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Debt Slavery Continues Cycle of Poverty

Modern circumstances of poverty emulate debt slavery structures from Biblical times, Dr. Mark McEntire told students during a Monday morning convocation using the Old Testament to examine the University’s 2011-2012 theme of Wealth and Poverty.

“Although many of you do community service, that (work) deals with the pain and poverty caused by this system (of debt slavery),” said McEntire, who teaches Old Testament and Hebrew in Belmont’s School of Religion. Instead, students should go beyond volunteerism and find solutions to eliminate the cycle of debt and poverty.

His lecture began with an examination of Hammurabi’s Law Code, which is one of the oldest legal texts and the first text to regulate poverty more than 3,800 years ago. Law No. 117 defines debt slavery as a means for the poor to work to pay back what they owe.

Written 1,000 years later, the Covenant Code laid the regulations of debt slavery in Exodus 21:2-6. A man serves for six years and becomes free on the seventh year, similar to the principles of Sabbath. Written two hundred years later, the Deuteronomic Code includes women in debt slavery regulations in Deuteronomy 15:12-18. Later in the Holiness Code in Leviticus 25:39-44, the poor working off their debts go free and are returned to the land of their ancestors in the Year of Jubilee.

“In the Bible, we have a description of a culture where there have always been slaves, and slavery will always exist. There are only simple improvements,” McEntire said. “Here, slavery and economic hardship are connected together exclusively with explicit regulations. These texts may have the power to help us focus our questions and reveal answers that we otherwise might not see.”

Although cattle slavery, or involuntary servitude, is illegal or hidden in most parts of the world, debt slavery is built into modern laws, similar to Biblical texts. McEntire drew comparisons between Biblical debt slavery and modern bankruptcy laws.

“We should ask, ‘who is our system for?’ and ‘what is it designed to do for people?’” he challenged students to consider.

This academic year, many academic lectures and programs explore the origins and effects of wealth and poverty as well as the social and ethical implications of each. The EthixRox convocation series will continue Oct. 31 with a Wealth, Poverty and New Testament convo and in November with a Hunger Breakfast.