Part 2: Usury in History

What do Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Hindusim have in common? Besides the fact that they are all religions – not much. However, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, all of them have historically been opposed to usury. As late as the 1640s — the Westminster Larger Catechism included usury in its list of sins prohibited by the eighth commandment. In its answer to question 142, it deliberately places usury between extortion and bribery, and cites Psalm 15:5 “He that putteth not out his money to usury, nor taketh reward against the innocent. He that doeth these things shall never be moved.” as the proof text.

It is significant that this text is used, which is a general condemnation of usury, and not one of the texts which forbids usury on charity loans. Their choice of this proof text makes it clear that the Westminster divines understood all loaning at interest to be usury; but even more significant is that it is mentioned under the eighth commandment. They viewed it as a form of theft – of one’s taking what does not belong to him. Right or wrong – that is the view represented in our Westminster Standards.

All of us recognize that the Bible forbids interest on charity loans, and that some rates of interest are so high that to charge them is unethical. But it is wrong to think that these are the things that constitute usury. It is also wrong to ignore the indirect economic impact of usury upon the most vulnerable. R. L. Dabney pointed out that the costs and penalties of the economic system always tend to be passed down the ladder to the poor, so that any unsoundness in the economic system will disproportionately affect them.

For example, the pursuit of luxurious lifestyles by the rich tends to dry up the pool of talented artisans producing necessities, thus raising the cost of necessities. Self-indulgence on the part of the rich is a societal evil that has the tendency to destroy the poor. When people know that they can make money just by loaning out the money that they have, with usury, they are going to invest as much as they can afford. What money is going to be left to help the poor?

Isn’t it possible that God had both the direct and indirect effects of usury upon the economy in view when He prohibited usury? Later, I will attempt to show that this must have been the case, by demonstrating the inevitable effects of usury upon an economy; effects of which God cannot be ignorant.

The principle that accounts for the rise of technological society has been simple greed. This also accounts for the basic organization of that society: the economic sphere is dominant over all other spheres of life. The economic system is designed for the continuous, reliable transfer of wealth from the lower classes to the very rich at the optimum rate; neither too slow, nor so fast that the masses lose their ability to create wealth. Wealth is used to buy control of the other spheres, thereby perpetuating itself. There are no effective systems in place for the righteous re-distribution of wealth, such as the Biblical jubilee, when all debts were canceled. Monopolism is legalized and institutionalized by the laws allowing the forced takeover of smaller businesses by larger ones, resulting in mega-corporations. Patents and copyrights, which allow their owners to take money that does not belong to them, are justified by the fiction of intellectual property. Fiat money, rather than commodity currency is used for the rapid creation of huge paper fortunes. Inflation is built into the system, and taxes those who can least afford it.

Many of us are aware of certain aspects of this deplorable system of evil; but it has not occurred to most people that there might be a connection with the change in the church’s teaching on usury.  It is, in any case, a plain historical fact that legalized usury was a primary means for the aggregation of the wealth which capitalized the industrial revolution, and thus changed Western society from an agrarian to a technological one. The legalization of usury must therefore be seen as an important contributing cause of the industrial or technological society, and of the rampant materialism of our age.

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