Thursday, October 7, 2010

Can a Christian be a banker? Usury your imagination

The gospel of the Lordship of Jesus invites us into a world that we can't even imagine. We are so bound by our conception of 'how things must work' in the broken world around us, that God's kingdom is simply incomprehensible to us. This is why studying history is so worthwhile. At the very least it trains our minds to imagine the world differently.
And as we look back, the evil of past times, that seemed so necessary, so unavoidable, so world dominating, we see as passing, unecessary, and well, evil.
Who could have imagined that the British and American economy would survive without slave labour? or child labour? The notion seemed absurd when christians started questioning slavery. The christians that opposed it were extreme, unreasonable, unrealistic, did not understand the way the world worked, idealistic, unpatriotic and downright dangerous.

There has been a discussion in the Sydney Anglican magazine, Southern Cross, about housing and debt in Sydney. Post GFC, I guess everyone is talking about debt.

Who could have imagined that christians would one day be fine with usury? (usury is lending money for interest. In our system I guess it includes both 'lenders' and 'depositors' who make interest). Or more pointedly, what contemporary christian can actually imagine a world that is not dominated by debt and interest. I certainly can't.
Yet historically, christians have not tolerated it. The Bible is totally against it. In Ezekiel, usury is listed as one of the practices that leads to God's wrath and ultimately to death. It is right up there with eating at idol shrines, raping your neighbours wife, oppressing the poor and needy and robbery. Proverbs describes lending as making someone your slave.

Now, in the article, Andrew Cameron, quite rightly, says that we have to be very careful when trying to apply Old Testament laws to current situations. We are not Israelites, but followers of Jesus Christ.
the difficulty is, Jesus goes even further than the OT when it comes to lending. It is very difficult to charge interest when you expect NO PAYMENT WHATSOEVER!
Yet this is just what Jesus says about lending.
"Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back....and if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, in order to receive back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the most high; for he himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men" Luke 6
For Jesus, the motivation for giving someone money is the future reward from God. the expectation of reward before the resurrection of the righteous nullifies the futurereward. It is the 'bad stewardship' of Luke 16:10. You will either use your money to buy friends for yourself in the kingdom or you wont. Now, I don't think I will be giving a warm welcome to the shareholders of banks in the kingdom. The money they liberally spread around is not gift, but obligation and slavery. The whole system of debt is not about 'gaining friends' but getting their money. (the same is true when I deposit for interest too). We are literally wasting money when we lend it for interest. We are squandering our resurrection reward.

We have a giant edifice of debt which holds up the world as we know it. I can't imagine the world without it. Perhaps this is why we no longer pray 'release us from our debts, as we release those indebted to us'. But that does not mean it is right. Or that christians should oppose every last instance of usury. Or should start practically imagining other ways of living and giving and investing. I'm sure it will cost a great deal. but the reward will be great

21 comments:

Mike said...

"Now, I don't think I will be giving a warm welcome to the shareholders of banks in the kingdom."

I think you need to nuance that sentence a bit...

Mike W said...

sure. i'm not saying that usurers are beyond the grace of God, or that there wont be 'lenders at interest' in the kingdom. Yet Jesus consistently says that the shrewdest thing you can do with your money is give it to the poor, because in doing so you gain eternal friends, who will welcome you into eternal homes. We either believe him on this one or we don't. And practically, I dont. This bugs me. I'd like to, and mentally I think it is right and rational. But when it comes time to say goodbye to the cash, i find it hard to justify. My imagination is captive.
I'm sure there are many lovely christian bank shareholders, or bond holders, or bank depositors, who gain from interest, just trying to get by, and are just super to their family and church. Just as there were many lovely christian slave owners, who gained from the servitude, just trying to get by, who were super to their family and church. I'm sure in both instances many don't see the damage and destruction, and even see some good in these practices. I'm sure getting rid of them is traumatic.
Also gaining money from interest is different to investment in an actual business that does something or that makes something, or that contributes in some way, where there is a genuine risk for both parties, and where the payment corresponded to the success or otherwise of the venture.

Mike W said...

sure. i'm not saying that usurers are beyond the grace of God, or that there wont be 'lenders at interest' in the kingdom. Yet Jesus consistently says that the shrewdest thing you can do with your money is give it to the poor, because in doing so you gain eternal friends, who will welcome you into eternal homes. We either believe him on this one or we don't. And practically, I dont. This bugs me. I'd like to, and mentally I think it is right and rational. But when it comes time to say goodbye to the cash, i find it hard to justify. My imagination is captive.
I'm sure there are many lovely christian bank shareholders, or bond holders, or bank depositors, who gain from interest, just trying to get by, and are just super to their family and church. Just as there were many lovely christian slave owners, who gained from the servitude, just trying to get by, who were super to their family and church. I'm sure in both instances many don't see the damage and destruction, and even see some good in these practices. I'm sure getting rid of them is traumatic.
Also gaining money from interest is different to investment in an actual business that does something or that makes something, or that contributes in some way, where there is a genuine risk for both parties, and where the payment corresponded to the success or otherwise of the venture.

King of the Paupers said...

Thomas 95: Jesus said: If you have money, do not lend it out at interest.
Jct: He didn't say: do not lend it out at high interest. Jesus said: Do not lend it out at interest. So, can a Christian be a usury collector? No.

Matt Bales said...

Mike i agree with your assessment of usury. Generosity and contentment are godly responses to finances.

I'm wondering about how a Christian is to live in but not of the world? Maybe your tension of reading scripture and attempting to lend more money as gift is all we may hope for. Or is there more to say structurally?

Mike Bull said...

Jesus' words must be taken in context, and so must Ezekiel's. After all, the pattern of investment and return, sacrifice and blessing, head and body, runs right through the Bible? God certainly expects interest on what He has given us to manage for Him

byron smith said...

Mike - What has been prompting your thinking on this? I've been a reading a little bit on the side about usury and have been reaching similar conclusions, but haven't yet worked out how to express this. I am struck by Romans 13.8: Owe nothing to anyone, except the debt of love. Yes, this is about not falling behind on taxes (the immediate context), but within a whole scriptural critique of usury it is very confronting.

The shift of the west towards usury as the basis of economic activity took centuries and was not (as is often alleged) an innovation of the reformers. They were all against it, though they did allow "interest" (which is not what we mean by interest, but was more like a library fine - a fixed sum paid by a debtor to a creditor if they could not pay the debt within the time period agreed).

byron smith said...

You might also be interested in this article that I've been planning on blogging about: "Where's your church's money?".

Mike Bull said...

Byron - that link was excellent. Banking IS a moral issue. And so is usury. But as mentioned before, there is a big biblical context.

Jesus -- and Ezekiel -- were speaking to the Covenant people. The context of Jesus' words is *unlawful* usury, ie. collecting usury from BRETHREN. Most verses concerning usury mention brethren.

Deuteronomy 23:20 Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury; but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon usury: that the LORD thy God may bless thee in all that thou settest thine hand to in the land whither thou goest to possess it.

There was a Covenantal reason for the oppression of the Jews by Rome. The Restoration model was that a godly Jew would be the right hand man of a Gentile emperor. But the Jews forgot this and once again demanded a Jewish king before time. They got the Herods, masters of exploitation and compromise, founders of false Covenants.

Covenant blessing for obedience:

Deut 28:12 "The LORD will open to you His good treasure, the heavens, to give the rain to your land in its season, and to bless all the work of your hand. You shall LEND to many nations, but you shall not borrow. 13 "And the LORD will make you the head and not the tail; you shall be above only, and not be beneath, if you heed the commandments of the LORD your God, which I command you today, and are careful to observe [them.]"

Covenant curse for disobedience:

Deut 28:43 "The alien who [is] among you shall rise higher and higher above you, and you shall come down lower and lower. 44 He shall lend to you, but you shall not lend to him; he shall be the head, and you shall be the tail."

Jesus' citation from Isaiah was offensive because it was a call to keep the Jubilee. The Pharisees were enslaving their BRETHREN...

Mike Bull said...

...There is also Covenantal reason for the decline of the West. The Covenant curses apply to the church although more generally. The point is if we are faithful we will not *need* to borrow. The debt of the Christian West is the result of an attempt to manufacture the Covenant blessings we have previously enjoyed but lost through disobedience and unbelief. We are becoming the tail.

There is a place for usury and a place for generosity. Most (if not all) sin is an inappropriate use of God-given things.

Microloans versus welfare is a perfect example. Microloans bring prosperity. It is generosity that creates order BY COVENANT. Easy welfare doesn't bring prosperity. It is robbery disguised as generosity. It destroys.

Company shares are covenantal. The problem with public companies is shareholders who want results *now*.

Instead of having the freedom to make longer term decisions and make greater profits long-term, companies are forced to show profits every quarter. The shares are not the problem. The greed and shortsightedness of the shareholders is. This is a different problem altogether.

God loves economics and the Bible has a lot to say about it. He loves generosity too and the Bible has a lot to say about that. But condemning business for wanting to make a profit is the domain of fools like Obama (who loves to borrow and spends on redundant programs like there's no tomorrow). Sure, we have a BIG problem with greed, but profit is not greed. And we can choose the companies in which we have shares.

Such blanket condemnation makes Christians into gnostics. How many Christian businesspeople feel guilty because they are in business? They feel there is a divide between their faith and the real world when nothing could be further from the truth. Our covenantal relationship with "the Land" is part of our ministry.

So, yes. A Christian can be a banker. More Christians should be bankers. We are to be the head, not the tail. Time to lead, and there are Christians doing this in the business world. They stand out like nothing else. They do crazy things like give huge percentages of their profits to charity and close their fast food chains on Sundays. And God blesses their obedience because they know what their real treasure is -- people. People who need jobs and security. So He makes them the head instead of the tail because they can be trusted with their BRETHREN.

The issue is not usury. It is exploitation, as always.

Mike Bull said...
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Mike Bull said...
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Mike Bull said...

Sorry about the deletions - Blogger was telling me it wasn't posting when it actually was.

Mike W said...

@byron, I think it was you that prompted this thinking! It seems to be the pointy end of an economy that always requires growth. And the southern cross article. I'll look at that article of yours soon.

@mike. I'm not against investment or business. Nor do I feel the need to make a blanket condemnation of bankers. I hoped the post made clear my own complicity, both in my imagination, and in my desire to get interest on my savings. I guess I'm less interested in individual guilt than in the shape our lives take. The current economic system says that this is the only way it can be, and I think as christians we cant accept that.
Again, I'm all for making jobs, security etc, but jesus is quite clear about giving to the poor, at least in luke.
Given that we are not national israel (even as the so called christian west), but a united body of jew and gentile, that confesses that Jesus is head over us all, and will be head of everything in the universe, the 'outsider' clause becomes pretty meaningless.

Mike Bull said...

Cool - just wish there were more OT exposition on issues like this. The Law is extremely relevant. God puts us in new situations -- as He did with Israel -- where we have to think hard to apply the Law. He keeps throwing curve balls -- like any good dad.

Re the last point. There are no Jews any more, and the united body is the church, not the world. The nations bring their glory into the church, which includes money, culture (art and music) and all the other talents God has given to the world. There are most certainly still outsiders. When the saints are a faithful sacrificial priesthood, God brings material prosperity. Culture thrives. When they are not, He humbles them!

I agree that the economic system needs changing, and it will change. At least we've by and large moved from seizing things by violence to buying our enemies' real estate by stealth. I think that's a step forward! God used Rome to spread the gospel, and He can use a global economy as well.

We'll get there. Onward and upward - on earth.

Mike W said...

my underlying thinking is
''If someone needs something, and you are able to give it to them, just give it to them'
That seems to be what Jesus is saying.
My problem with our system is twofold, we make genuinely poor people slaves (globally), instead of graciously giving.
And
we fund a completely unsustainable lifestyle that we cant afford (globally) for others.

Mike Bull said...

Yep - I'd agree with that of course. But I do think that any scarcity under the "global economy" of the New Covenant is a spiritual problem. Prosperity is to come from God but we insist on manufacturing it. That's the heart of unlawful usury. All it can create is a bubble bought with innocent blood.

byron smith said...

Calvin on usury.

We're selling our flat and ending our mortgage, by the way, which isn't unconnected to various thoughts on debt (both generally and at this point in history).

Mike W said...

oh, cool. Dont forget all the stuff you stored! Thinking through the same.

byron smith said...

I haven't forgotten it. Currently trying to work out how to get it all out again (it was a lot of work getting it in!) from the other side of the world.