Bishop's Blog

Creditors and Debtors

In the Old Testament, it is a blessing to be a creditor rather than a debtor. Nevertheless, a number of laws restraining creditors suggest that the reality of debt was grim. The cloak [Ex. 22:25], other garments [Am. 2:8], the ox and the ass [Job 24:3], and children [Job 24:9] were given as pledges. The millstone, without which the family food of the day could not be prepared, was prohibited as a pledge [Dt. 24:6], nor could the lender take a garment of a widow. If the cloak were pledged, it had to be returned at sunset that the borrower might sleep in it [Ex. 22:24ff]. The lender may not enter the house of borrower in order to collect his pledge [Deut. 24:10]. There are exhortations to the creditor not to exact the pledge when the debtor is unable to pay [Ezk. 18:16].

Wisdom literature contains a number of reflections on loans and debts which view them unfavourably. The borrower is the slave of the creditor [Ps. 37:21]. The good lender is kind and just [Ps. 112:50]. The fool lends today and demands payment tomorrow [Sir. 20:15]. A series of reflections in Sir. 29:1-10 commends the payment of debts, patience with the poor debtor, and generosity in the lender to the point where he is willing to risk the loss of his loan.

As a society that has its roots in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, we seem to have lost our way.

 Although not absolutely necessary, most people need a credit card to survive and operate in our personal, family and corporate lives. I recently received a credit card statement – my annual fee is $89, purchases $19.99% and cash advances $22.99%.

On the back side of my monthly statement, in very small print is the following text: "If interest is charged on any portion of your New Balance, it is determined by multiplying the total interest-bearing portion of your New Balance at the end of each day by the interest rate for the period in question.... If any daily balance is less than zero, we treat it as zero (thanks be to God for that! And in case you missed it ). Interest is calculated daily and added to your account...."

Now I can usually deal with all of this but it is still an outrageously high rate of interest.

Far worse, of course, is the phenomenon of "Payday Lending," which is even more morally repugnant and an assault on the poor.

The best description of this phenomenon comes by way of personal testimony or witness. In October of this year, Timothy shared his story in a Letter to the Editor in the Calgary Herald. He wrote:

"I am happy to say that I have been set free from the vicious cycle of payday loans. The inconvenient truth is that the products are engineered for those who do not have the means to repay.

They conveniently meet you at a rough patch in your journey, and for the first week or two, their services seem like a lifesaver. How could I have been able to send money for my mother's hospital bill if they were not there for me?

But over time, you begin to realize that they have discreetly given you a shovel, and with a smile, asked you to dig your own financial grave. With courtesy (and their staff are very courteous) they hand you a rope and give a helping hand as you tangle yourself in a financial mess. Over a period of 10 months, however, I paid $2,500 in interest on a $600 loan.

I believe everyone needs to learn to save for a rainy day. I wouldn't have been in that mess if I had just learned early enough to put a little aside every week. Still, I can't help but wonder why a product as harmful as a payday loan is legal in our province."

Unfortunately, such stories are all too common.

In Alberta, a Payday Loan is a short term loan of up to two months to a maximum amount of $1500 that is legally available to consumers. Payday lenders can charge up to $23 per $100 borrowed. Payday lenders charge interest rates that top 400% when annualized and are largely located in lower income neighbourhoods.

Payday loan customers are predominately those who are employed full time but live at or below a living wage. The majority of those taking out payday loans are also doing so to cover ordinary expenses; only 28% say they need the loan to cover an emergency or unexpected expenses. There are 15 return customers or rollover loans for every new payday loan customer, which further perpetuates the cycle of debt.

We need to recognize the effects that poverty has on our community and take action to reduce poverty. It is time for Calgary City Council to take action on this issue. Although some of the required work must be done by higher levels of government, the City of Calgary can implement changes to land use and licensing that will prevent additional businesses of this nature from opening. This step cannot be done in isolation, it is up to banks and non-profits to offer replacement credit, but at non-usurious rates of interest.

I would urge you to contact by email, letter or telephone Mayor Nenshi and any or all members of City Council and ask for immediate action to limit payday lending. They can amend law-use bylaws to stop the proliferation of payday lenders, raise business licensing fees to fund financial empowerment programming and act as a convenor to improve banking access for the working poor.

If you would like more information on payday lending, please refer to the website www.momentum.org or email info@momentum.org

☩ F. B. Henry
Bishop of Calgary

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We are not all Charlie

The January 7th terrorist attack by Islamic militants on the offices of the French satirical Charlie Hebdo in Paris brought, and rightly so, widespread condemnation. The massacre of twelve civilians, including two policemen, one of whom was Muslim, constituted a heinous crime and there is a need to express our solidarity with the French people and the affected families.

On January 10th, the international media reported that up to 2,000 civilians in and around the town of Baga, Nigeria, were slaughtered by the Islamist group Boko Haram.

What I found particularly appalling was that journalists went ballistics about "an assault" on the freedom of speech and expression, while almost ignoring the second massacre involving an incredible loss of human life.

A classic example of what Pope Francis calls the "throwaway culture".

In principle, I'm not opposed to satire. It takes talent and creativity to really nail something, for example, the social satire of Stephen Colbert when he says: "If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it."

However, the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices or deeply held religious beliefs (that one finds personally objectionable) usually ends up being nothing more than a sophomoric exercise, demeaning to everyone, and truly offensive to the point of serving no useful transformative purpose.

After Paris, the Chaldean Church Patriarch Luis Sako, in addition to expressing his sorrow, said that: "In front of what is happening in the Arab region and abroad, which is unprecedented and threatens relations and co-existence, we call upon all our Muslim brothers to take the initiative from the inside to dismantle this terrorist extremist ideology. And build an open and enlightened Islamic opinion that doesn't accept the political exploitation of religion."

More satirical cartoons are not the answer, nor are empty symbols of political world leaders marching arm in arm, nor are simple protestations. It is not enough to say, "This has nothing to do with Islam" or to ignore some texts taken from the Qur'an which clearly espouse violence against the infidel (non Muslim) or " Islam is a religion of peace." Whether we wish to admit it or not, the vast majority of all terrorist attacks in the world are carried out in the name of Islam, to defend the faith, or the prophet . They do everything saying, "Allahu Akbar" (God is great), before doing it, putting everything under God and the call of Islam, even the killing of the innocent.

Speaking at the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, on New Year's Day, 2015, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi made a forceful and impassioned plea to religious scholars and clerics:

"It's inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma [Islamic world] to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible! That thinking—I am not saying "religion" but "thinking"—that corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the centuries, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world. It's antagonizing the entire world!.... Is it possible that 1.6 billion people [Muslims] should want to kill the rest of the world's inhabitants—that is 7 billion—so that they themselves may live? Impossible!.... I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move... because this umma is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost—and it is being lost by our own hands."

The struggle within Islam itself must be confronted and the imams will have to lead.

Two immediate flash points need to be addressed:

1. The interepretation of texts.

For all Muslims, whether you are conservative or liberal, a basic premise is that the Qur'an is not the work of Muhammad but of God himself. Therefore it is timeless and not restricted to the seventh century; it is the word of God preserved unchanged over time. The orthodox (and particularly the fundamentalists) believe that each verse has an absolute value, regardless of the context. The liberals propose a contextualized reading and interpretation, taking into consideration place and time. Therefore, they emphasize the necessity of adapting the text to history, current events, and to modernity. Modernity that is not a synonym for atheism, immorality, hedonism and the denial of religious dimension of life, as often occurs in the West.

2. Integration.

Islam is a system, not just a religion. Can immigrants to western countries find a way to meaningfully participate in existing economic, political, legal and social systems?

Patriarch Sako believes: "There is a future for us human beings only by living together in peace, harmony and cooperation as we were before the advent of the radical streams that use violence. We have to accept our historical and moral responsibility in spreading the culture of the recognition of the other, acceptance and respect him based on the principle that "There is no compulsion in religion" and "through honest dialogue, wisdom, clear vison, and intact religious upbringing."

Rather than satire, we need to learn to speak the truth in love.

☩ F. B. Henry
Bishop of Calgary

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Bishop Frederick Henry

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