March 16: Payday Robbery

Thus says the Lord:
Go down to the house of the king of Judah,
   and speak there this word,
   and say: Hear the word of the Lord, O King of Judah,
    sitting on the throne of David —
you, and your servants, and your people who enter these gates.
Thus says the Lord:
   Act with justice and righteousness,
   and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed.
Jeremiah 22:1-3

Robbery comes in all shapes and forms.

It might be taking a wallet from a purse, or shoplifting something from a department store. Some people consider certain kinds of taxation “robbery.” Others think that the price of certain goods to be “highway robbery.”

But perhaps the most pernicious type of robbery is the crime of taking advantage of someone’s misfortune.

That is how payday lenders operate.

When working class people find themselves short of cash or in need of an emergency loan, they often turn to storefront payday or title lenders. But the interest charged on such loans is onerous, averaging over 400% APR. When a borrower can’t repay the loan, a new loan is offered, trapping the client in a cycle from which it is difficult to emerge. In the end, families find themselves unable to pay bills, put food on the table, or provide for children. According to the Center for Responsible Lending, these kinds of loans cost borrowers over $7 billion in fees every year.

The payday lending scam is such a lucrative endeavor that the industry has a strong lobbying presence in state capitols. Texas is one of the friendliest states to the payday lending industry, in part because the lobbyists give generously to many of our state politicians. And even when rules are passed restricting lending practices, lenders find ways to circumvent the regulations. For example, a report last October discovered that payday lenders are currently registering as “credit repair businesses” in order to avoid state laws which would limit how much borrowers can be charged.

In the end, payday lending is simply robbery. And not even a very noble robbery, because the victims are those who can least afford it.

Jeremiah’s words condemning those who steal are addressed to all the people of Israel, beginning with the king and trickling all the way down to the peasants. He recognizes that theft comes in different forms as well.

But Jeremiah doesn’t attack robbery for its moral quality. He does not defend the concept of “private property”; instead, he would argue that all property belongs to God and that such property is given by God to the people for the common good. Thus, robbery is a sin, not because it violates ownership rules, but because it perverts the normal course of prosperity which God has established for all people.

In other words, to steal from your neighbor is to diminish God’s shalom, to rob from God’s own glory.

Prayer: God, thank you for sustaining and keeping me. I am content with what I have. Open my eyes to see the way that my neighbors are robbed, and let me be their advocate. Amen.

Justice Challenge: Get involved with the #StoptheDebtTrap movement. Visit the website, and read the stories of payday lending victims. Sign up here to stay informed of pending legislation related to payday lending.