Alibris Secondhand Books Standard

Friday, September 30, 2005

an interesting trap

If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them.

- Exodus 22:25

They are called payday loans, and this is the way they work:

Let's say Joe is short $100 and has maxed out his credit cards. Joe goes to a payday lender. The lender gives Joe the money, and Joe writes a check for $100 plus a surcharge of, say, $20, dated two weeks in the future. Between now and two weeks, Joe gets his next paycheck, and the loan is covered.

But what happens if Joe's next paycheck doesn't cover the loan? What if the reason he is short is because his job doesn't pay him enough to quite make ends meet? Then, two weeks from now, Joe may have to borrow another $100 and write another $120 check, just to cover the check he wrote today. If this keeps up, by the end of the year Joe will have paid $520 interest for a $100 loan. That's 520% interest, enough to make credit card companies look downright generous.

In the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, payday loans are the only option for many low wage earners to guarantee that the bills can always be paid. But they are also a trap: If a poor person takes a payday loan, the interest may be enough to prevent the next paycheck from covering the bills, thus he or she needs to take another payday loan. The cycle can be endless.

Several solutions come to mind.

In a nation this wealthy, we could guarantee that the minimum wage is a living wage: Take the poverty line for a family of three, say, and calculate what a person would have to earn at 40 hours a week to meet that income level. That would become the new minimum wage. It would be recalculated annually. This will not happen with the current Congress and President.

States could set a maximum allowable interest rate for nontraditional lenders. Even setting it at credit card rates -- around 20% annual -- would drop the two-week fee low enough that payday loans would not be worth the lenders' time.

But here's an entirely different sort of idea, derived from the concept of microlending. Suppose a nonprofit agency -- perhaps a church ministry -- offered payday loans at 0% interest? There would have to be safeguards to prevent people from abusing the system. There would have to be a limit to the amount a person could borrow. To receive the loans, recipients might have to attend a budgeting class. They might also be required to join a support group. There's probably a lot more details to work out, but is this doable? Would it work?

What do you all think?

Updated Oct 4, 3:30 pm - made corrections to the math

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

whose responsibility?

A recent post over at I am a Christian Too has led to a discussion of the proper role of government in reducing poverty. The viewpoints have ranged from "It is our responsibility as individuals to take care of the poor, and the government just gets in the way," to "The government has an important role to play in fighting poverty, especially when our leaders claim to be Christians. There are some things that a government can do that individuals can't."

The United States is the wealthiest nation in the history of the earth, yet we still have many people living in poverty, some of whom are living in circumstances that give them little hope of ever getting out. How can that be, in a nation in which three fourths of all citizens claim to be followers of Jesus?

While our elected leaders are busy equating moral values with opposition to gay rights and abortion, people are starving, children are dying, people are losing their homes.

I'll admit that I can't even understand the notion that only private money, and no tax money, should go toward poverty reduction. That idea seems to be born of the false dichotomy that individual action and government aid are mutually exclusive. It's absurd. I can support TANF and still volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, for example.

It seems to me that Christ calls us to use whatever resources we can to take care of those in need. In a nation where the leaders boast of their Christian faith, it doesn't seem at all inappropriate to expect them to bring the nation's spending priorities more in line with what Jesus said was important:

Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.... Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

- Matthew 25:34-36,40

To use one example: The Red Cross is trying to raise $2 billion for relief efforts following Hurricane Katrina. Congress has already allocated $62 billion and is expected to eventually spend more than $200 billion. No private charity, and certainly no individual, can match the level of funding that the federal government can bring to the table.

Does the government spend its money wisely or efficiently? Probably not as efficiently as it should. Still, that's no reason for eliminating or reducing federal spending on poverty programs. The better answer is to demand better results from government programs. Real reform, though, might require even greater expenses at first. That might not be popular in today's political climate.

I don't have the ultimate answers. I'll leave the specifics to those more detail-oriented than I. But if this country (or any country) wants to be serious about taking care of its most vulnerable citizens, the government must play a leading role.

Friday, September 23, 2005

street prophets

Just launched this week: Street Prophets, a new web community for the discussion of faith and politics. Check it out if you are so inclined.

Monday, September 19, 2005

being poor

Another day, another link...

John Scalzi has a list of things that being poor means. I'll let the list speak for itself.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

such flimsy words

Surfing the blogosphere, I found a response to Hurricane Katrina that can apply to any disaster or hardship.

An excerpt:

The elderly have lived through other tumultuous periods, but even an octogenarian would be hard pressed to name a more demanding time. And no one, retirement age and younger, has ever seen anything like what we’ve seen these last few years.

I’ve not trudged through the flood waters in New Orleans or walked the ashen streets of New York City. I’ve not carried the dead from trains in Madrid or London, or grieved among the desperate victims of the Asian tsunami. But none of us are insulated . . . not anymore. I know people who’ve been in such places, and I myself have stared into the eyes of families devastated by their own catastrophic loss—loved ones hurled to their deaths as a plane plummeted to the ground. I’ve held their hands and searched for words to speak into their darkness.

“So these three men ceased to answer Job.”
Job 32.1

Words fail times like these. Let us be clear about that. There are times when it is best to be silent.

“But Job said, ‘Am I to wait, because they do not speak?’”
Job 32.16

Yet there is a place for words. There is need for words. That ancient mourner, Job, speaks for us all testifying to that longing for words that rises up inside the human heart.


Thursday, September 15, 2005

in a mirror, dimly

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

- 1 Corinthians 13:12

Theologically speaking, my wife Nicki is much more conservative than I am. I was brought up as a Methodist; she was raised Southern Baptist. I feel most comfortable in mainline Protestant churches; she feels most comfortable in Baptist or non-denominational churches.

Our religious differences have caused some problems in our marriage. We can't find a church where both of us are happy. My church is not conservative enough for her; hers is too conservative for me.

We've tried different strategies to live with our differences. We've visited churches that we thought might work for both of us, but none of them were a good fit. We've tried going to my church one weekend, and hers the next weekend. Every solution is less than ideal.

What comforts Nicki about conservative churches is the same thing that bothers me: Everyone there has essentially the same image of God, the same theology, the same spiritual background. The sameness has a chilling effect on our relationship with God, it seems to me. Those who have different ideas can be ostracized. Even asking the wrong questions can cause a person to be shunned.

I've known people raised in conservative churches who turned away from Christianity entirely as they began to question some of the doctrines they were brought up with. That's the big danger of "doctrinal purity". The church's theology becomes a substitute for a genuine relationship with Christ.

I'm not saying that conservative Christians can't have a relationship with Christ. I know many conservatives, including my wife, whose faith is genuine. However, it seems to me that most non-denominational churches tend to promote their doctrines as the only way to know God. For some people, that may be comforting, as they can get answers without having to wrestle with the questions. For others, who can't agree with the pat answers, it can drive them from the church. It may even drive them from faith entirely, and that is a tragedy.

When I was young and single, I could have found a liberal church where I could have worshipped with people who thought just like me. But I would rather worship with people who don't all have the same understanding of, say, the atonement. I think there is a beauty in theological diversity: It reminds us that God is bigger than our petty disagreements. It also enables us all to grow as we learn from each other.

Getting to know God is a lifelong process. For now, we see in a mirror, dimly. One day we will see face to face, and then all of our theological differences will not matter very much.


Tuesday, September 13, 2005

a well-bred border collie

Our instinct for faith is like a well-bred Border collie, who, lacking cattle or sheep, will herd children or chickens or cats. If we don't direct our faith toward God or into some authentic "way" of the soul, then we direct it toward progress or science or weaponry or education or nature or human nature or doctors or gurus or genetic engineers or computers or NASA. And as we reduce the objects of our faith and so reduce our faith, we inevitably reduce ourselves.

Wendell Berry, Another Turn of the Crank

Sunday, September 11, 2005

church in crisis

The other day I ran across a website with two quotes, one from a well-known conservative Christian and one from a well-known liberal Christian. Can you guess which is which? The answer is below.

  1. "When a thing grows weak and out of date, it is obviously soon going to disappear. That's also true of churches. If a church cannot change, it will eventually die."

  2. "Clearly change in both liturgy and structure is inevitable, and this change will probably be radical, if not total....the forms the Church assumed in the past inevitably must die."

Though conservatives and liberals do not often agree, I think it is revealing that leaders from both ends of the spectrum see an urgent need for change in our churches. They might not agree about the nature of the change, but they are both clear that the church as it exists today will not survive into the future.

And it's not just a few extremist agitants saying it. The challenges facing the church in the postmodern world has been the subject of numerous books, the most popular examples being Brian MacLaren's "A New Kind of Christian" or Marcus Borg's "The Heart of Christianity" (both of which I've still yet to read, but they are on my list).

It's not just a topic for theologians to debate, either. In the United States, the number of people who do not attend church has nearly doubled in the last 15 years, and the trend is showing no signs of reversing. Clearly, the church of the 20th century is not meeting the needs of the 21st century.

Will the church be able to meet the challenges of a postmodern world? At many churches, the leaders are exploring new paradigms. My pastor, Barry, has given considerable thought to the church's mission, the role and purpose of evangelism, and authentic worship. He is one of many pastors looking for ways to make churches relevant to today's world.

Perhaps the greatest challenge the postmodern world gives to churches is that there is not one answer that can be applied across the board. In the past, churches could copy the worship style or the ministries of successful churches. In a postmodern world, success may be a much more subjective concept. What meets the needs of some communities might be irrelevant in others.

What will the church look like 20 - 30 years from now? I don't have any answers, but I suspect it will be as different from the modern church as today's church is from the church of the middle ages. Either that, or it will be a much smaller organization.

* * *

For the record: The first quote above is the conservative (Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Life) and the second is the liberal (John Shelby Spong, author of Why Christianity Must Change or Die).

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

picking and choosing

It's a common complaint lodged by conservative Christians: liberals "pick and choose" from the Bible. It wouldn't bother me, except that these same conservatives claim that they don't pick and choose.

It seems to me that anyone who has read the whole Bible would see the folly in this line of reasoning.

Can we accept the following verses at face value?

"Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh." - 1 Peter 2:18

"For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil." - 1 Corinthians 11:6

"But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep." - Luke 6:24-25

"[God] said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’" - Genesis 22:2

"If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. They shall say to the elders of his town, 'This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.' Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death." - Deuteronomy 21:18-21

If every word of the Bible truly reflects God's will, then we would have to say, based on the above sample, that God:
  • isn't bothered by slavery or even by the mistreatment of slaves

  • thinks it is disgraceful when women do not cover their faces

  • despises money, food, and even laughter

  • tells people to kill their children

And there are many more troubling passages throughout the Bible. Personally, I think it is dishonoring to God to say the Bible is perfect.

Jesus told us he would give us the Holy Spirit to guide us in all truth. He didn't say that our guide to all truth would be leatherbound, printed on acid-free paper, with words of Christ in red.


Saturday, September 03, 2005

things we take for granted

Do you want to help hurricane victims? Can't go to New Orleans but want to do more than write a check? UMCOR is in need of emergency kits, particularly health kits. A health kit includes a toothbrush and toothpaste, nail clippers, soap, and other everyday items that most of us take for granted. To people who have lost everything, even small items can make a big difference.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

speaking truth to power

He got the king's attention by telling a story:

There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him.

Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man's lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.

The king's first reaction was visceral: "The man who has done this deserves to die." Then he regained his composure and found a fitting penalty. "He shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity."

Because he was a good king, he wanted to ensure that his people were treated justly. He wanted his kingdom to be a place where ordinary citizens were not oppressed by those in power.

That's why the prophet Nathan's reply to King David had so much sting:

"You are the man!"

David had had an affair with Bathsheba. Whe she was found to be pregnant, he had her husband killed so he could marry her. Despite David's commitment to justice, his actions did not always match his ideals.

* * *

One of the things I love most about the Bible is the prophets. They never hesitated to speak the truth to those in power. Wherever there was injustice, there was a prophet to let the rulers know they would be held accountable.

Often I see injustice in our country or in our world, and I want to speak out. Like the prophets, I want to let those in power know that they will be held accountable for their actions. I'm not in a position to have any influence over those in power. (My congressional representatives don't pay attention to me, no matter how often I write them.) But I have this blog. It's not much, but maybe my words will make some small difference somewhere.

At the same time, I can identify with David in this story. When I see injustice, I can be judgmental. It's easy to condemn others for their misdeeds and their failure to act. Yet if I'm honest with myself, I can see my accusing finger pointing back at me. I don't always live up to my ideals.

One of the things I find most challenging about the Bible is the prophets.