April is a busy month for the religions of the world — and for those who practice them. Christians are celebrating Good Friday and Easter. Jews take part in Passover Seders. Muslims fast for Ramadan.
With so many people participating in rituals to honor their faith traditions, we thought it would be an interesting time to talk about the intersections between religion and debt.
While two-thirds of American adults identify with a particular faith, the numbers have been in decline over the last twenty years. In 1999, 70% of Americans belonged to a church, mosque, or synagogue. In 2020, that number had dropped to 47%.
At the same time, consumer debt is on the rise. According to the Federal Reserve, American household debt hit a whopping (and record) $14.6 trillion in 2021.
We can’t say whether there’s any relationship between those numbers, but we will say that most of the world’s religions do advocate a cautious approach to taking on debt.
Let’s see how debt factors into the teachings of the three most popular religions in the United States.
Christianity and debt
As with all religious traditions, modern Christian beliefs vary depending on the person and the denomination. People interpret original texts differently, and religious leaders’ teachers can become as revered as the words in the Christian Bible itself.
For the most part, the Christian Bible does not condemn debt. In fact, some Christians argue that taking on debt may be necessary to comply with some religious mandates. In a Q&A column responding to a question about debt, the Christian fundamentalist organization Focus on the Family points to a passage in the New Testament.
“If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” 1 Timothy 5:8.
To live in alignment with this value, a person may have to take out debt — say, if their parent needs medical care that’s beyond their financial means.
However, several of the Bible’s passages can be interpreted as encouraging caution when taking on debt. (“The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower becomes the lender’s slave.” Proverbs 22:7)
And what does Christianity have to say about the people who are making the loans?
A passage in the Old Testament prohibits charging interest “to another Israelite.” While Judaism has interpreted that provision to prohibit Jews charging interest to other Jews (more on that below), modern Christianity interprets it not as a prohibition on interest but more broadly to guard against predatory lending to those who are vulnerable.
The former Pope John Paul II has called on Catholic Christians to consider a passage from the Old Testament referring to a jubilee that occurs every seven years. “At the end of every seven-year period, you should have a relaxation of debts.” Deuteronomy 15:1-2.
In Tertio Millennio Adveniente, published in 1994, Pope John Paul II wrote “Christians will have to raise their voice on behalf of all the poor of the world, proposing the jubilee as an appropriate time to give thought, among other things, to reducing substantially, if not canceling outright, the international debt which seriously threatens the future of many nations.”
Tl;dr: Christianity doesn’t prohibit borrowing, lending, or charging interest. Some passages counsel caution about taking on debt. And many christian leaders advocate compassion for those whose poverty has resulted in indebtedness.
Islam and debt
The Quran takes debt very seriously — both on the side of the lender and the borrower. For devout Muslims, not repaying loans is a serious transgression that could keep them from a peaceful afterlife. The Hadith, a collection of the words and actions of Muhammad, is filled with admonitions about the dangers of taking on debt.
The prophet Muhammad is recorded as having said, “If a man was killed in battle for the sake of Allah, then brought back to life and he owed a debt, he would not enter Paradise until his debt was paid off.”
However, portions of the Hadith also indicate that Allah would take into account the reason for that debt. For instance, if someone took out debt to make extravagant purchases and died before they paid the debt back, they would be kept out of heaven. On the other hand, if someone took out debt to feed their family and died before they could pay it back, they would be allowed into heaven.
That sense of compassion for those in need shows up in other places throughout Islamic texts related to debt. Muslims are prohibited from prosecuting those who have failed to pay their debts, especially if they’re unable to pay. Instead, the lender should wait until the borrower is in a better financial position.
Because dying while in debt is so religiously perilous, the Quran encourages Muslims to keep a record of all debts. That way, family members can discharge debts on your behalf if you die indebted.
For those making loans, charging interest is expressly forbidden. Islamic banks offer interest-free loans, and some US banks have interest-free mortgage loans for their Islamic customers. The purchaser pays an agreed-upon premium above the market cost.
Tl;dr: For Muslims, paying back any loans is absolutely critical. Charging interest is prohibited, and anyone seeking repayment must be compassionate in their approach.
Judaism and debt
As we mentioned in the section on Christianity and debt, the Torah (the section of the Bible known as the Old Testament to Christians) forbids Jews from charging interest to other Jews but does allow them to charge interest to non-Jewish people.
The Jewish organization Chabad explains this admonition by saying that there isn’t anything morally wrong with charging interest. However, “your fellow Jew is family. It’s just not appropriate for family members to help each other out on terms of interest. The Jewish nation is meant to behave as a cohesive unit, like a single organism, each one concerned for the other’s benefit as much as with his own.”
Because the Torah and the Christian Old Testament are the same text, Judaism’s religious passages also include the concept of forgiving debts in the seventh year. In Exodus 21:2, the Torah reads, “When you acquire an [Israelite debt servant], that person shall serve six years — and shall go free in the seventh year, without payment.”
Many interpret that text today as a requirement to “make debt humane,” as Rabbi Mary L. Zamore argues.
Tl;dr: Jews are prohibited from charging interest to other Jews and have found other ways to provide loans. Many Jewish leaders advocate kindness for those who are struggling with debt and work towards the alleviation of poverty.
Whether you practice a religion or not, perhaps you can take comfort from knowing that all three of this country’s major religions advocate kindness and compassion toward borrowers. If you’ve been beating yourself up over your student loans, now is the time to stop.
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Contributed by Katie Taylor.