Stealing: Legalized By The Silence of Contemporary Christianity?

Stealing: Legalized By The Silence of Contemporary Christianity?

“Instead of hating the people you think are war-makers, hate the appetites and disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed – but hate these things in yourself, not in another.”  Thomas Merton

“Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world” Albert Einstein

“Permit me to issue and control the money of a nation and I care not who writes its laws” Maier Amschel Rothschild

I’m looking to have a conversation. In my article “Stealing: Legalized By The Silence of Contemporary Christianity?” I haven’t prescribed (at least not at this point) how we should understand usury and greed, but instead created a space for conversation. I encourage you to read the full article by downloading it, but if you prefer, here are few thoughts to consider.

I have borrowed money, I have lent, and I have seen the beauty and the pain that can be associated with both.

Canaries were once regularly used in coal mining as an early warning system.  Toxic gases such as carbon monoxide, methane, or carbon dioxide in the mine would kill the bird before affecting the miners. Because canaries tend to sing much of the time, they would stop singing prior to succumbing to the gas; therefore, their sudden silence would alert the miners to danger.

If you have watched any of the Republican primary debates, or even Tuesday evening’s State of the Union address by President Obama, you quickly realize that the coming election will be an election about the economy.  A conversation about the economy is necessary among us.  Unfortunately, contemporary Christianity has often stood on the sideline in silence leaving people vulnerable, to steal or to be stolen from.  Given the silence, it is no wonder that we have become unclear on how to understand usury and greed.

Having canaries in the coal mines was considered advantageous for your well-being since they served as an early warning sign of danger and unsafe conditions.  What are our dangers?  What “canaries” do we have to alert us of unsafe conditions?  Could our current financial crisis have been prevented? And how did we ever get ourselves in this mess?

While it is clear that markets are regulated, the real question isn’t “do we plan or not plan?” but “who plans?” Who influences the regulation?  Ben Bernanke was depicted in the film Too Big To Fail as saying, “The Great Depression may have started because of a stock market crash, but what hit the general economy was a disruption of credit. Credit has the ability to build a modern economy, but lack of credit has the power to destroy it. Swiftly and absolutely.”

For the sake of creating a framework for our conversation, I would like to propose starting with two questions for us to consider:

  1. Is it desirable to establish a maximum legal rate? and
  2. By what means should usurious exactions be prevented?

What is your $.02?

Download the full paper Stealing Legalized By Christianity


  • Steven Cottam

    I think it is tempting to want to establish a maximum legal interest rate on loans, but I am skeptical that it would really do much. For one thing, one of the problems of our current economic situation is its complexity- you get the idea that no one really knows whats going on, and I wonder if adding more stipulations will make things any better. However, a more serious concern is that I doubt that such services as Payday loan places would really be hindered- they would most probably merely increase fees, or make the difference up with some other loophole.

    I think the bigger problem is education and access to financial services. As you mention in your full article, your friend ended up paying 350% APR without even knowing it- you or I most likely would never consent to pay such a rate, but that is because someone taught us what that means and what some viable alternatives are. I was shocked to learn recently that, here in Chicago at least, a tremendous amount of people living in the lower economic classes don’t have bank accounts. This means they have no place to cash checks or store money or earn even enough interest to keep up with inflation — every paycheck needs to be taken to a check cashing place, which takes its hefty cut, and there is no practical way to save money even when the opportunity and desire presents itself. If we wanted to take a bite out of usurious exactions here in Chicago (where I live, and where I know just from driving to work that Payday loan services are about as prevalent as Starbucks), I would think the first step would be to make sure everyone had an account at a basic financial institution. The question, of course that follows, is how to accomplish that?

  • Dustin

    I find that one of the implicit assumptions in this article is those who lend money–in the traditional sense–are solely financial institutions under the regulation of the government. Basically, by simply asking the question as to whether there should be a legal limit to the amount one can charge in interest seems to cede the high ground to financial institutions as we’ve traditionally understood them.

    What if we reframed the question, taking into account that the need for credit in a capitalist system will not disappear, and instead looked for solutions outside the bounds of government and/or the banking establishment? The system itself has already developed some of its own solutions to “too big to fail” banks/lendors by opening a space for credit unions and micro-lending enterprises. But, what about a solution outside the modern banking establishment? What if churches, denominations, and those w/ large endowments instead banded together and sought out ways to responsibly lend to individuals, businesses, and the like? The access to capital isn’t in question. The will to do something is.

    So, what if the solution to our problem, especially when it comes to seeking out ways to help without taking advantage, lies in our own hands now? The issue would no longer be one of how much can we make off lending to people; rather, the issue would be how can we responsibly lend to people all the while helping them become/remain financially responsible.

  • Nathan

    one answer might lie with the idea of state banks or local credit unions. if we take away the power of multinational banks and put our money into institutions that invest locally, things could start to change. one of my favorite authors Paul Hawken recently talked about a large credit union (unfortunately can’t remember where) that was started by local non profits and churches that focuses on the lower income spectrum of society; small business loans and re-investment in forgotten parts of our cities, and it’s made a tremendous impact. Every ‘little’ choice we make matters.

  • Peter

    I thought charging interest were someone could basically pay over 250% interest a year, was only done by illegal loans harks. Also, we have developed an attitude in the United States that gambling is completely normal. What I am inferring is that Banks have taken over an industry which previously was dominated by organized crime. Welcome to the new America. This is why I hold dual citizenship in both the United States and the Republic of Ireland.