Bankruptcy, Debt Forgiveness, and Loan Modification
The created foundations of finance include our creation as social beings who take risk and do not know what the future holds. Inevitably, this will lead to cases where the loans cannot be repaid. Thus, a loan which cannot be repaid is not necessarily a sin. Of course, a loan default may very well result from imprudent borrowing, incompetent management of affairs, hiding, or shielding income from the lender, misrepresentations to the lender when the loan was made, misrepresentations to the borrower when the loan was made, or the loan conditions that are not designed to help the borrower flourish. But in other cases, unexpected circumstances may cause a well-made loan to fail. The borrower may lose a job, incur unexpected medical bills, or suffer loss in a natural disaster, for example.
In situations like these, lenders do have an obligation to forgive the debt or modify repayment of the loan. In the Bible this takes the form of letting the borrower keep his or her collateral if it is necessary for well-being or the ability to earn a living.
If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? (Exodus 22:26–27)
No one shall take a mill or an upper millstone in pledge, for that would be taking a life in pledge. (Deuteronomy 24:6)
When you make your neighbor a loan of any kind, you shall not go into the house to take the pledge. You shall wait outside, while the person to whom you are making the loan brings the pledge out to you. (Deuteronomy 24:10–13)
A neighbor’s cloak taken in collateral must be returned before sundown because the neighbor needs it to keep warm overnight. A millstone cannot be repossessed because that would deprive the miller of the ability to earn a living. Even valid collateral cannot be repossessed by force, e.g. entering the borrower’s house. All of these protect distressed borrowers from further calamity, even though they deprive lenders not only of the expected profit from the loan, but actually impose the loss of capital. The borrower’s circumstances are shared by the lender. This is the nature of the time-based relationship inherent in finance.
In modern economies, these protections are embodied in bankruptcy laws, which may also be known as insolvency, examination, receivership, administration, or sequestration. Generally, such laws prevent lenders from taking the necessities of life and work as payment from borrowers who default. Modern laws also prevent lenders from entering borrowers’ homes to repossess items, although they may allow officers of the law to do so. Laws also prevent borrowers from being thrown in prison for defaulting, a counter-productive and inhumane practice that was common for centuries prior to the modern age. Perhaps the development of modern bankruptcy laws represents a long-delayed fulfillment of principles embodied in the Bible in this regard.
Nonetheless borrowers should do whatever they can to repay their debts. Chewning argues, based on God’s immutability and Proverbs 6:1-5, that if we cannot pay our debts we should humble ourselves and plead with our lenders for mercy, rather than seek bankruptcy court protection from our lender. Perhaps, this goes too far, given that the passages above protect distressed borrowers by God’s law, not lender’s mercy. But Chewning is surely right that the first step is for the borrower to seek the lender’s aid and counsel. As we have seen, lending is meant to create a long-term relationship between borrower and lender. Filing for bankruptcy without first attempting to work out a mutually agreeable plan with the lender is hardly the way to respect a relationship. Tiemstra urges us to treat risk as a serious matter and that borrowing is not “an easy way to make money instead of working: it is a serious expression of our responsibility before God.” Finance is about serious justice and love, and when events unfold different from what a prudent lender and borrower expected, the justice and love should not cease, but indeed should be increased on both sides.
Richard Chewning, “Hermeneutics and Biblical Ethics: An Illustration – God’s Immutability and Human Integrity”, The Journal of Biblical Integration in Business (Fall 2000) 49-68.
Tiemstra, “Financial Crisis and the Culture of Risk”.