GREAT BEND, Kan. - Sometimes something is right in front of your face, and you don't notice it. The Bible repeatedly warns against the sin of "usury" - of charging excessive interest rates. There was a historic consensus among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that charging high interest rates is wrong.
I have sat through hundreds of sermons in my life, and I've never heard this issue mentioned once by a clergyman. The "pelvic" issues seem to be the only issue most pastors want to talk about - abortion, and issues regarding sexuality. The Bible contains thousands of verses that admonish us to help the poor. Yet economic justice simply isn't spoken of much today.
It reminds me of the story of the two monks. One obsessively studied various religious sects, to the point where he would spend hours a day reading and talking about obscure offshoots of mainline religion. His fellow monk got fed up and told him: "Sects, sects, sects, that's all you think about is sects!"
Issues of sexual morality and abortion are important spiritual and political issues, but on the equally important spiritual issues of economic justice, the church seems silent.
The Bible is crystal clear that it is a sin to charge excessive interest (Leviticus 25:37, Jeremiah 15:10, Deuteronomy 23:19, Exodus 22:25, Nehemiah 5:6-13, Isaiah, 24: 1-2).
Before you say: "Oh, those were just guidelines on how orthodox Jews should treat fellow Jews," let me quote you this rather eye-popping quote from C.S. Lewis' classic "Mere Christianity:"
"There is one bit of advice given to us by the ancient heathen Greeks, and by the Jews in the Old Testament, and by the great Christian teachers of the Middle Ages, which the modern economic system has completely disobeyed. All these people told us not to lend money at interest....I should not have been honest with you had I not told you that three great civilizations had agreed (or so it seems at first sight) in condemning the very thing on which we have based our whole life."
Some say it is wrong to charge interest at all, but surely every person of faith can agree that charging excessive interest rates on the poor is wrong.
A major factor is generating this entire economic mess we are in started in 1980 when Congress repealed the federal usury laws. Today 30% loans on credit cards are commonplace. Payday lenders are notorious for even higher interest rates, and the subprime mortgage crisis lured consumers into a bait-and-switch situation which left them with mortgages they couldn't pay.
I doubt if the "religious right" will even take up this non-pelvic issue, but people of faith in the center and on the left need to take it up now - and take it up big time. Although the Republicans tend to be the pro-usury party, the Democrats have been remarkably timid about opposing them. The Democratic party brushed the issue aside in 2009 when Congress decided not to impose any limits on the horrid interest rates charged by banks and other lenders.
Exploiting the poor with excessive interest is "one step above slavery," as one of my friends said. People of faith need to get busy and get active on this issue. Because Congress won't do a thing about this until we make them.
- William Greider, Come Home, America: The Rise and Fall (and Redeeming Promise) of Our Country (2009)
- C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1943)
- Sojourners Magazine, January, 2010: "A Broken Trust: Congress Must Rein in Abusive Lending," pages 10,11