You know what it’s like – sometimes you are in a conversation with someone and suddenly their response seems out of all proportion to what you thought you just said. Or the conversation takes a weirdly unexpected turn and you wonder, “Where did THAT come from?” The answer of course is that we never know exactly what is going on inside someone else’s head, what connections our words make, or what buttons are there just waiting to be pushed. Sometimes it can feel as though Jason Bourne (eponymous hero of Robert Ludlum’s trilogy) had been triggered to action by hearing a particular word spoken.
I hope Revd Lesley will forgive me if that happened to her in an exchange we had yesterday when the subjects of usury and homosexuality came up. What probably seemed to her a relatively uncontroversial analogy in a genuine, though hypothetical, question about homosexuality led to some thoughts I’ve been having about our relationship with our banking and financial systems.
The issue of usury turns out to be an interesting one in relation to the sexuality issue that threatens to divide the Anglican Communion today. The Hebrew Bible gives a clear prohibition to the Israelites against lending “at usury” to their “brothers” – taken to mean any other Israelite. The Hebrew word used indicates any form of interest (as does the Arabic word used for a similar prohibition in the Qur’an). It suggests that charging interest was considered to be a form of exploitation which was not conducive to good social relationships in Israelite society.
During the medieval period, the Western Christian Church maintained a prohibition (based on a reading of the Hebrew scriptures which replaced Israel with the Christian Church) on Christians charging other Christians interest on loans. During the twelfth century this was enshrined in English law. Of course this made things rather difficult for kings and rulers who wished to wage war but didn’t always have the required cash at hand to pay the troops. No pay, and they began to drift back to their own lands to carry on feeding themselves. Solution? Borrow from the Jews, who could charge interest to Christians. No ecclesiastical or civil laws broken, people able and persuadeable (if not always entirely willing). Job done. No sins committed on either side.
Except, of course, that this charging of interest fuelled a certain amount of resentment against a people who were already branded as “Christ-killers” by then-current Church teaching. Financial and economic resentment was stirred into the theological antisemitism that has remained a toxic mix over many centuries.
Skip forward a few centuries, and interest is everywhere in the financial landscape and no respecter of religious or ethnic groups (with the exception of Muslims, which I will come to in a later post). What has happened? No, seriously, because I’d like to know more.
First, we find that during this period theologians (no less) have identified a number of situations where it is (apparently) OK to lend and borrow at interest. So people start doing it. By the mid sixteenth century laws are passed in England restricting the amount of interest that may be charged. This is not to say that it is immediately accepted as a Good Thing. The Merchant of Venice shows that in Elizabethan England, most people still regard interest as a Bad Thing. But the stage has been set.
Secondly, we find that terminology has changed, in the English language at least. That good old word “usury” has now come to mean not simply (any) charging of interest but the charging of “excessive” interest. So when people hear or read the Bible (Authorised/King James Version at any rate), they may hear or read the same physical word, but what they now understand by it is different. One might say that sin has been redefined. What was once considered unacceptable – an affront to Christian society and to God – has now become acceptable.
So where are all the sermons and articles railing against Christians who take and pay interest on their savings and loans? Where are the placards and picket lines outside General Synod protesting at the way the Church Commissioners do their business? Why aren’t we bothered any more?