God and Advanced Mammon—Can

Theological Types Handle Usury and
Chair, Department of Economics and Business
Randolph-Macon College
he concept of usury is charged and loaded with many potential interpretations. As a semi-
nary graduate and as a practicing economist, I find the concept so loaded with possible
interpretations and misinterpretations that it is difficult to begin a project with so wide a
scope. I have my own view on usury. It roughly follows both orthodox positions in theology and eco-
nomics, and that alone may be of interest to some. How can that be? I consider myself to be a fairly
orthodox Calvinist (in theory, not practice) and I am also a fan of Adam Smith and the market system
he so eloquently elaborated over 200 years ago.
I am a political conservative, but reader, do not lose
faith immediately if you consider yourself more progressive or enlightened. In Kantian fashion, I
intend to relay the basics of faith and economic doctrine within the bounds of reason alone, at least
with respect to usury. Now, while I realize that even reason itself is out of fashion in many philosophy
departments across the nation, I have to believe that most of my seminary colleagues, pastors, and stu-
dents have not fallen so far astray. I assume that we are not post-human. I am assuming that reason is
with us, and that we share quite a common moral language when all is said and done. With those pre-
liminary remarks as guideposts, let us get to usury.
The definition of usury has varied and changed drastically over time and across regions. An entire
essay could be spent on these distinctions, and many of these distinctions are covered by other authors
in this issue of Interpretation. Even in the biblical texts, crucial distinctions are made between those in
the fold (brothers and sisters) and outsiders. In addition, usury can be simply charging interest, or it can
be charging too high an interest, or it can be even broader in scope. I do not think these are the dis-
tinctions that ultimately matter at present. Most business people and citizens do not know the term
“usury.” So why is the religious community continually fascinated by such a topic? The answer, I think,
This essay looks at the economic and theological intersections of definitions of
usury in the economic system of capitalism. It challenges seminarians and the
church to examine their roles in addressing the problem of usury.
Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (ed. Edwin Cannan; 5th ed.; London:
Methuen and Co., Ltd., 1994).
US URY Interpretation 169
is that it ultimately involves much larger questions, assumptions, and perhaps allegiances. The answer
to usury is likely a good proxy for the answer to where one stands on capitalism. And there, my
friends, we have a good story, because that is the story of our day. Capitalism is the major organizing
force in modern life, whether we like it or not. It is here to stay. If the sociologists ever grasp this
basic fact, their enterprise will be much more fruitful. We set alarm clocks to follow the schedule of
the market. Children leave their families to follow the job market. We often weigh our social worth
by looking to market wages, salaries, and consumption patterns. We spend much more time on mar-
ket activity than God activity. Thus, Calvinism.
I will make one more preliminary remark so as to try to keep my readers’ attention for the
remainder of this piece. How about this claim? Capitalist markets and their expansion in China and
India have provided more for the common good, more “social welfare,” than any other policy in the
past ten years. In fact, you can add up all of the welfare gains from public policy in the United States
and abroad, and they will not approach the level of human gains just described. Incomes in China
and India have risen from $500 a year per person to over $5,000 a year per person over the past
twenty years or so. This is due to market capitalism. Over two billion people now have food to eat
and some minimal goods to go along. So, as a seminary student concerned with human welfare, I
naturally wanted to learn about these free markets. In the aggregate, free markets work. But when it
comes to particular issues like usury, a lot of theological types want to revert to systems of planning
and control. But freely determined prices are the backbone of free markets. We do not get these
great outcomes if we restrict prices at every turn.
I will cut to the chase and describe usury as it is practiced by businesspersons today and as it is
interpreted by theologians, pastors, and other academics at present. I think the most glaring error
made by the interpreter class (academics and clergy) at present concerns one colossal category. Let
us start with the obvious story and then get deeper and more complex as needed. Section one of
the essay will address what I call the major “category” error. Section two will pick up on some ma-
jor issues that require treatment, then I will conclude. To start, here are the typical lines a seminary
student might hear from their thought leaders:
Usury is bad. Usury is morally bad. Usury is the charging of interest payments for simply
borrowing money. Usury is frowned upon in the Bible. Liberation theology might be required
here. Usury is specifically forbidden in many biblical texts. Our modern culture of capital-
ism exploits the poor by conventions such as usury. Many grow rich by usury. The poor
are hurt by usury. Therefore, usury is bad. We should get rid of usury. (Who is this we?)
Now the critical turn:
Usury should be regulated. The government should make laws that forbid outrageous
170 Interpretation AP RI L 2 0 1 1
interest charges. I’m calling my congressman to do this. The church should take a stand on
this exploitation. The church should write some statements on usury. The church should
hire lobbyists to work on behalf of the poor who suffer under usury.
Sound familiar? This is a caricature, but I think there is something to it. In summary, usury is not
something to be studied. It is something to be condemned. I never saw a supply and demand curve
in seminary. I should have.
Where are the obvious category errors above? The most obvious is the assumption that because
we are Christians, the society’s use of usury stands judged under Christian values. Curiously, the church
is currently loathe to judge anyone for anything. Sin is not in vogue. But when it comes to capitalism,
judgment is at hand. Seminarians, pastors, and academics are notorious for talking and thinking in
terms of “we”—we think this and we believe that. We, of course, are a Christian community and I am
a part of that community, and we do in fact need to make moral judgments as a community. However,
public life is not so simple at present. Do we control public life? In the story above, usury is judged
and not only is it judged, but also public policy is next on the agenda. To get right to the heart of the
issue, the Jews have over 600 laws on the books, and Jesus said that one might sink in the ocean if one
messed with those laws. Should we move to pass all of those laws through Congress? The liberally
educated gasp can be heard from afar.
There is obviously a tremendous gulf between biblical statements made to faith communities and
their direct application to secular law today. Seminaries go out of their way to show the complexities of
exegesis, but when it comes to hot-button issues such as usury, rationality often flies out the window.
Can Christians force others to follow their ethical teachings on social issues? Note that consistency is
lacking on all sides of this issue. The political Right likes to champion individual rights and individual
liberty, but it has also worked to enforce morality in relation to abortion, gambling, and homosexuality.
The Left likes to think of itself as the bulwark of progressive liberal individualism, and yet it seeks to
progressively coerce others to fund every social program under the sun via majority rule. Houston, we
have a problem. Coercion is on the rise. What is the root word for liberalism? (Answer: Liberty)
For those in a hurry, let me offer a two-paragraph summary, and then I will go into more detail
for those who may enjoy the extended commentary. A famous economist named Hayek has argued
that we should not necessarily think of the economy primarily in terms of goods and services and
money flows.
Instead, the economy more closely resembles a super computer which can solve an infi-
nitely complex information problem. In brief, over 300 million individuals make up our national econ-
omy. Each person is unique and their preferences vary tremendously across a very wide range of
F. A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism (ed. W. W. Bartley III; Chicago: The University of Chicago
Press, 1991), 6.
US URY Interpretation 171
goods and services and lifestyles. How do we know what to produce, for whom and at what price?
Please answer that question right now. Likely you do not have an answer, because the answer is infi-
nitely complex. However, as Adam Smith explained, an order has emerged as if an invisible hand has
guided us to the answer, and the market mechanism produces prices and goods that match our wants.
How? Supply and Demand. If you are lost already, that is okay, but you have some work to do. See
Economics for Dummies.
Usury is one small piece of this market mechanism and information puzzle. Interest rates are set
by the market, by supply and demand for money. As a Christian, can I charge interest and be okay
with God? Well, as a Calvinist, the answer would be found by asking God. God is the source of
morality and ethics. In brief, I think that God tells us that if we intend to love and help our neighbor
by such an action, then the answer is “yes”; to harm, “no.” More on this later, but if individuals lived
under this simple system, the world would be pretty good. But, the key is that morality and judgment
ultimately occur at the individual level in our tradition (i.e., the Reformation) and an analysis of the
morality of any action would ultimately rely upon the facts and intentions in each individual case. The
individual is responsible for knowing God’s will via revelation, reason, church, and faith. We will have
an impact on our culture, but we are not the culture. Outside of the tradition, morality is not coherent.
Alasdair MacIntyre sums it up fairly well in the title of his book: Whose Justice? Which Rationality?
the church have an answer to this broader social question? Will it write up a Church Statement on
Justice and Rationality to go along with the Anti-Usury Statement? This is very much needed. Why no
statement? You are precisely the audience that can answer this question. As long as the church is silent
on this issue, it will have no impact on our broader culture. The church needs to regain its voice and
offer up a coherent social vision of justice and rationality. Soon. The Bible and then Calvin is a good
start. Rule of Law is in the middle. Capitalism will be in the final chapters.
For the longer version, we have to start with some history and a review of how we arrived in our
current muddle. Most liberals, nineteenth-century and modern, would surely recoil at the suggestion
that we legislate the entire Torah as legal code. But why? The liberal tradition has argued quite strongly
for some time that individuals should be free to choose their own God and religion. The first amend-
ment to the U.S. Constitution makes this very clear. All of the framers can be called liberal, in this tra-
ditional sense. One can make strong arguments that, in fact, the liberal tradition comes directly from
the Judeo-Christian tradition. Harvard was founded for church and Christ. Rights language originated
uniquely in Western Europe in the thirteenth century. Before then, the church fathers argued that the
Christian religion and faith should never be forced or coerced. Faith is freely chosen. And even moral
actions right up through Kant
are moral in so far as they are freely chosen. Clearly, one must be free
in order to make a moral decision. Right. God does not want religious robots. God wants individuals
Adam Smith uses the metaphor in Book IV, chapter II, paragraph IX of The Wealth of Nations.
Sean Masaki Flynn, Economics for Dummies (Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2005).
Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989).
Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (trans. James W. Ellington; 3d ed.; Indianapolis: Hackett,
1993), 6:213–14.
172 Interpretation AP RI L 2 0 1 1
to choose God freely. It must also be noted that the framers and other leaders, including George
Washington and Adam Smith, all assumed that the Judeo-Christian tradition would be the underlying
moral foundation for this liberal experiment in government.
Corresponding to this freedom, the U.S. founders framed a constitution that guaranteed what
today are called “negative rights.” Individuals were to be free to pursue their own goals. They were not
allowed to interfere in the goals of others. King George did that, and it did not work out well at all.
Adam Smith advised the king not to mess with the colonies, but the king did not listen.
Life, liberty,
and the pursuit of happiness were enshrined as the basic liberal rights, and a bill of rights was estab-
lished to define more fully this framework and to ensure basic protections, from the government.
Rights from God, defended from the government. Really.
Private property was clearly established. Ninety percent of the population was rural and this basic
social contract fit the times, with notable exceptions (i.e., slavery). Basically, one fed one’s family, and if
times got tough, moved to extended family or relied upon the voluntary charity of one’s church or
neighbors. Life was tough, but it was relatively better than any other place in the world.
Society became more and more complex as the industrial revolution worked its magic and mod-
ern life emerged in fits and starts. In the middle of U.S. history, the agrarian interests of the South
clashed with the manufacturing of the North, and the issue of slavery simultaneously came to a head.
The liberal vision had anticipated this clash, and the founders were intellectually aware of their omis-
sion and error, but the revolutionary period was challenge enough and the oversight would cost the
country another war. The Civil War tore the country apart, and we know the history. By the turn of
the century, the economy was moving full steam ahead. By World War I, we had established a Federal
Reserve banking system, and we had voted for the establishment of a national income tax via the six-
teenth amendment. By World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had dramatically increased the
size and scope of the federal government with his New Deal. The country continued to add govern-
ment programs, and President Johnson’s “War on Poverty”in the 1960s added layers of government
protections for the poor via the welfare system. Since the 1960s, the political parties have battled back
and forth over the size and scope of government, and currently, we are all conscious of the ongoing
battles between Right and Left on what used to be called the nightly news.
We did all of this. Note, the we is now the nation, not the church. The process is majority vote by
representative democracy, with U.S. Supreme Court decisions along the way. We voted to extend voting
rights to all citizens. We voted to establish a national income tax. We voted for higher and higher taxes
to pay for social programs, and until recently, we seemed to have a fairly stable social contract along
these lines. However, severe cracks are emerging in the body politic. The Left and Right both have
John Rae, Life of Adam Smith, (1895). ch. XXVI.1 “The American Question and Other Politics,” Library of
Economics and Liberty, http://www.econlib.org/library/YPDBooks/Rae/raeLS.html. Accessed December 4, 2010.
US URY Interpretation 173
fringe groups and, most recently, the Libertarian Party has been picking up steam and gaining adher-
ents, many in the tea party movement. They note that as we have voted for higher and higher taxes,
the initial vision of liberal America has been lost. Liberty is lost. Now, in addition to negative rights, we
have voted for a host of “positive rights.” We now have rights to health care, welfare programs, retire-
ment benefits, thirteen years of education, and unemployment benefits. And there is not an item you
can think of that is not regulated by the Federal Government. These positive rights bring benefits to
many, but the new wrinkle is that someone else must pay for the benefits that are received. We have con-
tinually voted to force some to pay for the benefits of others. That is likely the key issue and the key line in this
essay, and the one line that animates our current conversation on capitalism. A key line in ethics has
been crossed. Morality, as traditionally conceived, allows the moral actor free will when making ethical
decisions. It appears that we have left the realm of morality and entered the realm of power politics
with the expanding role of positive rights. Capitalism is highly dependent upon the rule of law and the
clear articulation of property rights. These are very much in flux at present.
Today, the liberal vision is contorted beyond comprehension, and our discussion of usury must
be interpreted in light of this distorted backdrop. What are we as Christians called to do, as we are
simultaneously citizens and voters and perhaps policy makers in the U.S. political system?
I want to dwell on that key line above to illustrate very clearly some of the choices we have to
make. Usury is a small piece of this puzzle, but it shares the common thread discussed above. Where
are moral decisions made? Who judges? Where does religion play a role? What is the Christian
response to an ever increasing size of government? What does God want?
First, let me ask you as an individual a question. Are you willing to force someone you know to
pay for the benefits for one of your neighbors? Will you force them? Very few Christians I know are
willing to say “yes” to this question. It gets very uncomfortable. Some will not even answer the ques-
tion, because they see where the logic clearly leads. And yet, we as Christians think nothing of voting
for policies that do precisely this. We vote for justice. It has become easy. We vote to force others to act
as we want them to act. Can we do this as Christians? What is the warrant for such action? How do
we ground that type of decision? I have not ever heard a good theological answer to these questions. I
know about Locke’s tacit consent and majority rule
and all of that, but if you are not willing to force
someone at the micro level, those distinctions fall away. For example, some in San Francisco are willing
now to regulate sugar intake and soft drink machines. One of my colleagues wants to do this at the
national level, saying it is for the “common good.” I observed that if my friend was sure about this, we
should first start with the school where we teach. Ban Coke, Pepsi, and pizza. See how that goes. My
friend’s response: “Well, no, that would not work. I mean … I don’t want to stand and defend it in
public. I just want it passed.” It sounds so good at the macro level.
John Locke [1689], Two Treatises of Government (ed. Peter Laslett; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
174 Interpretation AP RI L 2 0 1 1
Let me add one more definition to the picture to heighten this tension. In economics and political
science, it is common to define the government as the entity that holds a monopoly on violence. This
definition goes back to Max Weber,
but it is used by recent Nobel laureates in economics
as well. It
does not mean that the State alone uses violence, but it does mean that when push comes to shove,
the State will win in a battle of wills. If you refuse to pay your taxes, you will lose. You will go to jail,
and if you fight, you will lose. The government holds a monopoly on violence. Any law that we vote
for is ultimately backed by the full force of our government and military. Do we trust institutions of
the government to ensure justice? Is that what history teaches us about the State? Or do we live in par-
ticularly lucky and fortunate times where the State can be trusted to do minimal justice? The State’s
budget is currently about $3 trillion a year. Do you trust that power to the political Right? Do you trust
it to the Left? If you answered “no” to either question, you may have a major problem in the future.
See Plato on the regime that follows democracy.
So now, I hope you are feeling even a bit more ill at ease. The logic above is inescapable for a
Christian. If we Christians vote for what we consider to be good policies, we are ultimately voting to
ensure that our will is carried out by the most powerful force on earth, aside from God. The U.S. gov-
ernment has a monopoly on violence, and that force underlies the law of the land.
Do we have the right to coerce our fellow citizens to act in ways that follow our Christian ethical
In this context, what can we make of the concept of usury? Under the original U.S. social con-
tract (i.e., the U.S. Constitution of 1789), the logic would have run as follows. The rule of law allows
two people to bargain and trade with each other so long as one is not coerced by the other. That is the
concept of negative rights. If one person says she will loan another person $100 for the month so
long as $20 in interest payments are added at the end of the month, then that is a deal made between
two persons and that is that. If the borrowing party thinks that $20 in interest payments is too much,
then he will simply not make the deal. Along these lines, it should be noted that in economics, all vol-
untary trades are beneficial to both parties and the easiest way to see this is by noting that if one were
not better off, one would not take part in such a trade. Right? Right.
So, what is the problem with usury? Usually, the issue arises when one party is weaker than an-
other party, or when exorbitant rates are set by lenders, or when sophisticated language is included in
contracts that lay persons cannot fully understand—or to make matters a bit emotional, when some-
one aggressively sells a product to my grandmother, and rips her off. That is clearly unfair and unjust.
Right? Right.
Is it wrong for me to want the State to correct this injustice? No, not at all. The State can be a
Max Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization (New York: Free Press, 1964), 154.
Douglass C. North, Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1990).
Allan Bloom, The Republic of Plato (translated, with notes and an interpretive essay. New York: Basic Books,
US URY Interpretation 175
force for good. The Rule of Law is absolutely essential to a good life. God has instituted government
and leaders throughout history and throughout the Biblical narrative. However, the state is growing
precisely as the church is fading as a force for good, and this does not seem to be a good trend. God
asked the people of Israel: Are you sure you want a king? That is a good question to ask at this time.
Thus far, I have attempted to illustrate one issue. I have tried to show how Christians need to be
very careful as they think about public policy. Two sets of “we” were used above to show the tensions
involved. We Christians may conclude that something is unjust within our own faith traditions, but
then we enter the realm of policy and politics, and we then vote as both Christians and as members of
a pluralistic, secular society with immense power. At this point, liberal theory has run into severe prob-
lems. Nineteenth-century liberals set out a political order based on individual liberty, period. That has
Modern liberals are very conflicted at this point. They do not want the Religious Right pushing its
morality on others, and so they claim “separation of church and state.” However, when economic jus-
tice is involved, or when entitlements like health care are at stake, modern liberals seem to have no
problem pushing their morality on others. Both camps appear to be willing to use the State’s power to
get their way. Is this Christian? Christians fall into both camps, and so our story has no clear solution,
or does it? Can we dig our way out of this distorted liberal mess? Is there a clean, logical line for Chris-
tians to pursue that does not require us to coerce fellow citizens to action by threat of government
power? I have emphasized the weakness within the liberal camp intentionally because the issue of
“usury” is not generally a policy issue unless we want to impose some constraints upon its use. That is
how I have framed the issue thus far. The Right would uphold standard rule of law arguments and put
those who commit “fraud” behind bars, but would be less likely to interfere in markets.
1. God’s position on usury. The second issue I want to address is the morality of usury, pure and sim-
ple. Today, we are so deep into public policy that we sometimes fail to analyze the basic moral issues
involved from first principles. Since I am writing to a predominantly Christian audience, I will take it
for granted that God must be the final arbiter on the issue of usury. So what has God revealed for us
to understand on this basic economic and social issue? Perhaps a better understanding of God’s intent
will get us out of the liberal contradictions above.
The Old Testament:
If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as
a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them. (Exod 22:25, emphasis added)
176 Interpretation AP RI L 2 0 1 1
If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you, you shall support
them; they shall live with you as though resident aliens. Do not take interest in advance
or otherwise make a profit from them, but fear your God; let them live with you. You
shall not lend them your money at interest taken in advance, or provide them food at a
profit. (Lev 25:35–37, emphasis added)
On loans to a foreigner you may charge interest, but on loans to another Israelite you
may not charge interest, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertak-
ings in the land that you are about to enter and possess. (Deut 23:20, emphasis added)
The New Testament:
[The nobleman said to the servant] “Why then did you not put my money into the bank?
Then when I returned,, I could have collected it with interest.” (Luke 19:23)
But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be
great. . . . (Luke 6:35, emphasis added)
While proof-texting is risky business, I would summarize as follows. The Bible is clear that usury
should not be practiced in small religious communities where loans involving the deep familial bond
of brothers and sisters occur, especially poor brothers and sisters. It is less clear on usury in general,
but it is safe to say that a tension exists. I am trying to illuminate some of those tensions. The ten-
sions become all the more acute as we move into the modern period of market capitalism.
2. The Seminary Popularizer. Because space is short and I have not even started to present a solution
to the problem at hand, I will use a nice modern reference to help us through a lot of material quickly.
I recommend Money, Greed and God by Jay Richards of Princeton Seminary. The book’s subtitle says it
all: Why Capitalism is the Solution and NOT the Problem.
He debunks many of the modern myths that
exist around the capitalism debate. I think his treatment is fair and well done. I will take a few key
pieces from his work on usury to guide this review and see if we can dissolve some of the tension
above by adding some context.
Around the twelfth century, trade began to expand and eventually banks emerged. To quote from
Money changers eventually began keeping deposits for various clients, so that when two clients
made an exchange, all the money changer had to do was credit one account and subtract from the
other. Simple arithmetic had replaced a risky and cumbersome movement of coins.
At some point, though, the old ban on usury started to stick out like a sore thumb. It slowly dawned on
people that money lent for capital was different from money lent to a poor neighbor out of need.
When banks charge interest on a loan….they’re charging for something. By lending the money, for
Jay W. Richards, Money, Greed and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution and Not the Problem (New York: Harper One,
Ibid., 140.
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instance, the bank is forgoing other opportunities to use the money, and it is taking a risk in lending
the money in the first place.
After the Reformation, some Reformers, such as John Calvin, were quick to modify the ancient
ban on interest. And Catholic scholars eventually did so as well….the Church didn’t decide that
usury was OK, however. Rather, it became much more precise in defining usury. Usury isn’t charg-
ing interest on a loan. . . . it’s unjustly charging someone for a loan by exploiting them when they’re
in dire straights.
What is “unjustly charging someone” and what is it to exploit? These are the key questions for our day.
3. The Economic Position on Usury or Interest Rate Charges. For the economist, there is no unjust
charge. There is no exploitation. Why? Because economists do not do ethics, by definition. We do so-
cial science. The good news here is that if you ever hear an economist giving ethical advice, you should
not give that advice much attention. Economists are here to describe the world as it is, not as it should
be. In economics, there can be no price too high, because if a product sells at a high price, then clearly
it was not too high. It sold. The same goes for interest rates. Equilibrium is the price that will occur if
prices are allowed to adjust. If a price is too high, it will adjust downward to equilibrium, automatically.
Here is a short case study on this point. If a person with poor credit (high risk) wants to take out
a loan, the bank has two options for that person. Say “no.” Or charge a high interest rate to cover the
added risk involved. Is it more just to deny the loan, or to charge a higher rate and give the poor per-
son a loan? Or should we simply force the banker to make the loan at a lower rate? But then we are
asking the banker to pay for the risk of the riskier borrower. That borrower may not like work and
may sleep all day and eat snacks while watching television. Can we in good conscience make the
banker, who in this case is a good hard-working person, pay for the faults of the sleeper with bad
credit? Is that the knee-jerk Christian position? Let us just force people to be ethical. Let us force an
ethical outcome. Let us force justice.
The story could, of course, be told with a greedy banker and a nice borrower with good credit,
but in that case, I would just refer the good borrower to the good banker above.
In the news, the recent economic unpleasantness called the “Global Financial Crisis” was set off
by weaknesses in the housing market. Basically, we wanted to force low-interest loans on the banks so
that the poor could magically afford houses. Sounds good. Banks made loans to anyone. Liar loans.
They then immediately sold those loans to the government, who then took on the risk as well, and the
rest is history. The sub-prime loans are still being sorted out on Wall Street. Well-intentioned policy
became a nightmare. Wall Street played its role and is equally to blame, but without the “coercion” in
the housing market, there would have been much less crisis. This is my view.
Ibid., 144.
178 Interpretation AP RI L 2 0 1 1
How do we proceed? What is the role of civil society? What is the role of the church? What is
the role for individual Christians?
First, it seems to me as a Calvinist, that history is moving on, whether we like it or not. We live in
a modern and complex world that no single person can presume to understand. It seems to me, also,
that this must have been and is in the mind of God. I do not think our current existence is some
fluke. Technology and global markets and business are with us for good or ill. At times, religious folk
tend to recoil from this overwhelming reality. The first century was certainly much simpler. But we are
no longer there. We must all confront reality as it exists and manage it as best we can. The task has
been and always will be a moral task. I think God moves history and conditions so that we are always
challenged in new ways. I like the world that God has made, and I like Richard Niebuhr’s depiction of
the Calvinist “type” in his famous book Christ and Culture.
Calvinists believe in Christ the Transformer
of Culture. We are called to make it better, in history.
Second, church folk and my liberal pals are always preaching about inclusiveness and diversity.
Great. I think Jesus reached out to all people and this certainly makes sense. However, a real test for
liberal Christian types is whether they will reach out to capitalists! Now, there is a test for the faith. Did
Jesus reach out to folks and say, “Come on in here, brother, but boy, are you wrong about everything
you believe?” Or did he just say, “Come on in, and follow me?” If we are ever going to be transform-
ers of culture, we need to get our story straight on capitalism and faith. The two can go together and
they had better go together, or we will not transform anything.
Third, the macro economy is hard to budge. We must choose our battles carefully. Rome was
hard to budge. Jesus did not go after Rome, but a few hundred years later, Rome was a Christian em-
pire. How did that happen?
Fourth, weigh the benefits against the costs of action. Add up all church action on politics, news-
letters, and action alerts, and we might be able to feed the poor instead. Perhaps, we can make the low-
interest loan that we prefer. What is the role of the church? We are the church.
Fifth, preach the gospel and change hearts and souls. If we make all of the people good, markets
will be good. Markets are made up of people. Supply and Demand are curves, but they are also peo-
ple. Nothing else. If markets are bad, which they are, that means people are bad, which they are. Want
good markets? Change the people. If there are not nervous twitches in the pews when we preach,
then we are not doing our jobs.
H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1951).
US URY Interpretation 179
Sixth, preach the hard stuff. Do not wimp out on lectionary choices. Preach what God says. I left
seminary because I was not gutsy enough to give Jonah’s sermon. I ran away to economics. Seminary
people are supposed to be leading the way. Tell us what to do.
Seventh, capitalism is here to stay, and we need a church model that corresponds to that reality.
Read Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s diagnosis of the weak modern Christian democratic man was spot on.
Jesus was a great man. Jesus said he was the Son of God. Jesus made things happen. Jesus had faith.
Jesus actually made people better. Then came the Christians. What happened? What went wrong? We
appear to be a bit passive. Hitler came along, and he did not meet with unified resistance. I have the
sinking feeling that it could all happen again, quite easily. The church should rise up higher than
Nietzsche could see and prove him wrong. We should love our neighbor so much that we actually
believe in right and wrong, and do something about it. If we all did the right thing and had the guts to
spread the word, we would not need the government to backstop every action we take.
Finally, I have no magic bullet when it comes to usury. It is not the major problem. We need to
understand the world we live in, and then have the faith and the courage to do something about it. For
starters, we could tell our folks to work hard and stay out of debt in the first place. We could also fol-
low the micro loan experience of those in poverty around the world. The peer pressure they put on
each other in the form of moral suasion results in very high repayment rates. But that would involve
judgment, and I’m not sure if that is allowed in church any more. We can also begin to educate others
in the community about economics, finance, and banking. Finally, I think Jesus told us to help our
neighbor when they get in a bind. But that comes last in my little story here, not first.
The editors asked me to address my in-house brothers and sisters in Christ, in seminaries, and in
the church. Some of what I say is tongue-in-cheek, but some is not. I usually try to get right to the
point, illustrate tensions around the main point, and then get back to the point. I think the main point
is that we need to synthesize Christianity and capitalism. Augustine synthesized Plato and Christianity.
Thomas Aquinas synthesized Aristotle and Christianity.
Calvin synthesized all the rest, but capitalism
was still coming. There is a book in here somewhere for the next Calvin. Go. God Bless.
“The values Nietzsche wishes to subject to a revaluation are largely altruistic and egalitarian values such as pity,
self-sacrifice, and equal rights. For Nietzsche, modern politics rests largely on a secular inheritance of Christian values
(he interprets the socialist doctrine of equality in terms of a secularization of the Christian belief in the equality of all
souls before God).” (Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality [ed. Keith Ansell-Pearson; trans. Carol Diethe;
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994], 9).
Forrest E. Baird, From Plato to Derrida (6th ed.; Philosophical Classics; Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice
Hall, 2010), 283–310.
Ibid., 333–66.
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