Archive for November, 2006

More on Usury

November 22nd, 2006 No comments

My previous post on the “death pledge” drew a good comment, which deserves pulling up into a post:

Usury was traditionally condemned for two reasons.

The first was that much moneylending was small amounts for personal consumption by the wasteful or desperate — rather like taking out a loan on the family farm to pay for your mother’s operation or to feed a gambling habit.

(Incidentally, farmers hate bankers — it’s sort of a natural antipathy, like dog and wolf.)

The second was a conviction that money was “sterile”, and that making it yield profit was somehow “unnatural” — partly an outgrowth of the above, and partly sheer economic primitivism.

S. M. Stirling

I’m well aware of the farmer-banker antipathy — I’m the first of my line to not farm since… well, possibly since Adam, as far as I know.

A story: One time, and one time only, my grandfather spoke to me about Jews. He didn’t think much of them and didn’t trust them. Now, this wasn’t for any high-falutin‘ theological reason like the old “Christ-killer” epithet. The Protocols remained unmentioned. It was for a much simpler reason:

“Jews are money people, not people of the land. You can’t trust a people that don’t have a connection to the land.”

And it became blindingly obvious: one doesn’t need much in the way of theological or sociological explanations to understand why farmers hate bankers. How much, I wonder, of historic European anti-Semitism is understandable by the simple reality that most Christians were peasant farmers, and that Jews were landless bankers? (Given that Jews were forbidden to own land and were requested to be bankers, I blame Christian princes for this setup.)

I also wonder if this doesn’t help explain the fervor of Evangelical sentiment in favor of Israel. Yes, there are theological reasons — but also, emotionally, modern Israel means that Jews are people of the land now. Which, to that old farmer’s logic, now means trustworthy, folks more like us.

Given the minuscule number of modern Americans who have any connection to the land anymore, I would say we are all money people now. I wonder what my grandfather would think of that?

Back to usury: as I think about it, I’m sympathetic to the notion of money as naturally sterile. Piles of gold bars (or pictures of dead presidents) don’t grow bigger on their own.

And I confess, it’s been a long time since I studied the “dismal science,” and this is my first encounter with the phrase “economic primitivism.” I assume this refers to something definite (a preference for simpler and more direct rather than abstract economic transactions?) rather than being mere chronological snobbery?

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Death Pledge

November 1st, 2006 No comments

A man who builds his house with other people’s money
is like one who gathers stones for his burial mound.

— Sirach 21:8 (RSV)

So much for the mortgage industry.

It is therefore worth remembering that the literal origin of the word ‘mortgage‘ is death pledge.

And perhaps it is time to remember that usury has been traditionally condemned as a sin against justice.

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