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?

The fast that I choose?

Along with quite a few others I am using Maggi Dawn’s book “Giving it up” as the basis for my Lent reading and reflection this year.  Two days in and already I am feeling rather challenged – in a good way.  Maggi points out that our fasting needs to be more than a display of personal discipline.  It needs to lead to changes in our own attitudes and behaviour which can then make a real difference in the world out there.

Yesterday I noticed that a friend had joined a facebook group in support of a “Robin Hood Tax“.  Nothing wrong with that.  It is an initiative to persuade the UK government (and others) to levy a tiny amount of tax on bankers’ transactions on products like hedge funds.  the percentage proposed is very small – 0.05% in fact – but the estimated revenue would be hundreds of billions of pounds which could then be put to use to address issues of poverty in the developing world.  Support for this is growing, though many of the comments left on the group page suggested that even this tiny amount would drive financial services companies away from the UK unless all governments did the same.

My thoughts on this led in two directions: firstly, that we can wait for ever if we wait for others to make the first move.  If it is right to do something which will improve life for the world’s poorest now, is it right to wait?

My second thought was that it is too easy to support something that seems to cost us nothing, especially when done with just a click of a mouse button.  The tax is presented as applying only to bankers – the “rich”. Yet those of us who have bank accounts and other financial products all participate in the same system. The Christian season of Lent challenges us to put our own money and efforts where our mouths are and make changes to ourselves (with God’s help) to make a change for others.