Nehemiah 5 and Student Loans
A few weeks ago I started preaching through the book of Nehemiah 5 at Greater Lansing Church of Christ. My time there has been enjoyable as I have gotten to know the congregation better and experience more of East Lansing. One chapter in Nehemiah hit me especially hard and I have been thinking through it more and more.
It will probably be easy to read my exegesis and say, “Of course he feels this way. It’s self-serving.” But, the same response would have to apply to someone crying for help as they were being punched in the face. “They are asking for help, but its self-serving.” Stick with me here and follow my logic.
In chapter 5, Nehemiah has a complaint brought to him by the people:
Others were saying, “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine.”
4 Still others were saying, “We have had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards.5 Although we are of the same flesh and blood as our fellow Jews and though our children are as good as theirs, yet we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery. Some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but we are powerless, because our fields and our vineyards belong to others.”
Let’s break this down.
1) There is a famine in Jerusalem. This culture would have been largely (85%) agricultural-based. This means that 85% of all people were working on farms to support the city of Jerusalem. So, when you have a drought, 85% of people are out of work or broke. 85% of the population of Jerusalem was living year to year on the incomes from their crops.
2) Since Jerusalem was conquered by Babylon, Babylon instituted a tax on the people of Jerusalem for a) protection and b) reparations for the trouble of conquering the city.
3) Often city leaders decided how to raise these funds, and it seems here that they did it by taxing the people. City leaders were often the wealthiest people in the city: politicians, bankers, priests, etc.
So, what happens is that the city leaders issue a tax. Farmer’s (the 85%) say, “It’s a drought year, I haven’t earned any money from my crops. I need a loan so I can pay my taxes.”
City leaders say, “Okay, what is your collateral in case this drought continues and you can’t pay back the loan?”
Then, when the drought continues and the farmer doesn’t earn any money the following year, he has to sign his land over to the city leader. But! The tax is due again the next year. So, the farmer takes out another loan.
“What is your collateral this year?”
“Deal.” But again the drought continues, until eventually, as it says in verse five, they have offered their children up as collateral to be sent into slavery.
When Nehemiah finds out about this he is faced with an option: who do I get ticked off at? Is it the people who were stupid enough to offer their children up as collateral, or is it the people who created a system that allowed for that to even be an option? In essence, the lender or the borrower?
v. 7 “…then accused the nobles and officials.”
Nehemiah goes on blast against the city leaders, the ones who created the possibility for this to happen. There are some core truths here that I think we need to consider before I try to take this and drop it into a modern context:
1) It is very possible that the money lenders and city leaders could have paid the city tax themselves. Obviously their pockets are very deep if they are able to loan 85% of the population the needed funds for several years. Rather than say, “we as a people are in rough times, therefore we with means will give up more for our city” they decided to pass it on to the lower class levels, those living season-to-season (paycheck to paycheck).
2) The rich found a way to get richer, even in a time of famine. There were no crops being produced, but the top 15% were growing in wealth from interest and collateral from the poorest 85%. Inversely, the poor continued to get poorer.
3) The top 15% destroyed the lives of the bottom 85%. Verse eleven says that they had seized all of their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses. And as we saw earlier, even took their families.
I got an email the other day for an online petition. The goal was to propose legislation to forgive student loan debt.
There is quite a battle brewing over what is going to happen to student loans over the next few years. 2012 marks the expiration date of a lower interest rate (3.4%) which is set to go back to original levels (6.8%) this summer. Total student loan debt in this country is right around $875 billion. School tuition costs have increased 400% in thirty years. 9% of college graduates are unemployed. Many are “under-employed” working in retail, waitressing or other lower-wage service jobs.
Talk about charging interest in a time of drought.
I currently stay in Rochester, Michigan; a wealthy suburb of Detroit in a well off county that has seen some difficult times, but remains an affluent suburb. In recent discussion about how to improve our school district’s rainy day fund there was public outrage over raising taxes by any small amount. It just wasn’t going to happen.
Once that path was blocked, the school decided to look elsewhere. What they decided to do was privatize the janitorial and bus driving staff. In a rich suburb, rather than raise taxes a small amount or lower the pay of high-rolling administrators, they decided instead to privatize the already lowest paid members of the school staff. Most janitors and bus drivers were asked to stay on board for a greatly reduced rate.
The poor get poorer.
In the same county there is talk of building a grand new casino. Advocates are already discussing the benefits that it would have to local economy and revenues. The proposed location: Pontiac—the poorest city in the county.
I recently enrolled in a Financial Peace University class at my church. The class was free for anyone who was interested in attending. In that class there were about forty people all ages, all walks of life. But in that room with me were three other graduates from the same college as I. One of us mentioned that we had graduated from Harding, and three of us others spun around, saying “Me too!” Another two were graduates from Rochester College, a Christian college from the same faith heritage as Harding University.
We talked for a while, all about how down and out we were about our debt commitments, worry, careers, credit, etc. One day when the teacher read aloud the total debt that was represented in that room, my cohort began to do some math. Though we accounted for less than 10% of the class, we represented 40% of the total debt.
I am not a pure liberationist.
Liberation theologians would say, “people are just a product of the unjust systems built around them.” They would point out that Nehemiah says nothing to the people who mortgaged their kids, just spends all his time yelling at the city leaders.
But I think that is short-sighted. I think there is a degree of personal responsibility involved on the part of those taking out the loans. There is opportunity for them to unite and stand against this injustice and be convincing. There were 85% of them, after all. But they didn’t.
I think if there are lessons to be learned, it is the old lessons that debt is a slave-master. My debt as greatly altered the course of my life. It will continue to do so for the duration of the foreseeable future.
It guides my steps more than almost anything else. It even is a calculating factor in how I serve Jesus, sadly enough.
But I am not sure what to do about that now…