In America magazine:

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.

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