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Luke HansenNovember 14, 2012

This guest blog comes courtesy of Susan Wilcox, C.S.J., the director of campus ministry at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn, N.Y., and a member of Occupy Catholics.

For much of its existence, the Catholic Church has taught a profound suspicion of usury—that is, predatory lending which turns the borrower into a victim. As recently as 1745, Pope Benedict XIV warned in an encyclical that usury “assumes various forms and appearances in order that the faithful, restored to liberty and grace by the blood of Christ, may again be driven headlong into ruin.” Even the present Pope Benedict has called for “a renewed commitment on everyone’s part effectively to combat the devastating phenomenon of usury and extortion, which constitutes a humiliating form of slavery.” At a time of ongoing financial crisis, Catholics must remember that lending money is a matter of moral concern; we are forbidden from engaging in debt arrangements that foster an unjust debtor-lender relationship.

Catholic teaching about debt is relationally oriented. Loans that are unfairly weighted and prevent access to life-sustaining food, shelter and health care are immoral and illegitimate. This is why Catholics have worked for debt relief for the world’s poorest countries. Yet here in the United States, we have been conditioned by consumer culture with a veil of shame, to the point of thinking that debt is solely personal, rather than communal or relational. We often blame the poorest among us for problems created by the powerful. Thus, in the context of today’s worldwide economic collapse, there is something backward about the idea that it is the debtors who should be asking for forgiveness. In a moral universe, should not the 1 percent beg God for mercy while the 99 percent ask for forgiving hearts?

And what might it take for the 99 percent to be able to extend such forgiveness? In the early days of Occupy Wall Street, volunteers at the information table told me that Wall Street workers sometimes treated the table as a confessional to ease their guilt. But confession and forgiveness, by themselves, are not enough to change an immoral social order. Only when we the 99 percent strip away our shame, reclaim our essential dignity and resist nonviolently together will we bring about the justice that true reconciliation requires.

Strike Debt is a campaign, grown out of Occupy Wall Street, that seeks to build a movement of debtors by highlighting predatory lending practices while promoting debt resistance and mutual aid. The task these activists have set for themselves is a profoundly theological one; they are attempting to transform how people think about what they really owe in life and to whom.

Strike Debt began with extensive research on debt resistance, resulting in The Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual, which is now available for free in print and online. The manual is meant to be a participatory collection of research, strategies and tactics that will grow in future editions. Strike Debt members have made a special point of reaching out to religious communities like the interfaith network Occupy Faith and Occupy Catholics, of which I am a part, to help understand and frame their work from a theological perspective.

Drawing on the concept of the debt-forgiving jubilee from the Hebrew scriptures, Strike Debt calls its latest project the “Rolling Jubilee.” Defaulted loans will be purchased for pennies on the dollar, just as collection agencies do. But then the debt will be abolished. Activists plan to begin with abolishing medical debts, which are often forced on people with no other choice because of catastrophic illness. The idea has caught fire, winning the unlikely praise of Forbesand TIME Business & Money, and it has already raised enough money to abolish more than $2 million in debt. The Rolling Jubilee is designed to result in a bailout for the people, enabling us to free our communities from debt just as the government does for Wall Street and the country’s most powerful corporations.

Meanwhile, Occupy Faith is undertaking “A People’s Investigation: The Human Cost and Moral Implications of the Financial Crisis.” In the spirit of the truth commissions that followed South African apartheid and the civil rights movement, API is gathering stories from people who have fallen victim to many forms of predatory lending—from medical debt to credit cards, from municipal debt to student loans. These stories reveal how usury thrives in an individualistic society where employers reap rewards for paying less than a living wage. So far, API participants report the healing they have experienced from being listened to and from the knowledge that their story is contributing to something purposeful. The purpose of API, after all, is not only to collect stories of debt trauma but to publicize them as a resource in the struggle for a more just public policy.

Those of us in Occupy Catholics, inspired by the Occupy movement’s prophetic stand for economic justice, have been expressing our faith through creative direct action since last December. We have washed dirty feet, as Jesus did, and we have been arrested for sitting in the way of Wall Street. We help bring fellow Catholics to Occupy and Occupy to fellow Catholics with the conviction that our religious tradition is coded for justice. Most recently, inspired by the work of Strike Debt, we are speaking from the depth of our tradition to oppose usury as it is being practiced today—and we invite you to join us.

During this Jubilee Year of the Second Vatican Council, can we reclaim the spirit of the original jubilee of the Bible? Can we reclaim the debts that really matter and discard those that erode our relationships? In the words of a recent global call to debt resistance, “To the banks, we owe you nothing. To our friends, our families, our communities, to humanity and to the natural world that makes our lives possible, we owe you everything.”

Susan Wilcox, C.S.J.

Editor’s note: See America’s recent articles on Occupy Wall Street:

Still Occupied: the Wall Street protests one year later” (Edward Michael Gomeau, Oct. 29, 2012)

Occupy the Future: Can a protest movement find a path to economic democracy” (Gary Dorrien, March 12, 2012)


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David Smith
10 years 10 months ago
Resistance to debt is appropriate where debt is forced on unwilling victims.  As I understand it, under our laws, that would be illegal.  Therefore, there's nothing real here to resist.  You're free, of course, to imagine all the great wrongs you like.

As for who's to blame for ''the financial crisis'', I'm almost certain that those most loudly up in arms have very little understanding of the complexities of the mess, its origins, its nature, and the variety of possible solutions.  Understanding leads to reflection, not to tirades.  It can be useful to take moral stands, but can be neither useful nor valid to take self-righteous moral stands.  Telling other people what to do is reserved for authentic prophets - of whom there are very few - and for authentic experts - of whom there are enough, but whom it behooves to act with caution, humility, and respect for those affected.
Amy Ho-Ohn
10 years 10 months ago
When talking about the morality of debt, it is important not to confuse two completely different things.

In my neighborhood, the payday loan system does awful things to people's lives: drives them further into debt, convinces them to take out more loans, tempts them to commit crimes, and ends up getting them incarcerated. Lending to people who can not prove they will use the money to good purpose should be made as difficult as possible. And lending money to people who need it to provide the necessities of a decent life should not be necessary. I am willing to donate money to help debtors like that pay off their debts.

But as always with the Occupy meme, there is a bait and switch here. Most of the debtors who testify in the "Why Strike Debt" page have imprudently but voluntarily incurred debt for luxuries they did not need. They wanted to go to a private university, or they wanted to buy a second home in a warm climate or they wanted to get a degree in something they had no chance of earning a living from.

That is middle-class debt. Middle-class debtors do not need to have their debt stricken. They need to downscale their expectations and learn to live within their means. Pace David Smith, I don't think the causes of the financial crisis are all that deep: in large part, it was caused by stupid, self-indulgent people who wanted to live like the people in the newspapers: big homes, new cars, party every weekend, four vacations a year, sit around a private college for three years and a stinky European capital ("studying") for one, getting a degree in art history.

For a lot of these people, the answer is simple: lose the delusions, take a boring, unfulfilling, physically demanding job in the middle of nowhere, double up with a friend in a one-bedroom apartment, eat beans and bananas and quit partying for twenty years until you have paid off your debts.

That's life. Life isn't a party. By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread until you return to the ground.
Stanley Kopacz
10 years 3 months ago
Life's been a party for me. Even work was mostly interesting and sometimes downright fun. I've been debt free since 1992 after I paid off the mortgage in nine years. The secret? I don't think it's eating beans and bananas or living in a slum. I think it's not making babies.
10 years 10 months ago
"...the Western world, unlike the Oriental world, has become very
materialistic. Preoccupied with things that you can touch, taste,
feel, see, experience with your body. The Western world needs a
reformation. It needs to discover that there is a real world that you
cannot touch, taste, see with your bodily eyes, or hear with the
bodily ears. The real world - God is very real, God is God, does not
have a body or extension in space, or size or weight. There is the
angelic world, which is, as we say, purely spiritual. Each angel is an
individual person. Each of us, we believe, has a spirit; our souls
dwelling within us. We believe this spirit, our soul, continues living
consciously after the body dies."

~Servus Dei John Anthony Hardon SJ
Tom Maher
10 years 10 months ago
Sister Susan's moralizings on the economy is politcal folklore that badly misanalizes  what the real economic problems and solution are.  Our real economic problems should be identified and analnzed iobjectively in term of economics not unproven folklore wishful thinking to make outrselves feel good.  People need and deserve real, objective  explaination for what is going on in the economy and in lending.  But folklore moralistic explainations that bad people somehow caused our serious economic problems are  primitively crude and not valid.  People like to blame other people for crisis in society.  The Jews were always being blamed for every kind of politcal, economic and social disasters all of which they had nothing to do with. But people need to blame someone to have an explaiantion for their problems.  Fortunately sometimes people noticed that the Jews themselve were suffering as badly as anyone else and it did not make sense to blame them for hurting themselves.  Making sense is important.  If you do not know what you are dealing with do not just throw out misleading explainations and blame. Solve the real problems with real solutions not homwmade solutions ansd wishful thinking.  The real causes of the blank plague would not be understood ojectively, and scientifically for centuries.  We need to be careful not to give arbitrarily explainations, blame and solutions that have no basis in fact.  

THe occupy movement does not have any real explaination or solutions on what is going on in the economy.  Our economic problems are not due to moralistica causes such as evil withes casting spells on the economy to harm people.  The economic problems need to be solved by solid economic reasons and not morailistic reasoning.. If a person gets sick we seek out expert medical help not the folklore remedies that do not have scientific basis.. We do not need to have crude witches' brews , magic charms and spells as solutions to our real and worsening .economic problems.  
Tom Maher
10 years 10 months ago
Reform to conintuously improve our banking and credit system is desired by all.  

But look at the  extreme and wontonly destructive measures that Sister Susan advocates as follows: " In the words of a recent global call to debt resistance, “To the banks, we owe you nothing. To our friends, our families, our communities, to humanity and to the natural world that makes our lives possible, we owe you everything.” "  Sister Susan also unreasonably calls for debt forgiveness when non-payment of mortgages and other debt was the basic casue of the credit bubble bursting that caused the Great Recession of 2008 which we are still working our way out of. In fact today Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac indicated they will need yet more bailout money from the ogeoernemnt due to continued none payment of mortgages and  weak houing market where it is difficut to sell houses.  What is Sister Susan trying to do cause more stress on the financial system which will harm everyone?  Making payments on mortgages and loans is not a game .  Not making credit payments harms the person in default, the lender and everyone else.  If enough people do not make payments of their loans  the whole financial system collapses as it did in the the 1930s and almost did agaisn in 2008 but was stopped by emergency governement bailout.  Why harm our financial system again that was almost destroyed in 2008? 

Don't forget the bank is lending other people's money.including ordinary people's retirement and savings money taht people will eventually will depend on.  There is no Robin Hood fantasy that works in real life by Jubilee schemes.  Bank are not free to give away other people's money who have their own needs for their money.   The selfishly movtivated  Occupy movement fails to recognize that if Wall Street is harmed so are the pensions, endowments and savings, hospital and school endowments etc that everyone depends on  Lehman Brothers went completely out of buisness casued   hungreds of billions in losses in other people's money.  Sster Susan is not an economist and does not have any ideas of the harm to everyone by her debt resistance advoccacy would cause.   Why hurt society by harming the  banking and financial system that everyone needs and uses?
Beth Cioffoletti
10 years 10 months ago
Thank you, Sister Susan, for all that you are doing and the context in which you express the unjust practices of usury.  I've long been frustrated with what the banks are getting away with, and am so glad to find your article and those like it in a mainstream Catholic magazine.  THIS is what keeps me a card carrying and proud member of the Catholic Church.  I'm with you!
Mike Evans
10 years 10 months ago
And so there is widespread complaining about Dodd-Frank from the GOP and bankers insisting no regulations are needed, things are just fine. We all know from very recent history that the financial industry works overtime to surreptiously add on fees and charges whenever they think they can. Only vigilance on the part of borrowers and regulators and a spotlight on sleazy practices by the media will challenge them and prevent deep abuse. Does anyone want more no-doc liar loans, payday usury, 25% credit card rates, exorbitant late fees? How about a new dose of credit default swaps sold to even so-called sophisticated investors? The days of caveat emptor should be long gone from our economy and banking systems.
Tom Maher
10 years 10 months ago
Sister Susan does not accurately and completely describe what the Strike Debt is about.  Sister Susan narrowly describes the Strike Debt organization as a movement of reformers against preditory lending.  But aren't we all?  Such lending practices are against the law in every state.

Howerver the Strike Debt website as of  11/18.2012 Strike Debt describes themselves as follows: " Strike Debt came from a coalition of Occupy groups looking to build popular resistance to all forms of debt imposed on us by the banks. Debt keeps us isolated, ashamed, and afraid. We are building a movement to challenge this system while creating alternatives and supporting each other. We want an economy where our debts are to our friends, families, and communities — and not to the 1%."

Srike Debt is a resistance movement to all forms of debt.  Being against all forms of debt makes no sense at all as an economic, politcal or moral goal.  Debt from Wall Street and banks enable all kinds of very desirable and essential projects needed by society.  The financing of schools, hosptials, and businesses and the operation of these facilities provide very desfireable  new employment opportunities. Our society is blessed in that we have capital surpluses to barrow for personal needs such as borrowing for a car, house  or education.  

Strike Debt assume without proof or evidence that "Wall Street", "the 1%", and "debt" are bad whithout explaining how or why this is so.  But this is moralistic nonsense without basis. Barrowing and lending is an essential economic function crtically needed to benefit everyone in society.
kristine Willis
10 years 3 months ago
I cannot imagine how lenders can be that predator to the borrowers like us. Lenders, says Pew, then started applying more hidden charges to customers to make up for the lost revue. Charges for ATM withdrawals and for overdraft protection were among the most common ways banks tried to recoup losses on the backs of depositors. Don't hesitate to take a financial assistance to help you afford to pay your bank fees and debts.
Michael Barberi
10 years 3 months ago
This article is far too narrow and incomplete to serve as a remedy to curb certain predatory lending practices or irresponsible borrower habits without more details and specifics. To say that "to the banks, we owe you nothing" is an absurd statement. The use of such language calls into question any good intentions of the author because it does not define the real problem with clarity or the type of responsible reform needed to address the problem. The issue seems to me to be extreme or excessive lending practices as well as the irresponsible borrowing habits of individuals. Just about everyone is against excessive lending rates, hidden fees, inappropriately high late charges, no doc loans, high pressure and misleading sales pitches, as well as foolish and irresponsible borrowing habits of borrowers when it is clear that the person has very little ability of paying off the loan without foregoing his/her personal or family obligations and responsibilities. The problem, as one blogger implied, is not our culture, materialism, consumerism and liberalism per se. The problem is the misuse and abuse of human goods or the irresponsible consumption of non-essential material things. It is allowing ourselves to be slaves to such things as money and other false idols that blind us to what is really important in our lives, namely God and the prudential embracement of things that will lead us to everlasting life. However, not everyone in Western society has an excessive, irresponsible and uncontrolled appetite for material goods. Most of us work hard to earn as much money as our talents will permit in order to educate our children, own a home if possible and to acquire goods that we can responsibly afford. However, and most importantly, this also means to give generously to the poor and carve out enough time for God in our lives. The point is that this so-called problem needs to be adequately and comprehensively defined and not exaggerated. The truth is that we all need to be the solution, but I question if everyone is the problem. This article seems to ignore an important theological principle: The abuse of a thing does not take away from its legitimate use. For example, millions of people abuse alcohol and drugs but this does not mean that the responsible use of such things should be forbidden by the rest of us. What this might mean for predatory bank practices and debt limits for borrowers is the question to be answered. The author needs to lay out the problem with details, not talking points, or words that excite the emotions against big brother and Wall Street. This does not mean that there are not legitimate abuses in bank lending practices, or that countries should not forgive the debt of poor countries especially when the world economy causes both foreseen and unforeseen problems for them. The Strike Debt movement might have good intentions, but this author of this article seems to be offering an unarticulated and irrational solution to a inadequately defined problem.

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