Saturday, March 05, 2016

Christianity and Islam, part IV

Again, I profusely apologize for my failure to do more with my Islam and Christianity series during Lent. I have been bogged down in other things, and this has been put on the back burner. I have a lot of blog entries in my head, but sadly, they continue to stay there.

One of the main points that I wanted to make in this series on a topic that I think Islam gets right and Christianity, at least in the Western modern form, has completely and/or conveniently forgotten is the idea of social justice and usury. In fact, usury in Western society has become so accepted as "business is business" that to look at newer definitions of the term in a secular dictionary, usury is defined as
"the illegal action or practice of lending money at unreasonably high rates of interest (source here)." Notice how the definition is couched in terms of "unreasonably high" interest.

If one goes back a few centuries and looks at definitions of the term before modern finance, one will see the definition and usage of the term is simply the charging of interest (any interest) full stop. The word from from the Latin for "to use." In other words, the using of money to make money in any form. The rate at which the interest is charged, whether high or low, was historically irrelevant.

There is a long tradition in the Old Testament forbidding usury. Psalm 15 speaks of “Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right”. They stand out because they speak truth, stand by their promises and do not take bribes or “lend money at interest.” Ezekiel contains a similar list, speaking of someone who avoids idolatry and adultery, gives food to the hungry and “takes no advance or accrued interest” (Ezekiel 18,14-17). Passages on usury in the Pentateuch (the five Books of Moses, or Torah) are la bit less straightforward. Most condemn lending at interest to “my people” (Exodus 22,25) or “a countryman” (Leviticus 25,35). Deuteronomy makes the point more explicitly: “On loans to a foreigner you may charge interest, but on loans to another Israelite, you may not charge interest” (Deuteronomy 23,20).

When it comes to the New Testament, the situation is a bit more complicated. A key passage is Jesus’ “parable of the talents”, which is recorded in Matthew 25,14-30 and in a slightly different form in Luke 19,11-27. The story describes a rich man who goes on a journey and entrusts his money to his servants. When he returns, he praises the servants who have invested the money at interest but berates the servant who has not done so. However, a number of biblical scholars point out that Jesus is unlikely to have encouraged usury and that the rich man appears to be a tyrant. They suggest that the rich man does not represent God and that the parable is about the injustice of the rich accumulating wealth at the expense of the poor. Under this system, “to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” (Luke 19,26). By this reading, the hero of the story is the servant who avoids usury and who stands up to the rich man, telling him “you are a harsh man; you take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow” (Luke 19,26).

But, Jesus also overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple, likely because they were cheating people by the form of usury, exchanging profane Roman money for clean "Temple" coinage, no doubt at an exchange rate for their trouble. Why else would Jesus have called them a "den of robbers?"

Successive Councils of the Church condemned usury for several centuries, although attitudes became more varied in the Middle Ages. The reasons given for opposing usury have varied over the centuries. An early argument against interest was that lenders were charging for the time that they did not have the money – and time belongs to God alone. The Roman Catholic Church was heavily influenced by the medieval scholar, Saint Thomas Aquinas, who said that usury involves charging for both an item and for the use of the item. In other words, it is like paying for a cake and then being told that you have to pay extra if you want to eat it. Aquinas insisted that money is only a measure of value. To make money out of money is therefore to violate its essence.

Behind all these theoretical arguments is a very human and pastoral concern: usury often involves taking advantage of people in desperate situations who will agree to whatever allows them to survive. The prohibition on usury in Leviticus is in the context of not exploiting people “who fall into difficulty and become dependent on you” (Leviticus 25,35). Aquinas insisted that a fair use of money involves equality of exchange, which is not possible if a transaction gives one person power over another.

Against this, it can be pointed out that nowadays banks generally have more power than savers, even though savers are technically lending their money to the bank. However, the same questions come up on those occasions when banks (and those sleazy payday lenders) charge high rates of interest to people in desperate need of money. Of course, this is even more the case when it comes to high-interest lending companies and loan sharks, and when people don't pay, a thug shows up and kneecaps somebody.

With the burgeoning banking systems of the Renaissance and the introduction of mercantilism leading to Adam Smith's laissez-faire capitalism in the industrial age, it is not surprising that by the time of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, leading church figures such as Martin Luther and John Calvin declared that interest is acceptable as long as it is not excessive. The figure of five percent was usually given. In England, Henry VIII freed up moneylenders to charge higher interest in the paradoxically named Act Against Usury of 1545.

Opposition to usury remained stronger in Roman Catholic circles, and was strengthened by Benedict XIV, who issued an encyclical (a circular letter) in 1745 telling Catholics not to lend money at interest. Amidst legal and economic changes in the early nineteenth century, usury became more socially acceptable and Pope Pius VIII weakened the ban on usury in 1830. From 1917, the Vatican allowed church bodies to make interest-bearing investments. The Catholic Church still forbids usury, meaning extortionate charges, providing penalties in c2354 of the Code of Canon Law, but even The Vatican Bank itself invests in interest-bearing schemes, and requires Church administrators to do likewise. Even the Catholic Church has grown a blind eye to the immorality of usury, as long as it is not "excessive," whatever that means exactly.

Islam, however, is not afraid to stick to banning usury full stop. For instance, the Qu'ran is quite clear in a number of places on the issue on forbidding of any sorts of usury:

"Those who devour usury will not stand except as stands one whom the devil by his touch has driven to madness. That is because they say: Trade is like usury: but Allah has permitted trade and forbidden usury.... Allah will deprive usury of all blessing, but will give increase for deeds of charity, for He loves not any ungrateful sinner.... O you who believe, fear Allah and give up what remains of your demand for usury, if you are indeed believers. If you do it not, take notice of war from Allah and His messenger, but if you repent you shall have your capital sums; deal not unjustly, and you shall not be dealt with unjustly. And if the debtor is in difficulty, grant him time tin it is easy for him to repay. But if you remit it by way of charity, that is best for you if you only knew. [Surah al Baqarah, verse 275-280]."

If you would like to read more on Islamic thinking on usury (and it is robust analysis) from a Muslim perspective, there is a good little article here and here, but basically speaking, Islam is against usury for social justice reasons. Interest hurts the poor largely by concentrating the well in the hands of the few and not the many.

Islamic Banking and Finance is truly fascinating in terms of its ethics and something that I think Christians might well be wise to look to as a model. Islamic investments will not invest in any scheme that charges interest or is involved in selling of things like pornography or alcohol.  And, likewise, is an investment system that does not care if it does not bring in the huge returns of more traditional Western investments where "making as much money as possible by whatever means necessary" is the norm because the making of money is our idol in Western society, a means and an end unto itself.

So, maybe take some time this Lent to think about your financial investments. Do you invest in ethical companies? Do you support legislation to reign in Payday lenders? Do you give loans to friends so you can make money by not earning it? Do you bank at a major bank that offers predatory loans? Do you shop at companies that offer store credit cards that trap people in debt because the usury rate on the card is 25% or more?

We are called to be a good witness for Christ, and would Christ be investing or doing business like this? These are things to think about because Western culture has completely turned a blind eye to it. Jesus’ proclamation in his hometown spoke of jubilee, “the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:19). His sermon spoke of release, and he did not forget the bondage of poverty. Whether Jubilee was ever fully practiced is contested, but the beginning of his ministry signaled that “good news for the poor” was to be a critical part of his work.

If we follow him, it must never be far from ours.

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