Commentary

Loan sharks and Jesus fish

Emilie Bouvier

Duuun dun duuun dun.” I have had the Jaws theme in my head recently while looking at the statistics of “payday lending.” Loan sharks use this lending strategy; they avoid conventional loans and instead offer small loan amounts to be repaid in full after the borrower’s next paycheck.

It is a clever scheme as it hides the exorbitant costs by framing the loans in terms of “fees” rather than interest. Even more, the reality is that these “payday loans” rarely turn out to be the short-term loans they advertise, giving way to repeat borrowing and a downward spiral of debt — from which the lender greatly profits.

Before the Jaws tune fades from mind, take a look at the statistics: The “fees” with which payday lenders operate equate to annual percentage rates (APR) ranging from 391 to 1,170 percent. Even under the current regulations, a $100 loan rolled over 10 times would result in paying a total of $250 — more than twice the principal.

Furthermore, the number of payday loans taken by Minnesotans nearly doubled between 2007 and 2011 in economic hardship, from 172,000 to 338,000. These numbers show clearly that payday lenders are preying on financially vulnerable people, exploiting them for profit.

Even under the current regulations, a $100 loan rolled over 10 times would result in paying a total of $250 — more than twice the principal.

So what do all these loan sharks have to do with the Jesus fish — with our identity as people of faith swimming about in this big ocean? A professor at Luther Seminary once challenged me to think of God’s call as coming often from behind rather than above; coming through the voice of the neighbor in need, quiet and unexpected yet deep and compelling.

The more I learn about the issue of payday lending, the more sharply I hear the distant fearful cry of the neighbor, vulnerable and out of options, swarmed by the sharks. What would it look like to respond to this call?

What’s a Christian to do?

Given the scale and complexity of the issue there is no way to respond as just one little fish. This is why I am deeply committed to the work of faith-based advocacy and excited to be working with the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition (JRLC), a faith-based advocacy group at the forefront of the issue. The coalition represents a large body of affiliates and a strong network of people of faith who organize around social justice issues to lobby at the Minnesota State Legislature. I have been inspired and enlivened by my work with JRLC on payday lending in Minnesota, and feel a deep sense of faithful action in working with others for systematic change.

While politics can be messy and intimidating, JRLC’s advocacy efforts cross partisan divides and find grounding in the values we share as people of faith.

In fact, faith-based community organizing and advocacy have deep theological roots — they are tied to the church’s identity as the body of Christ. In Paul’s writing on this metaphor, he implores the Corinthians to comprehend that we cannot separate or divide ourselves; that the meaning of being church is together forming a whole and acting as one. Paul describes the interconnectedness of the body’s many members, poignantly remarking: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it.” (1 Cor. 12:26). With brothers and sisters, neighbors and strangers being financially exploited, how can we not seek to bear this hardship together and respond collectively as the body of Christ?

As bearers of the symbol ichthys — an early church expression for “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior” — we carry God’s promise in us, but are still such little fish that can feel small and helpless faced with the wide jaws of swarming sharks. Yet when we act together in one Spirit, we experience a shift. No longer are we lone little fish but united we form a body much larger than ourselves that can confront the sharks we encounter — loan sharks and otherwise.

May we hear the call of the neighbor and have the courage and dedication to respond collectively as engaged and inspired people of faith.

Emilie Bouvier is a Master of Arts student and Resident Artist at Luther Seminary. She is currently an intern with the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition.

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