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Usury

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : November 24, 2004

Thank to emergent like slime for pointing out this article from the UTNE Reader on usury. It is short, so check it out.  Here’s a sample:

By far the greatest moral
evil of our time is what the Bible calls the sin of usury. It is the
very basis of the capitalist system. It has made debt slaves of not
only the entire Third World, but also most of the First World, where
consumers eagerly seek to encumber themselves with debt through credit
cards and mortgages. At one time the church called usury "the queen of
sins" and refused the sacrament to its practitioners. Though it has
never officially abandoned this moral position, very few Christians
outside of the Catholic Worker movement have any idea that such a
teaching even exists.

What is usury?  Usury is lending someone money and charging them interest.  Throughout much of church history, usury was considered sinful.  IT seems that protestants in general have failed to treat usury with much seriousness, leaving it to catholics and neo-catholics like C.S. Lewis to address the matter. 

Here’s some biblical references to usury (this is just a quick cross-section):

Exodus 22:25 If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a moneylender; charge him no interest.

Leviticus 25:36-37
Do not take interest of any kind from him, but fear your God, so that your countryman may continue to live among you. You must not lend him money at interest or sell him food at a profit.

Deuteronomy 23:19-20 Do not charge your brother interest, whether on money or food or anything else that may earn interest. You may charge a foreigner interest, but not a brother Israelite, so that the LORD your God may bless you in everything you put your hand to in the land you are entering to possess.

Nehemiah 5:6-11 When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials. I told them, "You are exacting usury from your own countrymen!" So I called together a large meeting to deal with them and said: "As far as possible, we have bought back our Jewish brothers who were sold to the Gentiles. Now you are selling your brothers, only for them to be sold back to us!" They kept quiet, because they could find nothing to say.
So I continued, "What you are doing is not right. Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies? I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain. But let the exacting of usury stop! Give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses, and also the usury you are charging them-the hundredth part of the money, grain, new wine and oil."

Psalm 15

LORD , who may dwell in your sanctuary?
Who may live on your holy hill?

He whose walk is blameless
and who does what is righteous,
who speaks the truth from his heart
  and has no slander on his tongue,
who does his neighbor no wrong
and casts no slur on his fellowman,
  who despises a vile man
but honors those who fear the LORD ,
who keeps his oath
even when it hurts,
  who lends his money without usury
and does not accept a bribe against the innocent.

He who does these things
will never be shaken.

Ezekiel 16:5-8

"Suppose there is a righteous man
who does what is just and right.
He does not eat at the mountain shrines
or look to the idols of the house of Israel.
He does not defile his neighbor’s wife
or lie with a woman during her period.
He does not oppress anyone,
but returns what he took in pledge for a loan.
He does not commit robbery
but gives his food to the hungry
and provides clothing for the naked.
He does not lend at usury
or take excessive interest.
He withholds his hand from doing wrong
and judges fairly between man and man.

Can anyone tell me a good reason why Christians practice usury?  It seems that most people assume that capitalism is a good, and since it depends upon things like usury, we shouldn’t be critical of usury.  Though the passages above are dealing with Israel, it seems, at the very least, Christians shouldn’t charge interest to one another.  I would also argue that we shouldn’t charge interest for others.  It is an oppressive system that the church should alleviate.  Some churches that have started credit unions.  Some churches help people buy homes or pay for college with no interest loans.  But the Church should no longer blindly accept a practice that is clearly non-Christian.

for further reading . . .

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Comments

4 Responses to “Usury”

  1. Chris B. on November 24th, 2004 3:19 pm

    “It seems that most people assume that capitalism is a good, and since it depends upon things like usury, we shouldn’t be critical of usury.”

    In my experience, few people consider capitalism “good.” Even the most stalwart champions of capitalism within the church admit that it is an imperfect system; usually it is framed more in terms of a “necessary evil” or as “the least evil system.” Christians practice usury because they practice capitalism and, though they see the flaws in that system, they see very little alternative. Charging interest on a debt is not nearly as serioius a problem, in my opinion, as the amount of personal debt American Christians are willing to take on to obtain what they want.

  2. andy gr on November 24th, 2004 4:33 pm

    Well said, Van. It’s ironic that Moslems have demanded ethical, usury-free banking in the UK - and got it because they act in sufficient numbers - whereas christians have not even attempted to challenge the usury culture and tend to assume it cannot be changed.

  3. blorge on November 26th, 2004 8:38 am

    Andy Gr-
    I haven’t heard about Moslems in the UK doing this, but it sounds interesting. I’ve noted in the Twin Cities here a small but vocal number of socialists. I wonder if socialism will rise in the US like it did in Canada, the UK, and continental Europe. It would make sense given that this seems to be the trajectory of much of Europe (especially the scandanavian countries) and Canada as well.

    I’m not particularally fond of socialism, but it might be a little more humane than some of the horrifying things that laissez-faire capitalism has done (especially in the “guilded era” of the industrial revolution).

  4. andy gr on November 26th, 2004 8:49 am

    I think there’s less socialism around than there used to be, even in Europe. So there’s a gap in the market for a new alternative to capitalism; there are (a few) stories of people embracing Islam for precisely this reason. Could this be part of a new christian paradigm?

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