Loving Our Neighbors Through Politics

A version of this article originally appeared in the Public Justice Review, a publication by the Center for Public Justice. 

For politically disillusioned Christians, the 2016 election season did not provide the hopeful, inspiring vision for the next era of American politics that many wished it would. Instead, bitter political rhetoric, deep partisan division, and unprecedented political spectacle animated a particularly ugly election season. For many, it was finally a clear invitation to opt out of political life.

This sentiment was perhaps most acutely felt by young adults. For many Christians in this demographic, committed to pursuing justice for their neighbors, the election confirmed that politics is not the way to do it. Eager to serve, they turn to their church and para-church ministries to serve the most vulnerable.  

In my work with Christian college students and young professionals, I often encounter an argument that goes something like this: “My citizenship is in Heaven, not here on Earth. I will obey laws and I will vote, but there is no value in trying to accomplish anything for the Kingdom of God through politics. Instead I will serve through my church.”

While this reaction may be motivated by good intentions, a vision of public justice suggests this is a vastly incomplete approach to loving our neighbors. In a Capital Commentary articleStephanie Summers writes,

Citizenship is our common calling. In calling us to citizenship, God invites us to develop our abilities to accurately discern the well-being of our political communities. In calling us to citizenship, God also invites us to examine the relations of our political communities to those of other nations in God’s world. In so doing, we tangibly respond to God’s calls to do justice and to love our neighbor.

God calls us to citizenship here on earth, exercised for the well-being of our political communities. This requires that we engage the systems of government as part of our pursuit of justice for all. For those of us who are politically disillusioned and disengaged, we can be helped to recapture a positive vision of citizenship by stories of faith communities pursuing justice for their neighbors through politics.

Last fall, I met a group of Christians passionate about loving their neighbors in Phoenix, Arizona. Their efforts weren’t confined within their faith community; for them, truly addressing the root of a major injustice required actively stepping into political life. The story of their political engagement has much to teach us.

FIGHTING PREDATORY LENDING: A FAITH COMMUNITY RESPONDS

Payday lending was outlawed in Arizona in 2008. However, this industry, known for short-term loans with exorbitant interest rates, re-emerged in Arizona in early 2016 with proposed legislation that would effectively bring payday loans back to the state.

Early last year, a Flex Loan Bill was introduced in the Arizona state legislature by State Sen. John Kavanagh (R-AZ). SB 1447, which evolved into SB 1316, proposed to offer low-income families up to $2,500 in credit for up to two years. Proponents argued that these loans would offer people with bad credit and no savings quick cash in the event of an emergency.

The interest rate on these loans? An enormous 204 percent APR, meaning that an initial two-year, $2,500 loan would end up costing the borrower $435.05 per month, amounting to a total of $10,441.15 at the end of two years.

Critics decried this as a bill that would allow payday loans to return to the state under a new name. Typical payday loans are a small-dollar, two-week loan with a national average of 395 percent interest. Some states have regulated these loans out of existence, while other states have left them entirely unregulated with interest rates over 1,000 percent. Flex loans, alternatively, extend a larger sum of money to be paid back over a longer period of time, typically two years. Despite this, the business model operates in virtually the same way.

That these types of loans are a bad financial product is not an injustice in itself. The injustice is that these loans are a predatory product targeted at the poor and disguised as an easy way out of financial trouble—lenders are concentrated in low-income neighborhoods and specifically target the poor because they are poor. The average payday borrower makes less than $23,000 per year and one in four borrowers receives public assistance or retirement funds.

Contributing to the problem, in many communities there is a shortage of responsible credit options for low-income borrowers with little or no credit history. In 2015, nearly 30 percent of Americans were unbanked or underbanked, and while reasons for this vary, low-income households comprise a disproportionate segment of this population. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau,

Consumers with low incomes are less likely than other consumers to be able to access affordable credit; they often use high-cost alternative products to meet their needs. Several features of the credit market are particularly challenging for many consumers with low incomes. Some of the biggest barriers include their inability to qualify for loans because they have little, poor, or no credit history; lack of general understanding about credit and the type of loans that would be most useful; lack of knowledge about how to correct their credit reports or improve their scores; and a general perception that the credit system is inaccessible to them.

Many borrowers report not wanting to burden family members, friends, or their church community by asking for help. This means that when a borrower can’t keep up with reoccurring expenses or faces an emergency, things like payday loans appear to be the most responsible option at their disposal.

However, the payday loan industry’s business model only succeeds when borrowers fail. When borrowers, often on a fixed income, can’t repay their loans in the allotted time, lenders eagerly extend another loan to borrowers to cover it. Over 80 percent of loans are rolled over and followed by a subsequent loan within two weeks, resulting in an ongoing cycle of debt. The average borrower takes out eight loans in a year.

So it is no surprise that when the payday loan industry tried to bring this predatory product back to Arizona, it faced pushback. However, this time, much of the pushback came from an unlikely place; it came from a group of concerned Christian citizens whose faith and embrace of their office of citizenship compelled them to act, to care for their neighbors through politics, and to hold their political leaders accountable to uphold justice.

Churches have rightly long heeded the call to care for the needy, the vulnerable, and the oppressed. Church leaders are familiar with congregants mired in financial trouble seeking help from church benevolence funds and have come to their aid when possible. But when it comes to matters of policy and legislation, many Christians and churches have largely opted out of involvement.

But not this faith community in Phoenix. The Surge Network, a group of churches and pastors dedicated to seeing all members of the community flourish, viewed the Flex Loan Bill as a very real danger to vulnerable residents. This was an issue that they could not address on their own-- using benevolence funds to get someone out of a debt trap was essentially putting money back into the hands of lenders. It required fundamental legislative change.

“We were a group of pastors who said ‘Let’s get rid of injustice through politics,’” Dennae Pierre, Executive Director of the Surge Network, said. “When you come [to lawmakers] as an informed citizen, there’s really a lot of power.”

Pierre said that the problem of payday lending was largely off the radar of the majority of white churches in the Surge Network; their congregations weren’t affected in the same way that the Network’s African-American churches in predominantly low-income Latino and African-American neighborhoods were. When the Flex Loan Bill was introduced, the Network’s African-American church leaders shared stories of how their congregants had been harmed by payday loans in the past, and they expressed their deep concern with the proposed legislation.

Learning from the African-American pastors about their congregations’ past experience with payday loans was the catalyst for Surge taking action, Pierre said. The Network began to convene training events to educate pastors about the devastating effects of payday loans. But education was just the first step in a longer process of political engagement.

“We wrote a letter urging legislators not to pass the bill, we met with lots of legislators, and we shared why we didn’t want [the bill] passed,” Pierre said. “We prepared our people to tell stories of how the loans play out in reality.”

Forty pastors signed onto the letter urging lawmakers to vote against the bill. In the letter, they wrote,

Predatory lending takes advantage of the poor and makes it nearly impossible to get out of debt. God created mankind in his image and bestowed dignity and worth on every human being. As faith leaders in Arizona, we care deeply about every life being treated with dignity and respect. Predatory lending positions individuals to be in a perpetual state of debt all for the sake of personal gain and impedes human flourishing…Making a profit is not unethical; however, making an extreme profit at the expense of the weak and vulnerable is condemned by Jesus- and general human decency. We believe this bill is indefensible.

Their persistent efforts to discourage lawmakers from passing this bill and their call to protect vulnerable citizens made a big impact. The Flex Loan Bill, backed by a very powerful payday loan industry, died in the state Senate. Cynthia Zwick, Executive Director of the Arizona Community Action Forum, which also worked to oppose the bill, said that Surge’s involvement was essential.  “A faith perspective really made a difference,” Zwick said. “What Surge was able to do was mobilize and activate the faith community in a way that we hadn’t seen in the past.”

Even with a legislative victory, the Surge Network’s work isn’t finished on this issue. The Network recognizes that there will always be a demand for short-term loans, but believes that there is an economically just way to extend small-dollar, short-term loans. Responding to the need for more responsible credit options, the Network is now consulting with nonprofits about opening a community bank, and is also developing a financial literacy curriculum for churches to use.

According to Pierre, Surge’s involvement in stopping this bill and pursuing public justice was just another way of loving their neighbors in Phoenix. “My primary passion is people and being faithful pastors to the people God has placed in our communities,” Pierre said. “If that’s your heart, engaging in the political process is a significant opportunity to impact the lives of people around you.”

LESSONS FOR OUR FAITH COMMUNITIES

For Christians committed to a vision of human flourishing, the efforts of Dennae Pierre and the Surge Network provide a model for political engagement. Without publicly just laws, the poor and vulnerable will continue to be exploited. While our churches are often well-versed in our role as “the hands and feet” ministry to the poor, our call to distinctive Christian citizenship requires that we love our neighbors by looking to the well-being of our political communities.

As Pierre articulated, there is power in an informed citizenry. We need to do the work to become informed about the issues that affect our own communities. This includes loving and advocating for neighbors who face an injustice that may not directly impact me personally, but affects the overall flourishing of the communities that I am called to uphold. As Stephanie Summers writes at the beginning of this series,

Christian citizens are to help shape and develop political communities, focusing not on securing narrow interests, be they their own or others, but on shaping the political community to conform to the demands of justice.

Christians disillusioned with or skeptical of government can find inspiration in the way that the faith community in Phoenix entered into politics as a way to love their neighbors. Upholding God’s good purpose for government requires active participation in the political process. A clear articulation of why a particular injustice degrades the dignity of your neighbors is crucial for lawmakers to hear. That every human being is made in the image of God, and that this vision should be upheld in public law, is a distinctive perspective that people of faith bring to policy discussions.

As the Surge Network’s story demonstrates, much of what happens in politics happens at the state and local level. This should come as an encouragement to Christians who may feel overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the federal policymaking process. There are easily accessible pathways for engagement with state and local officials available to citizens concerned about the well-being of their communities.

The Surge Network’s work to motivate and activate its churches and pastors should serve as a model for Christians throughout the country seeking the flourishing of their communities. God calls us to citizenship that contributes to creating publicly just laws that will ensure justice. Let us be a people eager to serve our neighbors through politics, not absent of it. 

-Katie Thompson is the editor of Shared Justice, an online publication for young adults published by the Center for Public Justice. She is a co-author of Unleashing Opportunity: Why Escaping Poverty Requires a Shared Vision of Justice. Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore.