The “Business” of Being Christian: The Ethics of Usury

By Kate Daley-Bailey

“Marley was dead: to be begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.” (Dickens 45)

Thus begins perhaps one of Charles Dickens’ most popular works. One need not be an avid reader of Victorian literature or an English major to be struck by this short story (total, its length is less than 100 pages). Even if you never sat down and read A Christmas Carol, if you live in the U.S. or Britain, you probably know the major components of the story: an elderly miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, undergoes visitation from a series of ghosts, each attempting to woo or terrify Ebenezer to reform. Who could forget Scrooge’s kind hearted clerk Bob Crachit, or his crippled and beloved son, Tiny Tim, who, despite his hardship, proclaims “God bless us, everyone!”? Among the plethora of versions of the Carol are Disney’s latest version starring Jim Carey, a modern remake starring Bill Murray called Scrooged, and, one of my personal favorites, A Muppets’ Christmas Carol. This is not even to mention the numerous black and white versions gracing TV screens every December. Upon my reading of the classic this Christmas, I was intrigued by something I had never noticed on previous readings: a woodcut image gracing the pages across from the description of Marley’s ghost. The title of the woodcut, done by John Leech, is Ghosts of DepartedUsurers. This image title haunted me because, despite the popularity of the term during Dickens’ time, one hardly ever hears the term “usurer” today. Albeit the infrequency of the use of the term today, the concepts behind “usury” are at the heart of what plagues our modern economies and religious lives. Here is the description which provided the inspiration for the woodcut mentioned above:

 

“The air filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free.” (65)

 

The description of Marley’s Ghost is even more harrowing:

 

“The chain he drew was clasped about his middle. It was long, and wound about him like a tail; and it was made (for Scrooge observed it closely) of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel.” (57)

 

The spiritual burdens these spirits are bound by are symbols of their greed… and they appear to represent a particular type of sin greatly condemned throughout Christian history (that is until today), usury.

As mentioned earlier, “usury” as a term, is hardly a household name anymore and yet postmodern culture is greatly plagued by its effects. The term itself has developed a long history, especially among the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). Interestingly, Islam still vehemently opposes “usury” and has developed special banking principals to guide devout Muslims. Like other ancient concepts, the word “usury” has been defined differently by various scholars and theologians. Usury, in its most common use today stands for “interest.” Could it truly be the case that earning interest could make someone culpable of a grievous sin in the eyes of the Christian Church? Yes and no.

For thousands of years, the Christian Church has identified “usury” as a sin… however various theologians and scholars living within these thousands of years disagreed over exactly what “usury” was and was not. A brief exploration of the term “usury” (and its multiple manifestations) may lead us to a better understanding of what was actually being prohibited by various religious communities, especially Christian ones.

In his book, Usury, Interest, and The Reformation, Eric Kerridge, gives us some insight into the intricate and sometime tedious art of trying to pin down a definition of “usury”:

“Usury or fenory is the taking of payment over and above the amount lent merely and solely in return for a secured loan.”(5)

 

Kerridge presents the definition explicated by the famed church father, Thomas Aquinas, to further clarify the concept of “usury”:

“To take money as the price of money lent, that is to take usury…the price for use, that is called usury.” (5)

 

Given this definition of “usury”, it seems that any interest on a loan is usury and therefore a sin in the Christian church. Aquinas bases his condemnation of “usury” in Biblical and Classical texts. For example, Aquinas’ view was in part dictated by Aristotle’s remarks on money:  “Aristotle… comments that money was not intended for this, but for buying and selling; usury merely produced money out of money, and so of all the ways to wealth was the most unnatural.” (15)

 

If one was not convinced by Aristotle’s argument against “usury”, one could always look to the multiple Biblical injunctions against “usury”:

 

If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest.” (New International Bible, Exodus 22:25)

“Do not take interest or any profit from them, but fear your God, so that they may continue to live among you. You must not lend them money at interest or sell them food at a profit.” (Leviticus 25:36-37)

 

“Do not charge a fellow Israelite interest, whether on money or food or anything else that may earn interest. You may charge a foreigner interest, but not a fellow 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.” (Deuteronomy 23:19-20)

 

Who lends money to the poor without interest; who does not accept a bribe against the innocent. Whoever does these things will never be shaken.” (Psalm 15:5)

“He lends at interest and takes a profit. Will such a man live? He will not! Because he has done all these detestable things, he is to be put to death; his blood will be on his own head.”(Ezekiel 18:13)

 

One might have noted that these injunctions are all found in the Hebrew Bible (which Christians refer to as the Old Testament). Another point to note is that these Biblical injunctions against interest apply only to taking interest from fellow Israelites (Jews), not other communities. Christianity, originally being a sect within Judaism, inherited these laws against taking interest but encountered a new dilemma due to the nature of the Christian community. Judaism fostered an exclusive religious and ethnic communal identity: there were Jews, those bound by the Covenant with the Hebrew god, and there were Gentiles, everyone else. Christianity, whose growth and strength depended on proselytizing to outsiders, viewed all outsiders as potential converts and thereby, potentially part of a worldwide community. The various Biblical laws mentioned above were ironically the very laws that allowed Jews to play the role of lender to European Christian communities (seen as Gentiles) and also the very same laws that prohibited Christians from playing any role but that of the borrower. The Christian New Testament is less lucid regarding the stipulations on lending and borrowing. Most theologians point to Jesus’ words as documented in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 6:35, “Lend, hoping for nothing again” as spiritual justification for legalized lending, although each may interpret these words differently. Some readers may interpret these words to mean that lending is allowed as long as no interest is charged. Others view these words as encouraging investment and others may read this passage as authorizing lending without any expectation of the principal being returned.

Unfortunately for Jewish communities in Europe and England, the livelihood that lending to non-Jews brought, also evoked a deep-seated hatred for the Jews among borrowing Christians:

 

“Not being Christians, they were debarred from the public exercise of lawful trades and occupations, but where allowed to practice them within their own community, which needed rabbis, physicians, surgeons, lawyers, butchers, bakers, and so on. Thus, while by no means all Jews were usurers, all lived by usury directly or indirectly, so the stigma attaching to usurers was extended to the Jews as a whole, and heightened by the general dislike of foreigners and foreign ways and beliefs.” (Kerridge 20)

 

In England, the words “Jew” and “usurer” became synonymous and one need only look to Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, to see how Jews were often portrayed by Christian communities. From this vantage point it is easy, although disheartening, to see how easily the Christian condemnation of “usury”, meant originally to dissuade Christians from taking advantage of the poor, became a tool of propaganda used against Jewish communities. Dickens’ himself, although never naming Scrooge or Marley as “Jews” did include the Jewish villain stereotype, embodied in the infamous character Fagin, within his novel, Oliver Twist, referring to him many times simply as “the Jew”. However, there has been some mention of Dickens attempting to de-emphasize Fagin’s Jewish identity in later editions of the novel.

Kerridge notes that over time there are more distinctions made between “usury” and “interest”. For one thing, some writers commented that “interest” was not “usury” if it was charged as a penalty for not paying back the principal on an agreed date. Another distinction, albeit a rather murky one, is that “interest” requires that the lender or investor must share the risks of the business with the borrower or partner. The various terms linked with the concept of “usury”, such as “ochre”, “fenory”, etc., each had slightly different meanings and were often used interchangeably, making any definitive statement on the issue difficult. John Calvin, another significant Christian theologian, made a distinction between various kinds of loans and distinguished between who one could lend to based on the borrower’s economic status:

 

“Humanist that he was, Calvin knew there were two Hebrew words translated as “usury.” One, neshek, meant “to bite”; the other, tarbit, meant “to take legitimate increase.” Based on these distinctions, Calvin argued that only “biting” loans were forbidden. Thus, one could lend at interest to business people who would make a profit using the money. To the working poor one could lend without interest, but expect the loan to be repaid. To the impoverished one should give without expecting repayment.” Jones, Norman. “Usury”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. February 10, 2008. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/article/jones.usury

Calvin also notes that the Latins (Romans) viewed “usura” as honorable but detested “fenory”, which he describes along with others (such as P. Melanchthon) as the “biting” kind of loan mentioned above. Cato, according to Calvin, put “fenory” on the same level as murder and described those who practiced it as those who “suck the blood out of others”(from J. Calvin, Commentarii in Librum Psalmorum, Amersterdam, 1567, p. 47, translated by Eric Kerridge). These biting and blood sucking allusions link to the negative caricatures used to demonize Jews such as the bizarre charge brought against Jews in England and Europe referred to as “blood libel”, which according to the Internet Medieval Sourcebook was the belief that some Christians held that Jews used the blood of a Christian child to make Passover matzohs.

According to Joseph Shatzmiller in his book Shylock Reconsidered: Jews, Moneylending, and Medieval Society, not only was “usury” considered a sin and a crime throughout Christian history, according to the Council of Vienne (1311-1312), it made one a heretic and made Christians and Jews vulnerable to church inquisitors (46). Despite the declaration of such councils against “usury”, many European governments had, by the 14th century, gained from the well-entrenched credit system and profited from the Jewish moneylenders’ activities. The more criminalized lending became, the more reticent lenders and borrowers were of admitting their involvement. Lenders and borrowers had to depend on unwritten agreements, interest percentages were not documented, and payment, nonpayment and indebtedness sometimes led to violence. In his book, Shatzmiller also notes that during the Black Death of 1348-1349:

“many believed that the Jews created the pestilence, and as a result Jewish quarters were attacked by fear-stricken crowds. But even in these circumstances the populace was intent on destroying notarial records and other evidence of indebtedness, as Pope Clement IV noted in a bull of 2 October 1348” (49).

 

The major thinkers of the Protestant Reformation (Luther, Zwigli, Calvin, etc.) were particularly critical of what they saw as the Catholic Church’s abuses of the poor. They, like their predecessors, did not approve of “usury”, although their definitions of what “usury” entailed differed. Martin Luther, often depicted as the “father of the Protestant Reformation”, critiqued any enrichment which came at one’s neighbor’s loss:

 

“That is the deepest depth of greed, that just looks upon a neighbour’s want and need as an opportunity not to help him but to enrich oneself and become wealthy through one’s neighbour’s loss. Those who do that are all daylight robbers, thieves, and ockerers.” (36-37)

 

Although there is much argument over the terminology used and what limits should be placed on lending, perhaps Luther’s condemnation can shed some light on exactly what was at the heart of the issue—how one dealt with others, especially those less fortunate than oneself. Perhaps the condemnation of “usury” was not all about how much money was gained but rather how much money was gained on the backs of others. The sin of “usury” might be that it sees other people as a means to end, instead of an end in and of themselves. “Usury”, in this sense, is predatory and pitiless… it not only makes the borrower destitute financially but it also makes the lender destitute in spirit. Think back to the description of Scrooge, Marley and the other “usurer ghosts” depicted in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Take the passage where Marley explains why he is fettered:

“I made the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard, I girded it on my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it… My spirit never walked beyond our counting house- mark me!- in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole; and weary journeys lie before me.” (61)

 

When Scrooge exclaims that Marley was always a good man of business, Marley remarks:

 

“Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business…” (62-63)

While many Christians may be reticent to abandon “usury” in the strictest sense, perhaps words such as those from the Church fathers and, in this case, Dickens, may make us think twice about what is, as Christians, truly “our business” in this world.

Filed Under: ChristianityFeaturedIslamJudaismKate Daley-BaileyLiteratureViews, News, & Issues

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