Useful Usury

Ancient Testimony ~ Luke 19:12-27

February 15, 2009

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

If you think that the best thing that could happen to you is that you could become rich, perhaps win the lottery, then these are good days for you. If you think that the best baseball game is one with lots of home runs in it, then steroids are for you. If you think that the world is pyramid-shaped, with a few on the top and a lot on the bottom, then these are also good days for you. Quite a few billion dollars—of your money—are about to be spent on keeping that pyramid in shape. You are also a fan of the parable of the talents, and your best hope is that you are better than the schmuck who didn’t know what to do with his money or how to obtain fame. No, the talents text is not my favorite text and I am going to preach against it, in the name of Jesus.

If, on the other hand, you think that the best thing that could happen to you is that the pyramid would invert and that its bottom would become its top, that many people would be secure and employed and able to eat decently, then these are going to be interesting times for you. If you are one of those people who think that two singles and a double make a good incremental run in a baseball game, if you are one of those people who like to watch a team play, you don’t need steroids. You are going to love the Schmitta economy, which is self-renewing, self-restoring, and pleases more than a very few as it works. You will like one text today but not the other.

The stimulus bill pleases both of our religious texts, demonstrating quite perfectly the split in the American consciousness about money and how to use it. The bill finally remembered to give some money to bail out people with mortgages they couldn’t pay. It also bolsters state budgets. That its key focus remains on the banks is good news for the existing pyramid and bad news for an alternative. The intent of the bill is to keep the old pyramid, which has already failed, from failing some more. I don’t know about you, but I find that depressing, as in the great depressing, which to me is even worse than the great depression. I’m an inch more interested in the spiritual than I am in the material.

These texts help us take a theological look at banks. Banks live on interest, which is money gained on money. Until around 1300 most Christians thought usury was a sin. By usury they meant any interest. Today, usury is different from interest. The fact that your credit card can now charge 21% on your unpaid balance may be theologically usurious but not illegally so. Laws allow poor people to be bilked at check cashing stations, the Western Union, and on the street or by their landlords. Excessive amounts of interest and fees are legal in many parts of our current economy. And, as we have just learned to our serious national dismay, loans without collateral under them are also quite normal, if not legal. It appears that the people on the top of the pyramid weren’t looking as they made these loans, often to each other, and walked away with the cream, leaving the skim milk in the nation’s hand.

Usury has a long and distinguished history. Until the Protestant Reformation, most Christians considered any kind of interest on a loan to be sinful. With industrialization and its voracious need for capital, that changed. But the history is important to review. The Magna Carta actually had a clause that stated that if anyone had borrowed money from the Jews—for real—they could give it back upon death and their heirs were redeemed. It is just amazing how the laws are written for the people on top of the pyramid without regard for the people on the bottom. Jews in this time were not permitted to own property. It was against the law. So the fact that they learned how to secure their families and heirs by loaning money becomes illegal. The same thing happens at checking stations in the Bronx: 14% interest keeps your electricity from going off, until the bill comes due and you can’t pay the loan shark. Note the word shark. The loan shark is in the Hamptons drinking a Mai Tai while you are on the street borrowing another 80 bucks from Loan Shark Number Two to pay off Loan Shark Number One so that your electricity will stay on for another month or so. In the Islamic religion (always in a kind of fight with Judaism), one never earns money on a loan. The loan either works and you share the profits of the business or the loan doesn’t work and you lose money on the business. Christianity never had such certainty about usury and even today has compassion but neither laws nor culture to protect the poor from usury.

Dante’s Divine Comedy had usurers in the 7th level of hell, along with blasphemers and sodomites. This group was above suicides. Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice has to become an anti-usurious Christian before he can be redeemed. Even in the 20th century, Ezra Pound was anti-usury, seeing in it the root cause of the decline in artistic funding: when usury was illegal, excessive money had to go somewhere else and art was a good place for it.

No less a sage than Walter Rauschenbusch, famous for his Social Gospel, argued in 1907 that usury was at the root of capitalism and that capitalism was at the root of the problem of the Christianity that Jesus taught. I have been warned by many over the years not to use the word capitalism. Instead, I am advised to substitute the more spiritual word greed. I must admit I am extraordinarily torn by this word business. Sometimes I think capitalism is so well insulated that its soldiers don’t even let you say the word. Which of course makes me want to scream it from the rooftops. Other times I think using the word capitalism dumps you into its contrast, socialism, and then we go from anger to depression. While one is mean, the other is a failure. So let me just tell you what Raushenbusch said about capitalism and see if it disturbs or enlightens you: “Capitalism is essentially corruptive and saps its own foundations by ignoring the very cultural capital in which it is based . . . it is an unleashed promissory note. And liberalism will always be too weak to control capitalism and its competitive aspect….” Of this book (Christianity and the Social Crisis), Gary Dorrien at Union Seminary said that Rauschenbusch wrote seven good books and one dangerous one. What is dangerous about these ideas? They invert the pyramid in the name of Christianity. They invert the pyramid in the name of Jesus. They align Jesus’ message with an anti-greed, anti-usurious, anti-capitalist (so sorry, just had to say it out loud) message. Raushenbusch also said we must, in the name of Jesus, put a systematic break on the selfishness of capitalism. He also argued that to make these arguments in the name of socialism was stupid. He advocated strongly that we make these arguments in the name of Jesus as exemplar, because anything else is vague and powerless. He also argued that the predatory logic of capitalism is inimical to the message of Jesus. Without the religious criticism and the religious base for the criticism, Rauschenbusch thinks that even democratic control of markets is too trusting. He doesn’t trust liberalism to truly question the economic system.

By the way, Raushenbusch is not the kind of guy you want to take all the way to the bank. He did not live in our kind of global era, where the precepts of other kinds of religions might usefully be enlisted to the cause of countering greed and systemic selfishness. He surely did not understand women and actually was afraid of what would happen “if girls did not know housework.” He also said that “capitalism would be found empty if girls did not know housework.” I personally think it was empty when girls knew only housework and empty after they stopped knowing housework because they were enlisted in wage work, so they could pay high insurance rates and growing real estate demands. I think capitalism is culturally empty.

If you don’t think capitalism has a tendency to destroy the cultural capital on which it is built, just consider the upcoming anniversary of Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire (March 25, 1911) for a couple of minutes. Maybe you’ll have some other explanation for that tragedy. Girls working without adequate exits; a fire breaks out; they must jump, bodies flaming, from windows, right down the street from here. You think that is extreme. I don’t. I worked in a factory four hours a day all through high school. It was so boring, so rote, so stupid, so undignified, so controlled and controlling that I often wished the plant would burn down. Greed can set you on fire fast and then you’re done, or it can bore you to death, scare you to death, shut your mouth, tell you can’t say the word capitalism. Greed has enormous power, especially when we let it.

What if you were to buy my framework? That God’s pyramid has a lot of people on the top and a few on the bottom; that an economy can be built on something other than the trickled-down-upon theory? What if you think Jesus as exemplar—not tyrant or Lord, but exemplar—would be a good way to rebuild an economy? What kind of questions would you have to face?

Let me tell you some of the really great things that would happen. The lame, the blind, the old, the people with the torn meniscus would not be in constant danger. They would be able to eat, even if they couldn’t work. There would be social security for capable people and incapable people. Old people would not eat cat food. The mentally ill could get prescription drugs and not have to rely on “generics.” Such an interesting word. Generics. As if there was a generic person alive. Cranes would have very frequent inspections. Fire fighters could rely on their equipment. Policemen and women would not be in so much danger during domestic disputes because there would be fewer domestic disputes. Isn’t it interesting that most family fights are about money and how we take the anger about not being able to get a hold of money into the bedroom instead of the boardroom?

China could continue to grow at its enormous rate—its economy is 16 times bigger than it was 30 years ago—without polluting it and us in the process. People would not only own the banks but we would know we owned the banks—and the government would back us up in that. I heard a great Chinese proverb this week: If you owe the bank one dollar, the bank owns you; but if you owe the bank a thousand dollars, you own the bank. The point of this proverb was to assure Americans that we own China as much as it owns us. Now, when banks get in trouble, the government helps banks! That is so strange. In a Jesus economy, the government would help people who could then help banks.

Also in a Jesus economy, we would have leaders who understood the relationship between catastrophe and transformation, that Good Friday/Easter Sunday mix. This is what ordinary people say to each other when terrible things happen: God never closes a door without opening another one. Isn’t it great news that the old economy is dead? It was mean when it wasn’t unfair. It was a giant Ponzi scheme. It benefited the few and ignored the many, especially in global terms, which are the terms any economy must consider today. Right now our leaders are missing a great opportunity to take the cynicism out of the electorate. Tell us it is good news that the old system is dead. Tell us we are building a new system. I don’t need politicians to use the word Jesus when they say that. Just call it fair. Call it less mean. Call it a chance for the ordinary guy and gal, both in Michigan and in Mexico. Call it respect for the interest earned from labor and not just the interest earned off money.

A good leader right now would articulate hope. Forget about the material stuff, forget our rail system that shames Bulgaria, our highway system and automotive industry that destroy the air our grandchildren might have breathed. Forget about the shovel-ready infrastructure projects, leaders, and talk to us about our souls. They have been trickled down on for too long. Stimulate them and you will be amazed at the growth that results.

Yes, there will be ethical and material difficulties along the way to this near-catastrophe-becoming-near-transformation. We’ll have to learn a new kind of baseball, where home runs aren’t everything. We’ll also have to learn what to do if A-Rod is giving money to a university: should the university accept that money? What are the ethics of our endowment portfolio, our pensions, our current involvement with the current system—and those sneaky little hopes that we all have that we will be lucky enough to get rich, too? How long will it take to build a new infrastructure, culturally, spiritually, and economically, for a new system? What will we do in the meantime? Who will suffer and how do we minimize that suffering?

Recently, one of you said something very important to me, about what you said to your recent college graduate. You said, “It’s the kind of time that none of us is prepared for, it is totally different, none of us knows what to do. You and I have to think new thoughts about your future. It is different than what we thought it would be.” I honor that step. During this transition from near catastrophe to near transformation, we are all going to have to take the step of thinking and speaking differently than we usually do. I love what the governor is doing to consider raising taxes on the rich. The last time I suggested a raise in taxes as a Christ-like social solution to devilish social problems, I was nearly run out of town in Miami. “She shouldn’t say things like that from the pulpit.” It is long past time to think the unthinkable and to say the unthinkable and to touch the unpopularity of certain ideas. It is long past time to say things about the systems that are pretty obvious. One measure of the right thing to say right now is how previously unthinkable or unspeakable it was. It’s not that we don’t know the truth about things. It is more frequently that we are scared to say or think it. Most people I know are shovel-ready and have been shovel-ready for a long time.

Want to avoid a depression? Work on the depression that already exists. Want to avoid a depression, social chaos, the rich hiring police to protect them? Change the whole system, in the name of Jesus and everything else that is good and Holy. Unlike both capitalism and socialism, Jesus systems won’t hoard the power, but instead will spread it around. A new pyramid would result and that is what we need. Everybody’s talents would be used and invested. A useful usury could still exist and an excessive one be placed back in the trash bin of history where it belongs. Instead of living in one of the rings of hell, we could live in one of the rings of heaven. Amen.


Modern Testimony ~ some words about Schmitta

Schmitta is a Jewish practice that saves economies from themselves.

Schmitta is the seventh year of the seven-year agricultural cycle mandated by the Torah for the Land of Israel, and still observed in contemporary Judaism, during which the land lies fallow and all agricultural activity is forbidden. You can't trade on food grown in the Shmitta year; you can eat it, give it away or leave it for the poor, but you may not turn it into a commodity. In the Shmitta year, food is not an object for financial speculation or personal enrichment; it returns to being a gift of God and of the earth.

In the Shmitta year we return to a relationship with food that is seasonal. If you gather and store fruit from the Shmitta year in your house, once that fruit has disappeared from the fields and trees, you can no longer eat your stores—they are out of season. The Shmitta year returns us to the agricultural rhythms of nature. In spite of what human ingenuity can accomplish by way of distancing us from these rhythms (whether laying up dates in your barn or flying in asparagus from Chile), in the Shmitta we re-embed ourselves in those natural cycles. We return to a relationship with food that is local. The seasonal requirement is based on regional divisions of the Land of Israel: if the pomegranate season is over in your area, then you can't eat them, even if they are still growing somewhere else in the country. These laws are all about bringing us back to an immediate relationship with the food we eat, as food connected to a particular time and place. Food is the most basic economic index. The Shmitta is about ceasing to distort, quantify, or objectify our connection to the source of sustenance.

And finally, at the end of the Schmitta year, all debts are forgiven, and the economy starts over again.

How do we use this value of returning to an immediate connection with economic fundamentals as a corrective to boom-bust economics? Can we translate these teachings into a post-industrial context in which fewer than 2% of us work on the land?

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