The wedge issue for Orthodoxy? Usury!?

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“What must be implemented is not a ‘steadily expanding economy,’ but a zero-growth economy, a stable economy. Economic growth is not only unnecessary but ruinous…we must renounce, as a matter of urgency, the gigantic scale of modern technology in industry, agriculture, and urban development …” – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn1

Orthodoxy’s principled objection to Communism is widely known and understood and, given that Eastern Orthodoxy was the religious tradition that bore the brunt of the Marxist-Leninist assault upon religion and Christian culture, the fact that the vast majority of Orthodox thinkers have been profoundly distrustful of the political left is unsurprising. On the other hand, many new converts, and a great many cradle Orthodox raised in this country, are often shocked to discover that Orthodoxy bears a similar brief against capitalism.  Indeed, during the 19th and 20th centuries one would have been hard put to find a single Orthodox figure of any theological stature at all who was willing to embrace capitalism or to regard it as a wholly appropriate economic system for a Christian society. 

The Slavophile writers and thinkers of the 19th century, were strongly communitarian on religious grounds, and inclined to see the peasant’s commune as a Christian social ideal.  They were so explicitly anti-capitalist that they grounded the very legitimacy of private property itself in social obligations – arguing that the right of ownership was wholly predicated on the duties and obligations to provide economic care for one’s neighbors.  In so arguing they were more Patristic and biblical than romantic – it is a note often sounded by the 4th century Cappodocian fathers in their sermons denouncing treatment of the poor by the rich.

Nor did this criticism of capitalism relent in the 20th century, for although the Orthodox theologians and philosophers of the Russian émigré movement began to seek a more mutually fruitful interaction with the West, there was little inclination on their part to embrace capitalism.  As Nathaniel Wood recently observed, these Paris theologians and intellectuals, while demonstrating that “Orthodoxy need not remain stuck in the past” continued to insist that Orthodox Christianity had “legitimate criticisms to make against a capitalist order that [did] not always do justice to the sacred dignity and freedom of persons entailed by the Orthodox notion of divine-human communion.”2  Indeed, it was precisely after the advent of the Bolshevik revolution that so many Orthodox thinkers began to sense internal correspondence between the two systems that made them equally wary of both. As late as 1974, Solzhenitsyn voiced this concern, to howls of western protest: “But just as we see ourselves your allies here [in the West], there also exists another alliance – at first glance a strange and surprising one, but if you think about it, one which is well-founded and easy to understand: this is the alliance between our Communist leaders and your capitalists.”3 

Suffice it to say that times have changed. What was an unthinkable alliance in the mid-20th century has become almost normative amongst the American faithful today. The deep and fundamental communitarianism of the Orthodox theological and political tradition, historically so hostile to individualism, Whig liberalism, avarice, and consumerism is, in this country at least, in disarray.  The conjunction of Orthodoxy with membership in the Acton Institute, or a political commitment to Libertarianism is, if perhaps not quite yet normative, hardly worth remarking upon.  Moreover, the natural conservativism of Orthodox intellectuals and church leaders is now every bit as likely to be characterized by a wholehearted embrace of the free market and ne0-liberal economic policies as it once was characterized by religiously conservative moral principles, a politically vacuous romanticization of monarchism, and a horror of Bolshevism.   Indeed, since the defense of the free market and neo-liberal economic policies is increasingly understood in our politically dualistic culture as the principal rationale for the rejection of Marxist political movements, many Orthodox Christians in America have come to see the embrace of Capitalism as identical with the rejection of Communism – something that still frequently comes as news to our Orthodox Christian brothers and sisters who live elsewhere, dwelling in countries where the historic Orthodox commitment to communitarianism and solidarity remains strong.

 

G.K. Chesterton “Three Acres and a Cow”

A moment’s reflection, however, should make it clear that one need not embrace capitalism to oppose communism.  It is perfectly possible to oppose Bolshevism without embracing capitalism of any variety, including our own current post-industrial finance capitalism.  As previously noted, Orthodox theologians, and many other influential religious thinkers of the 20th century, such as Solzhenitsyn, Chesterton, Simone Weil, E.F. Schumacher, and Dorothy Day, to mention only a few, did in fact oppose communism and socialism, while relentlessly criticizing capitalism. There are many reasons for this, but I would like to highlight one which has less directly to do with the communitarianism and “religious culture” so frequently emphasized by western liberals (increasingly irritated by the failure of Eastern Europeans to embrace “the West”) and more to do with actual Christian ethics. Historically, at least one of the principal reasons for Christian discomfort with capitalism, is usury.

Usury is an old-fashioned word, and there may be no small number of American Christians, Orthodox Christians included, who are uncertain of its meaning. It is, to put it plainly, the business of earning money off of money – of lending money and being paid by those who borrow it for the privilege of borrowing it and having to pay it back.  The Church Fathers regarded usury as a species of theft, and as a violation of the principle that only one who works should eat.  A person who makes money from money without contributing, through either personal labor, skillfulness, invention, or even a genuine risk of principal, in the creation of new wealth, is simply a thief, taking that which is produced by others.  The practice is frowned upon in the Old Testament (see, for instance, Exodus 22:25-27), and was utterly forbidden between Jews. Jesus’s own angry cleansing of the temple, and the scattering of the money changers whose monopolistic sale of Hasmodean currency (free of pagan images) for the purpose of purchasing sacrificial animals was a flagrant violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the prohibition upon usury between Jews, clarified his own position on the matter, and the Old Testament moral prohibition was universalized amongst Christians in the first generation of the Church’s existence.  The prohibition against usury, even as little as one percent, is reflected in and the subject of some of the earliest canons of the Church.  If, after all, lending with only the intent of receiving back one’s principal was, as Christ insisted, an activity without virtue (something even “Gentiles” did), it rather obviously followed that those who tried to make money off of the business, demanding interest on the principal, were completely out of line.  Indeed, the Patristic Fathers like St. Basil, St. Gregory the Theologian, and St. John Chrysostom, insisted that wealth was a product of either divine largesse and the abundance of nature (and therefore, belonged rightly to everyone equally), or human effort. Since wealth is only created by the making of things, and the lending of money makes nothing, lending, on this account, simply provides a socially acceptable excuse for a lender to skim wealth off the top of the wealth created, without creating any more of it.

What so many of our fellow Orthodox defenders of finance capitalism seem to fail to understand or appreciate is the depth and commitment of the traditional Christian moral objection to usury, and the related distinction in Christian thought between money and wealth.  Usury is accounted theft – the artificial creation of additional money through lending money at interest.  This additional money is then legally convertible with wealth, without any corresponding increase in the actual wealth with which it may now be converted. Finance capitalism, therefore, is a system whereby those who are already wealthy may encumber the wealth that is to be created by the actual labor of others – in the future – with the obligation of paying for their own current expenditures and lifestyles, or to finance greater subsequent lending by the wealthy to the same purpose. It is, furthermore, a practice that preys upon the fear, insecurity, genuine need, (and sometimes, greed) of those who do not have enough (or do not have as much as they have been encouraged to think themselves obliged to enjoy), in order to further enrich those who have already sequestered a disproportionate amount of the very wealth that could have, and should have, been used to meet the legitimate needs of their neighbors. 

Not only this, but usury also contributes to the way our economy destroys land base resources available for future generations.  This is what is sometimes described, oxymoronically, as capitalism’s “creative destruction”, an ongoing destructive waste created by the need for a constant growth economy, in which production and consumption are artificially sustained at a level far beyond any actual current human need. Constant growth is required in order to meet both current expenditures and to repay the excess expenditures of the past. It is here that usury begins to be apparent as one of the real motivations for what Solzhenitsyn regarded as “ruinous” in both capitalism and communism – the “gigantic scale of modern technology in industry, agriculture, and urban development” entailed by a growth economy.4

To their credit, political conservatives in this country have generally understood the danger this represents with respect to governmental spending deficits but fail to see that the problem is systemic. Almost everyone everywhere now is in debt, and a smaller and smaller proportion of the population – one that is ever more staggeringly powerful and wealthy – holds all the loan notes on what is left. Liberals, on the other hand, have more often simply embraced the need for constant growth as a universal scheme of things, and run the government on the same principles, attempting to justify it with social programs and minor wealth redistribution on the grounds of “fairness”, failing to grasp that one cannot make a fundamentally unfair system fair by lobbing care packages to those whom the system has impoverished.  This is not to say that the traditional conservative emphasis (now apparently mostly abandoned) upon fiscal prudence, or that the liberal concern for the poorest of society (an emphasis central to any Christian social order) are bad things. Both must be a part of any sane polity. But finance capitalism is the elephant in the room, trampling on even the best inclinations of its political defenders.

There are several ways out of this situation, none of them easy, and all of them requiring the development of a degree of political will heretofore absent in the USA. They go by different names: degrowth, progress without growth, distributism, and so forth, and are mostly unrecognized by an American public addicted to a bifurcation of reality into “right vs. left” or “capitalism versus communism.” It is important that we who are Orthodox, and therefore who have the theological motivation to do so, encourage deeper and more complicated thinking about these matters, educating both clergy and laity to be more cognizant of our economic obligations and options.  As long as money begets money without directly benefiting those who actually create the wealth of a society by their labor, ingenuity, and effort, driving production without concern for or direction to actual human need – we will be, as Dorothy Sayers once trenchantly put it: “A society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going…a society founded on trash and waste…a house built upon sand.”5  And we, living in such a society, will continue to be coopted and corrupted by a practice that Moses, Christ, the saints, the canons of the Church, and the common moral sense of classical antiquity, both pagan and Christian, all soundly condemned – and with good reason. 

The law of God does not change.  What was wrong once is always wrong.  American Orthodox Christians in recent decades have often claimed that homosexuality and homosexual marriage is the great “wedge issue” being introduced into the Church in order to relativize her moral guidance.  This may be – but if so, it is not the first, nor the most effective of such wedge issues. Usury was, and still is. The Fathers of the Church would hardly have been surprised at this.  Did not St. Paul himself say that “the love of money is the root of all evil?” (1 Timothy 6:10)

  1. Letter to the Soviet Leaders, Harper and Row, 1974, 22-23.
  2. Nathaniel Wood, “Orthodoxy, Capitalism, and “the West”: Is Orthodoxy Stuck in the Past?  Public Orthodoxy.  https://publicorthodoxy.org/2018/04/30/orthodoxy-capitalism-and-the-west/
  3. Warning to the West, The Bodley Head, Ltd., 1976, 10-11
  4. Letter to the Soviet Leaders, Harper and Row, 1974, 22-23
  5. Dorothy Sayers, “Why Work”, 1. https://tnl.org/wp-content/uploads/Why-Work-Dorothy-Sayers.pdf

About frcassian

Fr. Cassian Sibley is a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, serving a parish he founded in Bryan, Texas. A graduate of HBU and the recipient of a Presidential Scholarship at Rice University, he studied Sociology, English Literature, Philosophy and Religious Studies. His current intellectual interests include Patristic Theology, Missiology, Eco-Justice, Civil Liberties, Aesthetics, and the unintended consequences of modern technology. He was raised in Malawi, Africa, went to boarding school in Kenya, and has continued to be engaged in church planting, college ministry, prison ministry, homeless ministry - and Orthodox foreign missionary work, most recently in Uganda. In addition to being a priest, Fr. Cassian has gained real life experience employed as a social worker, a caseworker for juvenile delinquents, a test car driver, a grant writer, a writing tutor, an organic gardener, a school teacher, an Aflac agent, a bilingual education tutor, a newspaper delivery technician, and a watercolor instructor. He owns five acres of almost entirely unimproved rural riparian-zone forest where he and his wife, Dr. Mat. Olympia Sibley, live in a couple of small eco-cottages, mostly off the grid. He paints and writes when he can.

DistributismEconomicsEthics

One comment:

  1. Nearly all Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants no longer believe usury is a sin. They’ve changed the meaning of usury as understood in the first 800 years. This puts them (including all their bishops & priests) outside of The Church. The Church simply defines usury as any money received beyond the principal. It doesn’t matter how complex the modern system is, or if you think it’s fair, or whatever you think or some economist tells you. The Church is unanimous in this: all interest on a loan is sin. This means no credit cards, no home loans, no student loans, no car loans. The industrial growth economy cannot exist without usury. Therefore, the entire system of global industrial capitalism is evil. The scholastics & economists try to convince the “simpletons” that they don’t understand the complexities of the issue and that we’re being too rigid.

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