This week’s Sabbath school lesson stands out for being more practical than average. It’s about debt. Except for a grudging allowance for home mortgages and school loans, the lesson strikes a zero-tolerance policy on loans. While it draws on a few scattered biblical texts and some Ellen White quotes to hammer home the point, an odd ideology undergirds this study. At times it feels like a soapbox harangue by someone with a cross of gold on his back.
The hardline “tough love” approach of primary contributor G. Edward Reid adds to the sense that he’s trying to be the Adventist version of Dave Ramsey, the evangelical finance talk show host. The focus is the personal. There’s little concern for the structural and historical reasons why so many humans find themselves with few financial resources. The lesson does not appear to consider the realities of serfs, sharecroppers, and payday lending.
On Friday, you’re told to “destroy credit cards.” Earlier in the week, you’re told that “treatment must be sought in case of debt caused by a psychological disorder (oniomania).” Unfortunately, the lesson doesn’t provide a definition of this or a professional description of the symptoms. This abstract from the journal of World Psychiatry provides some helpful context for what’s also called Compulsive Buying Disorder (CBD). Oniomania comes from the Greek words ōnios and mania, literally sale madness. Sure, some individuals have this, but what about the Black Friday shopping phenomenon? Where is the critique of corporations who manipulate consumers into this sad state?
The lesson merely blames you. Yes, you. Reid’s prose employs the second person pronoun over and over this week. I can almost see Reid’s finger-wagging at us for our dumb debts. It’s a jarringly direct yet wildly generalized address, especially when offering financial advice to millions of people around the world.
Reid also subjects the entire Adult Bible Study Guide audience to his personal obsession with the number seven. As I wrote about last month, this extends to his Great Week of Time theory. But this also applies to mortgages. The General Conference committeemen who oversee the quarterly give Reid some wiggle room to introduce this idea again.
In harmony with other seven-year statutes (Exod. 21:2; Lev. 25:3, 4), not only were the slaves or servants and the land regulated but also the lenders. Because the lenders did not want to forgive any debts, the longest anyone could be in debt was seven years.
Today, by contrast, people in many parts of the world have loans for 30 and 40 years for home purchases.
There is lots of basically good advice in the lesson as well. Avoid get-rich-quick schemes and so on. But just when it seems helpful, it veers into warning everyone from cosigning loans: “Parents are sometimes asked by teenagers to cosign for the purchase of their first car. Or older adult children will ask parents to cosign for a business loan. The same answer applies. [No.] It is appropriate to help others if there is a real need, but do not become surety for the debts of others. Studies show that 75 percent of those who cosigned end up making the payments!”
The lesson provides no source for that statistic. The most common percentage I found for cosigners who end up making payments was in the 30s. In this video from his financial advice video series, Reid shares a few anecdotes on this topic, including about his own son, who he rejects with a Bible verse.
When I needed a cosigner for a used car, I’m glad my dad didn’t pull out his Bible and read a prooftext written thousands of years ago to say “no.” Instead, he cosigned and showed me that he trusted me. I still remember the relief and responsibility I felt. It helped me with my first real post-college job and got me through grad school. I paid the whole thing off monthly. That debt expanded my opportunity. Recently, some of my family banded together to help out a family member. It brought us all closer together. Sometimes risk provides us an opportunity to grow—financially, spiritually, and communally.
For another perspective, I recommend this statement on debt and economic justice by the Episcopal Church. Although it’s focused on the issue of high-debt nations, its opening paragraph offers a perspective that moves beyond “you” alone to the greater common good. What can we do together to manage the risks that limit so many in our created world?
We see the issues of international debt and economic justice in the light of our belief in creation: God has created a world in which we are bound together in a common humanity in which each person has equal dignity and value. God has generously given to the nations immense resources which are to be held in trust and used for the well-being of all and also offered us in Christ Jesus liberation from all that which destroys healthy human life—a pattern of giving which God desires all to follow. The healthy pattern for relationships is of mutual giving and receiving of God's gifts. Borrowing has its place only in as much as it releases growth for human well being. When we ignore this pattern, money becomes a force that destroys human community and God's creation. The vast expansion in the power and quantity of money in recent decades, the huge increase in borrowing among rich and poor alike, the damaging material and spiritual consequences to many, bear testimony to this destructive force.
Alexander Carpenter is the executive editor of Spectrum.
Title image: Fleet Street Prison by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd, c. 1830 (public domain).
We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.