Poverty and Debt-Release

Rachel Muers
Guest Editor

University of Exeter, UK

This issue of the Journal of Scriptural Reasoning reflects work undertaken by various scriptural reasoning groups, at the American Academy of Religion and elsewhere, over more than a year. The decision to address questions of debt, indebtedness and usury, particularly as they relate to wider questions of poverty and wealth distribution, arose in part from the conviction that the approach of scriptural reasoning could discover resources within the Abrahamic traditions for engagement with issues of urgent global concern. While it is relatively easy—and in certain contexts important—to use proof-texts from scriptures and tradition to outline some version of “the Muslim position,” “the Jewish position” (and so forth) on questions such as the cancellation of international debt, it is harder—but, the papers offered here suggest, equally important—to express the deeper and more complex understandings of relations between God, humanity and the world into which texts “about debt” can lead their readers. The articles in this issue show the commitment of their authors to the close reading of scriptural texts, to traditions of commentary, to engagement with questions of pressing importance globally and personally—and, as will become clear, to one another.

All of the papers concern themselves with the challenges the scriptural texts studied pose to an economy based extensively on interest-bearing debt. The Qur’anic critique of the taking of interest is well known; Basit Koshul’s paper sets out clearly both that (not just “interest in general,” but) the details of economic practice are at the heart of the Qur’an, and why, within the Qur’an’s logic, this should be so. Robert Gibbs’ close reading of Leviticus 25:35ff. exposes a fundamental concern for the neighbour and the neighbour’s future as freedom to serve God behind the laws governing interest, release from debt and debt-slavery. Continuing the theme of the economic implications of “service of God,” Daniel Hardy’s reading of two New Testament parables develops a vision of the economics appropriate to the “kingdom of God” centred on the manifestation and recognition of divine generosity and mercy. Responding to these articles (see below), Laurie Zoloth draws attention to the transformation of a whole range of economic relations effected by the primary recognition of the call of God and the need of the neighbour. James Fodor draws together texts from all three Abrahamic traditions in an extended treatment of a theme also considered by Gibbs—the temporality of economic relationships and the distortions of temporal perspective that, according to the texts he reads, usurious transactions cause. Willie Young offers a further reflection on how the scriptural texts, and in particular the reading of the texts on debt-release can open up new social possibilities and enable the formation of different social bonds.

Of course, as Koshul’s paper explains, there is or should be nothing particularly new or surprising about work that seeks out deep and broad connections between religion and economics, or, more precisely, between concrete economic practices and habits on the one hand and the scriptures and thought of the Abrahamic traditions on the other. The challenge is then to articulate these connections in ways that do full justice to their depth—the conviction reflected in all the papers that to talk about economics is to talk about God and the world—without losing a sense of their breadth—without turning the traditions, or any academic disciplines, into self-enclosed spheres of discourse. The claim of scholars engaged in scriptural reasoning is that their study, together, of each other’s scriptures is what makes this possible. One of the ongoing challenges facing participants in scriptural reasoning is that of translating the work they do in small groups, reading and reflecting on scriptural texts together, into forms accessible to a wider academic context, in which (for example) the single-voiced presentation followed by questions and answers, or the single-voiced (even if multi-authored) article followed by citations and responses, is still the norm.

James Fodor articulates at the beginning of his paper his indebtedness to “small-group interaction, discussion, probings, musings, patient listening and silences before the texts (and one another) with other scriptural-reasoners,” an indebtedness that is also apparent in the other contributions to this issue. The first four papers in this issue are lightly revised versions of presentations given at the inaugural session of the Scriptural Reasoning Group at the American Academy of Religion, in November 2004 in San Antonio, Texas. The papers by Basit Koshul, Robert Gibbs and Daniel Hardy were developed on the basis of conversations between the participants—conversations to which the shared study of scriptural texts was fundamental, and in which Laurie Zoloth, one of the session’s respondents, also took part. A further response was presented by Stanley Hauerwas. The papers by Fodor, Young and myself were all written as a result of intensive text study within the Scriptural Reasoning Theory Group at its meetings in 2004.

Authors of papers for a journal such as this, then, owe more than they can repay; or, perhaps, in the terms discussed in Hardy’s paper, they receive abundant gifts to which the appropriate (the socially responsible) response is some form of acknowledgment and reciprocation; or, perhaps, again, in terms suggested by Gibbs’ paper, they need generous and forgiving loans from others to enable them to maintain the holdings that are loaned to them by God. It is worth remembering that academic institutions and practices are also the loci of complex “economies,” and that one of the ongoing tasks of scriptural reasoning is to reflect on and perhaps to reconfigure those economies.

It should also be noted that the whole of this journal edition invites reflection on the question of “scriptural reasoning in the public square”—on which see Willie Young’s editorial introduction and Randi Rashkover’s article in JSR 5.1 (April 2005). As I write this introduction (in Britain in early July 2005, with the G8 summit beginning at Gleneagles) worldwide debt and poverty are being spoken of, shouted about and sung about in almost every “public square,” even if the particularities of indebtedness and poverty often remain hidden from public view. Scholars in scriptural reasoning are caught between the sense of urgency that the contemporary public square can generate, on the one hand, and their recognition on the other hand that the kinds of deep transformation for which the texts they read appear to call do not necessarily happen instantly or in public. It is interesting here to recall that the papers here speak, inter alia , of the various articulations of time to be found in the scriptural texts they read—the immediacy of the need of the neighbour for whose sake a loan is made (see especially the papers by Gibbs and Zoloth), the temporal patterning of creation and of liturgy (see Zoloth and Fodor), the eschatological orientation of both the texts and their readers (see especially Fodor, Hardy, Muers).