A little more on usury and the sexuality debate

I’ve just been trying to find out a little more about how it was that the Christian view on charging interest came to change so radically between the medieval period and the Enlightenment. Things are a little murky, but several online articles, including this one, seem to lay the blame at Calvin’s door. The main plank of his argument appears to have been the difference in conditions between the times and culture of ancient Israel and that of sixteenth century Europe.

Well, knock me down with a feather! I need to check this out, because if this is true then it sheds quite a different light on the current sexuality debates that are rocking the Anglican Communion. It rather begs the question as to what makes the difference between financial sins, in which social differences make definition changes OK, and sexual ones, which many seem to want to see as set in stone? Hmmm.

Can anyone point me in the direction of any recent work on this?

Christians against usury?

One of Tree’s saplings is involved in creating media for a number of charities and voluntary agencies in the land of the maple-leaf. One of his early contracts was to produce a film showing how one of these agencies was helping to meet the UN Millenium Development Goals in Rwanda. Interesting stuff, and I wish that the awareness of these goals was more widespread in our own country and especially in our churches. We in the global North are way short of delivering on our promises made to the poorest and most vulnerable people on this planet we share.

I posted earlier about how we Christians of all shapes and traditions seem to have become comfortable with the charging of interest which is the basis of much of the global economy. One of the biggest problems in the developing world is the sheer levels of debt that have accumulated over decades of aid and supposed investment in their economies and infrastructure by the developed economies. In many cases countries cannot even pay the accumulating interest on their loans, let alone begin to pay back the capital. Attempts have been made alleviate the effects of this through debt reduction and cancellation. Christian-based organisations, such as the Jubilee 2000 Campaign, together with coalitions like Make Poverty History (2006), have led the way in putting pressure on the governments of richer nations to make a new start and wipe the slate clean for the poorest nations.

While these campaigns have met with some success, there has been considerable resistance to these ideas. And no one as far as I can see (prove me wrong, someone!) has really questioned the whole basis of these problems in what, a few centuries ago, was called usury.

At the same time, personal debt in the developed world has reached record levels. David Keen tweeted this morning:

“…total UK personal debt is £1428bn, higher than annual GDP. Our consumption is a whole year ahead of our means to pay.”

Our grandparents had a great fear of personal debt. “If you can’t pay for it, don’t buy it,” used to be a common approach. To ask for credit was a sign of desperation, a last resort bearing something of a social stigma. Again, many churches and individual Christians do some brilliant work providing debt counselling services and helping those in greatest need. But is this simply applying first aid to a deeper malaise? What do we, as Christians, have to say about this? What theological resources do we bring to bear? What can we contribute to the debate that is distinctively Christian?

Within my own benefice lies one of the major Islamic educational institutions in Europe. They run diploma and degree courses in Islamic jurisprudence and finance, including Islamic banking. This is perhaps the one area of international finance that is NOT run on an interest-charging basis. Rather, as in medieval Europe, the basis of trade and finance lies in the principle of shared risk. I invest in a project or commercial venture, and share in the profits if it comes to a successful outcome. This puts the monetary element into something that adds value – manufacturing, bringing goods to market or achieving a specific goal – rather than in the often tail-chasing merry-go-round that happens in the Western banking system. Does the Islamic approach have anything to teach or challenge the churches and our society on this issue?

I am no economist (as some of you are no doubt thinking as you read). Maybe I am hopelessly naive. Maybe my grasp of the issues in not as it should be. I would like to know more. But I think there is a useful conversation to be had about the basis of our economy and whether there are other models which would more in line with Christian values and principles. Certainly that economy has been showing signs of strain of late, but I believe there is a (perhaps small) window of opportunity here for those who have the knowledge and (interdisciplinary) skills to re-imagine our systems.

What do you think?

Interest in question

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?