is trapped in a terrifying helplessness. When he looks to his poverty, he despairs of ever making repayment, but when he looks to his present condition of need, he makes bold to take out the loan. In the end, the borrower is defeated, bowed into to submission by want, while the lender departs only after having bound him fast with contracts and pledges.

--St. Basil the Great - "Against those who Lend at Interest"

How could you do nothing
And then say "I'm doing my best"?
How could you take almost everything
And then come back for the rest?

--Ani DiFranco

5 comments:

VIctoria said...

One of the most descriptive verses in the bible for me is "They shall join house to house and field to field until they stand alone in the middle of the land." This is somewhere in Isaiah, and it refers to people who force the poor to sell their land. Oppression is nothing new at all; we've just gotten slicker about the way we do it.

Any ideas on stopping it?

Personally I'd like there to be subsidized grocery stores within two miles of every low-income neighborhood. Hey, that's a good thing to work on....

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