Sunday, January 01, 2006

The Absence of Discussion of the Sin of Usury

There is a great deal said about Christianity in the media and the public sphere but it is amazing to me how many interesting aspects of modern Christianity are rarely mentioned. For example, the sin of usury has disappeared from public discourse.

In the Bible and for the first 1400 years of Christianity usury was defined as lending money at interest -- any interest at all. In the Fifteenth Century the benefit of credit in the business world began to be recognized. At that time church leaders decided that it was not a sin for one Christian to loan money at a reasonable rate of interest to another Christian in a business context -- if the lendee intended to make money with the loaned funds. Christians could lend needy fellow Christians money and expect the money to be repaid (no interest), but it was still Christian duty to give money freely to the destitute without any expectation of repayment.

I recently saw a documentary on tv about the credit card industry. It mentioned that 25 years ago there were usury laws in all 50 states that legally capped interest rates at 12%. The decision of the state of South Dakota to lift that cap and allow banks to charge more than 12% interest set in motion a chain of events that, among other things, created the modern credit card industry. Think about that for a moment. For the first 200 years of this country's existence there was such a broad consensus that charging more than 12% interest was wrong that all 50 states had laws against it.

Of course, there are a number of things besides usury that Christians have traditionally considered wrong and that used to be illegal that are now legal -- among them are divorce, adult pornography, gambling and sodomy. But, unlike usury, there has been and continues to be a great deal of discussion in the media about these issues. You would have no trouble finding in the media stories about Christians who think there should still be laws against divorce, pornography, gambling and sodomy. (Well actually, there is not much discussion about the morality of gambling, but that is the topic of another posting.)

Are there any Christians in this country who feel that it was a mistake to legalize charging more than 12% interest? if not, why not? If so, why is there so little mention of this issue in the media. Could this be a topic that the corporate world does not want discussed? Is the corporate ownership of the media manufacturing consensus on this issue?

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