Drowning in Debt

The church never changes, claim the die-hard traditionalists. Well, that’s only partly accurate. Without touching the basic tenets of our faith as stated in the Creed, the Christian tradition has changed enormously over time. Authority in the Church was exercised quite differently in the first millennium than what we have come to know in our day. The meaning of ordination has changed, the number of sacraments has changed, and so has the Church’s position on religious freedom and ecumenism, on marriage and divorce, on slavery, and on our relationship to the Jewish faith.

At the time of the changes, it is not always easy to predict what the long-lasting effects of such changes will be. And so the other day I found myself mulling over one of those changes made long ago about … usury of all things. You know, the practice of borrowing money and charging interest so as to enjoy a certain standard of living before we have our own money in the bank to do so. And I’m beginning to wonder whether allowing this practice was a good move.

A recent article in the Huffington Post reported that a significant number of Canadians are overwhelmed by debt. So I went back to try and find out what the original reason was for the change in the Church’s position on charging interest on loans.

The Hebrew Scriptures are clear about the command to lend freely and without interest to one’s neighbour in need (Deuteronomy 23:19). The Christian Church supported this and extended this command to apply to all humanity, making this a universal principle. There was a time when anyone who accepted interest on loans could receive neither the sacraments nor Christian burial (Third Council of Lateran, 1179).

But over the centuries business and commerce grew in the Christian world; loans were no longer just to a neighbour in need, but to a partner in commerce. The lender began to see himself as rightly expecting to profit from the loan. Production of goods demanded capital and capital began to come with a price tag.

At first, various rationales were brought forward with the aim to keep the command against usury. But as the world increasingly adopted the capitalist system, these rationales became more and more awkward. Christians began simply to redefine the term “usury.” Where originally it meant the charging of interest, any interest, it now got redefined as the charging of excessive interest.

John Calvin examined biblical texts concerning loans and reinterpreted them as allowing interest so long as it is not excessive. His teaching became widely accepted. Loans were thus no longer viewed as taking place among neighbours, but rather among competitors in a world of commerce.

Benjamin Nelson captured this change succinctly in the title of his book, The Idea of usury: From Tribal Brotherhood to Universal Otherhood. The world is no longer a community of brothers and sisters but the impersonal realm of individual and corporate competition. This is the world today’s generations of young adults take as normal, with exorbitant debt loads as simply part of the course.

Some of my own adult children have so much of their monthly income tied up in paying off loans (including mortgage on a house) that, should their earnings ever decrease due to events beyond their control (job loss, sickness, accident), they’d be in huge trouble. No wonder the survey quoted in the Huffington Post article reported Canadians feeling overwhelmed by debt.

I wonder if we have gone from one extreme to the next. Generations before us lived by a golden rule of not borrowing money; they scraped together whatever few pennies they acquired and eked out a living. Some developed such strong habits of living below their means, that even when they had means, it stayed in the bank (or under the bed!). I wonder if these ancestors  discovered an unexpected secret along the way, one that today’s generations don’t even realize is possible, and that is that there’s an enormous freedom in living below one’s means, in not needing what the neighbours have, in doing with less.

Now we have created a society where we consider it normal to borrow from the future to live in the present. We do this with the plundering of the earth’s resources, we do this with money, we do it with material possessions.

So was it really such a good decision for the Church to change its teaching on usury, I wonder? Has the Church, over the course of time, subtly colluded with market forces until charging interest was no longer an issue of moral concern? Some days I wish we could turn the clock back. Less is truly more, for today as well as for tomorrow.

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