Sex & Money, part 1

Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the South Shore Bank

I had serious reservations before taking my first job out of college.

It was, without a doubt, a do-gooder, hopey-changey gig — an internship in the social ministries department of a national Protestant denomination. Most of the work would involve anti-Apartheid activism or lobbying corporations for better environmental practices. And part of the job involved overseeing the denomination's "alternative investments" portfolio. This was mostly George Bailey-type stuff — certificates of deposit in community-based and minority-owned banks serving underserved communities, plus a handful of smaller investments in non-FDIC-insured community development loan funds.

I'm very proud now of the work I did maintaining and expanding those investments. And I quickly became a zealous booster of this kind of investment, putting money to work putting people to work. It's been 20 years, but I'm still eager whenever I get the chance to sit down with church or nonprofit boards or with individual investors to encourage them to dedicate a portion of their investments to this kind of modest-financial-return, massive-social-return, stable and secure investment. It's a really Good Thing.

But at the time, I had my doubts. Specifically, I was worried because all those investments were based on interest and the Bible doesn't look kindly on interest. I was a good evangelical Christian and therefore what the Bible had to say mattered to me a great deal. (I was also 22 years old, burdened with the moral clarity that comes from being that age and not having yet failed at anything important.)

So I started off doing what any good evangelical Christian would do — I conducted one of those verse-by-verse word-studies, looking at every passage I could find that dealt with lending and borrowing and investing and usury.

This study was not encouraging. I had been looking for wiggle room or an escape clause or some kind of loophole that would explicitly permit the good work I was eager to do. But what the Bible has to say about usury doesn't allow for any wiggle room. Nowadays, for instance, we use the term "usury" to mean "too much interest," but the Bible doesn't really allow for that distinction. Here, for example, is Nehemiah:

"What you are doing is not right. … Let the exacting of usury stop! Give back to them
immediately …
the usury you are charging them — the hundredth part of the money, grain,
new wine and oil."

"The hundredth part." For Nehemiah, charging 1 percent was shameful usury. The low-interest loans I was championing through our alternative investing still charged more than that.

And the Gospels weren't any help at all. Jesus did not merely reinforce the prohibition against usury, he reached past it — forbidding lending with the expectation of repayment.

I had studied myself into a bind. On the one hand, I earnestly believed, in that murky, visceral way we evangelicals have, that God had led me to this new job. And the job seemed like an exciting chance to learn a great deal while helping to make the world a better place in meaningful, tangible ways.

But on the other hand there was all that stuff in the Bible.

You may be thinking, well, so what? Who cares what the Bible says? I did. And I do. I'm an evangelical Christian and we take what the Bible has to say very seriously. That's kind of our thing.

As you can see, my dilemma turned out to be much larger than just whether or not to accept this one potentially usurious job. My encounter with the biblical prohibition against interest was compounded by the realization that interest is everywhere. I hadn't just encountered a problem with this job, I had encountered a problem with capitalism itself. You can't have a free market economy without interest and I wasn't sure that left me with any meaningful alternative. (This was early 1990 — I'd spent the previous year watching brave people with candles  convince the world that the leading alternatives had turned out to be a Bad Idea.)

So I was in a bit of a pickle.

Fortunately, I was still living on a college campus filled with people smarter and better-read than me. I went to a professor in the graduate program in Christian economic development (yes, there is such a thing) and I more or less begged him to help me reconcile what the Bible said about interest with, well, a world full of poor people in need of access to credit. Lending and investing and earning interest was what this professor did and what he trained others to do and the results of that work seemed, undeniably, positive and righteous and good. But it also seemed to me, following my evangelical word-study on the subject, to be explicitly forbidden by the holy and authoritative Word of God.

In retrospect, it was incredibly generous of that professor to take the time in the middle of the end-of-the-semester crunch to help me through my crisis. I'm sure he hadn't planned on spending half an afternoon in an unscheduled meeting with an undergrad from the English department who had proof-texted himself into a corner, but that is what he did and I'm very grateful for that.

Most of what he told me that day was simply common sense. He didn't engage my list of proof-texts directly at first, but just sort of summarized a few of the massive and pertinent ways in which the modern economy of the modern world is irreconcilably different from the ancient economy of the ancient world. Good point, that. And then he patiently allowed me to recite my litany of proof-texts, discussing with me how the principles at stake in each one remained vital and important even though those particulars could not be made to work today in our very different world.

What Moses and Nehemiah and the prophets were teaching, he said, was that exploiting the poor was evil — a sin, an abomination. His life's work, he said, was shaped by that very principle — protecting the poor from being exploited by being excluded from access to the credit that could empower them to buy decent homes or to form sustainable livelihoods. In our very different world and very different context, applying the letter of the law would mean, for those people, violating its spirit. That might allow for an abominable illusion of self-righteousness, but it would also hurt the poor.

And not hurting the poor was the whole point, originally.

"Yes, but …" I said one last time, after having said it quite a bit already working through my long list of biblical passages. "Yes, but what do we do about all those verses? Did we Christians make some kind of ruling or something? Or did we just wake up one day and realize suddenly that all of our churches, schools, hospitals and seminaries had bank accounts?"

What we realized, he told me, was that interest works. It can be made to work for evil, exploiting and enslaving the poor, or it can be made to work for good, liberating them by enabling them to save and invest. We haven't abandoned the morality that in another time and place expressed itself through the prohibition against interest, we've just learned how to express that same morality in this time and place, in this world and this economy.*

I took the job.

My more conservative evangelical friends were a bit worried that I'd gone off to work with those social-justice liberal types, but mostly they were relieved that I'd finally gotten past my biblical dilemma over interest and markets and capitalism. I had come around, they felt, to a more reasonable understanding of the Bible.

Some of them never quite seemed to believe that all those proof-texts I'd been so troubled by were really even in the Bible. They'd read it themselves, after all, and hadn't noticed it having much to say about usury, wealth, possessions and the poor. Surely they'd have noticed such a thing.

Others acknowledged those passages were in there, but worried I had been in danger of becoming some kind of wild-eyed zealot by trying to take the more idealistic passages too literally. (That phrase — "too literally" — was jarring to my young evangelical ears. First time I'd heard it. I made a mental note of that, about which more later.)

Still others, the dispensationalists, thought I had been going astray by trying to apply millennial texts or Old Testament commandments to what they called the "Church Age" world of today. (I'm still not clear as to why my dispensationalist friends regard the early chapters of the book of Acts as not applying to this "Church Age" — but as longtime readers of this blog realize, there are many things I don't understand about what my dispensationalist friends believe.)

The basic gist of all of this — the guidance I was given by my more conservative evangelical brethren and by those in the church and school I grew up in — was that, yes, the Bible does seem to say some very harsh and strict things about money and interest and lending, but what really matters in all of that is just the most general principles. Don't be greedy. Don't let the pursuit of money take the place of the pursuit of God. That sort of thing. Abide by the general principles and try not to get derailed by the legalistic details.

They were pleased that in giving up my objection to interest I seemed to have learned those lessons. Well, at first they were pleased. Eventually they were appalled that I seemed to have learned those lessons a bit too well. Because eventually I began to take this same approach, the approach they had taught me, and to apply it not just to the strictest and harshest-seeming biblical teaching about money, but also to the strictest and harshest-seeming biblical teaching about sex. And even to what the Bible seemed to be saying, in a very few places, about homosexuality.

This application of what they had taught me made them angry and scared and convinced many of them that I had abandoned my faith altogether.

But that's another story. Or, at least, it's another long chapter in this story. So we'll get to that in parts two and three.

Before leaving this chapter, though, let me say a few more things about usury. The Bible forbids it — explic
itly and unambiguously. But
I want you to use it. And I think God wants you to use it.

You may have noticed lately that the stock market has become an increasingly volatile place where the premiums paid for the risks involved no longer seem adequate. Let me recommend a no-risk alternative. Take some of that money out of stocks and buy a CDCD — a community development certificate of deposit — in ShoreBank. Your money will be fully insured by the FDIC and it will earn you a modest rate of return while the good usurers there at the bank put it to work creating jobs and providing access to affordable housing for the working poor. An abomination, but the win-win kind.

If you're comfortable with a very slightly higher level of risk, consider investing in the Grameen Bank or in an international microcredit fund like Opportunity International. They take your money and lend it at a modest rate of interest to, say, a seamstress in Dhaka who has been renting a sewing machine. The loan lets her buy her own sewing machine and keep more of what she earns for her family and you make a little bit of money on the deal. Investments like that are riskier only because they aren't backed up by the FDIC, but their repayment rates are off-the-charts good. These benevolent usurers don't know how to make bad loans.

I could show you a dozen Bible verses condemning the practices of these groups, but because of their usurious banking the blind receive their sight, the lame walk and the poor have good news brought to them. Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at such things.

- – - – - – - – - – - – -

* I found myself, a few years later, having a very similar conversation with Muhammad Yunus, who has since then received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts through the Grameen Bank to extend credit to the poorest of the poor in Bangladesh.

Yunus is a Muslim running a bank in a Muslim country. Islam forbids lending at interest. The Koran and Islamic religious law is not ambiguous on that point. When I asked Dr. Yunus if he personally had any religious qualms about lending at interest, his answer was nearly identical to what I'd heard years earlier from my Christian professor.

  • K.Chen

    To automatically dismiss all such distinctions as merely arbitrary shows a lack of respect for different cultures rather than the reverse.
    I must have trouble explaining my point, because what you state there is not what I’m doing. I’m only dismissing the normative distinctions, the ones that amount to “It’s right because our culture says so.” The bases that you stated – good working dogs, different flavor, health concerns – are NOT normative.
    And having a particular taboo connected to a cultural ethos still sounds like a highly developed concept of normativity to me.

    You’ve got some of what I said and some of what Lori said mixed up together.

    not all things that are culture are created equal. Some are better than others, often by multiple measuring sticks.
    Again, once one introduces such measurements, one is implicitly (and rightly) rejecting the concept of normativity.

    …I think we’re using normativity differently, because I personally reserve the right to make (careful, responsible, reasoned) moral judgements about a society against a (or several) theoretical model societies.

    That almost sounds like one has a duty to one’s culture or beliefs. I don’t see any room there for questioning whether the beliefs help or harm one’s self or others. Or more correctly, whether the actions based on those beliefs do so.

    You see the nature of duty and beliefs as much more draconian and rigid than I do then.

  • Tonio

    I was replying to several posts at once, so I apologize for the confusion.

    I think we’re using normativity differently, because I personally reserve the right to make (careful, responsible, reasoned) moral judgements about a society against a (or several) theoretical model societies.

    I said nothing to indicate that people shouldn’t reserve that right. My point is not about particular cultural norms, but how these are defended or criticized. I use “normativity” to refer to particular defenses or criticisms that are grounded in the idea that a particular norm is right or wrong by virtue of it being a norm. I’m condemning the idea that prevalence equals goodness, or that conformance and morality are the same thing. Using an earlier example, I’m astounded by some Americans and some English who insist that the other country drives on the objectively “wrong” side of the road.

  • K.Chen

    I said nothing to indicate that people shouldn’t reserve that right. My point is not about particular cultural norms, but how these are defended or criticized. I use “normativity” to refer to particular defenses or criticisms that are grounded in the idea that a particular norm is right or wrong by virtue of it being a norm. I’m condemning the idea that prevalence equals goodness, or that conformance and morality are the same thing. Using an earlier example, I’m astounded by some Americans and some English who insist that the other country drives on the objectively “wrong” side of the road.

    I think you’re looking for “enthnocentrism” or “cultural centrism” or perhaps simply “cultural arrogance.” As to the specific point of what side of the road you drive on, I get the point, even if I doubt most Americans or English who have that reaction about the “wrong” side of the road actually feel all strongly about it.
    As to the more general point, I don’t think the instinct to defend your own culture or obey your own taboos, or expect others to is dangerous in and of itself. In fact, as much tragedy as it can cause, the way that groups use taboos (among other things) to put up walls between insiders and outsiders has obviously evolved over time as a survival mechanism. It is how we respond to the clash of cultures – whether we talk, we fight, or we ignore – that matters to me, not how conscious they are of the arbitrary nature of many of the differences between cultures. To run with the car example, the issue is not whether Sam the American Eagle thinks of the English as silly for driving on the objectively wrong side of the problem, but whether Sam feels so strongly about it, that he mistreats the English, or invades their country or some such.

  • Tonio

    I don’t think the instinct to defend your own culture or obey your own taboos, or expect others to is dangerous in and of itself.

    I agree to a point. The potential problem with cultures and taboos is that they can, and have been, used against disadvantaged groups and against individuals. To a certain extent, those things are less important than individual freedom of conscience.

    the way that groups use taboos (among other things) to put up walls between insiders and outsiders has obviously evolved over time as a survival mechanism.

    I wouldn’t say it’s obvious. In some cases, the original targets may not have been outsiders, but minorities and individuals who were wrongly perceived as threats to the social order.

    It is how we respond to the clash of cultures – whether we talk, we fight, or we ignore – that matters to me, not how conscious they are of the arbitrary nature of many of the differences between cultures.

    Yes and no. I see that awareness of cultural differences as driving much of our response to intercultural conflicts. Implicit in my argument is that cultures shouldn’t have to clash. While conflict cannot be eliminated completely, differing cultures don’t automatically have to perceive either other as threats. As long as a culture’s practices aren’t oppressing individuals or groups within the culture, or threatening to do the same with other cultures, one would hope for some kind of “live and let live” across cultures. I realize this may sound too Sunshine Lollipops & Rainbows, so I’ll put it another way – it’s none of America’s damn business whether the English drive on the left or right, and vice versa.
    I see this problem even on an interpersonal level, where the “mommy wars” amount to two sides each thinking it knows best how individual women should run their lives. (That’s my perception, anyway.) True, the sides aren’t forcing women to bend to these preferences. Still, no one’s individual life choices should be subject to community approval.

  • K.Chen

    Implicit in my argument is that cultures shouldn’t have to clash. While conflict cannot be eliminated completely, differing cultures don’t automatically have to perceive either other as threats. As long as a culture’s practices aren’t oppressing individuals or groups within the culture, or threatening to do the same with other cultures, one would hope for some kind of “live and let live” across cultures.

    I think we have mutually exclusive orientations on this topic then, because I see conflict (abstractly) as a necessary and good thing, where conflicts create crucibles, and good and bad beliefs can be sorted out. Likewise, on the personal level, I don’t want my community to always keep mum about my personal choices, I think some sort of approval or disapproval feed back mechanism is important.
    Admittedly, the side on which you drive on the road is a silly example, but if I truly felt strongly about it, the response is not “mind my own business” but to try to change your mind, and vice versa.

  • Tonio

    I see conflict (abstractly) as a necessary and good thing, where conflicts create crucibles, and good and bad beliefs can be sorted out.

    That would be useful if the various sides keep somewhat open minds. That wouldn’t happen if one or more sides have an attitude of cultural arrogance.

    I don’t want my community to always keep mum about my personal choices, I think some sort of approval or disapproval feed back mechanism is important.

    Unless an individual’s personal choices cause harm, the community shouldn’t approve or disapprove of those in the first place. Admittedly all choices have some degree of impact on others. A community overruling an individual’s freedom of conscience does harm to the individual, so the question becomes whether the choices in a given instance would do greater harm.

  • K.Chen

    Unless an individual’s personal choices cause harm, the community shouldn’t approve or disapprove of those in the first place. Admittedly all choices have some degree of impact on others. A community overruling an individual’s freedom of conscience does harm to the individual, so the question becomes whether the choices in a given instance would do greater harm.

    Feedback and overruling are two very, very different things, just as freedom of religion and freedom from religion are two very, very different things. As discussed before, I disagree with the utility of the “harm/no harm” metric.

  • MercuryBlue


    Only if hypothetical-you killed the person you ate.

    I don’t see that as orthogonal to the morality of cannibalism.
    I think you misread me; what I was saying is orthogonal etc etc is kuru, which is a real fun-sounding disease that evidence suggests is passed via cannibalism. For bonus points that’s the same mechanism as the transmission of mad cow disease. (Why did anybody ever think it was a good idea to turn cows that died of disease into feed for other cows?) Doesn’t have anything to do with whether cannibalism is an acceptable practice. Does make cannibalism a bad idea.

  • http://j.com/ Tonio

    Feedback and overruling are two very, very different things, just as freedom of religion and freedom from religion are two very, very different things.

    My point about “overruling” wasn’t intended to mean that the community would force the individual to comply. (Although if it was one person against an entire community, I can imagine such a person ceasing resistance out of fear.)
    If I expressed an opinion about what job you should hold, or who you should marry, or whether you should have kids and how many, that would imply that you aren’t competent to make your own decisions and that I should make them for you. It would imply that I believed I had a right to make those decisions for you, even if I never acted on those opinions. Part of the issue is that my opinion would be an uninformed one, since I wouldn’t be living your life and I wouldn’t know your innermost thoughts or feelings or desires. So I would see agnosticism about your personal choices as the only responsibile course.

  • http://j.com/ Tonio

    Doesn’t have anything to do with whether cannibalism is an acceptable practice. Does make cannibalism a bad idea.

    I see the morality of cannibalism as separate from both of those. Kuru might lead to a taboo against it, but part of my point is that we shouldn’t assume that something is wrong simply because it’s considered taboo.

  • K.Chen

    If I expressed an opinion about what job you should hold, or who you should marry, or whether you should have kids and how many, that would imply that you aren’t competent to make your own decisions and that I should make them for you. It would imply that I believed I had a right to make those decisions for you, even if I never acted on those opinions.

    … Yeah, I don’t feel that way, most people I know don’t feel that way, and most people I know don’t act that way anymore. We call what you apparently abhor perfectly normal conversation sometimes, and being a friend other times.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Pius Thicknesse

    It’s one thing to have chew-the-fat chats behind other people’s backs about what it is they did or didn’t do in their lives that you don’t approve of.
    It’s another thing to institutionalize this attitude into governmental policy.

  • http://j.com/ Tonio

    We call what you apparently abhor perfectly normal conversation sometimes, and being a friend other times.

    I suspect you and I are talking about two different things. You seem to be describing instances where a person seeks out a friend’s advice on what jobs to take, or about a new boyfriend or girlfriend. The operative phrase there is “seeks out.” Or even instances where the friend might realize that the boyfriend or girlfriend has major issues and seeks to clue the first person into this.
    I’m talking about much different instances. Unsolicited advice, unwanted attempts to play matchmaker, telling someone he/she shouldn’t date someone of a different race or religion, telling a woman that the only proper or moral role for her is mother, telling a woman she shouldn’t be an engineer, or telling a man he shouldn’t be a stay-at home dad.

  • K.Chen

    You seem to be describing instances where a person seeks out a friend’s advice on what jobs to take, or about a new boyfriend or girlfriend.

    I’m not. I’m talking about unsolicited free advice and opinions. And that’s just the stuff I appreciate.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Pius Thicknesse

    Given how rankling it can be to get unsolicited free advice and opinions from people who really ought to keep their mouths shut, what makes you think it’s any more acceptable to make it a government policy to butt in on people who don’t have the means to make their way in life, and use leverage over their income to tell them what to do?
    Or, for that matter, what makes it socially acceptable to institutionalize a de facto cultural tendency to treat the lives of poor people as the subject for ridicule and unwarranted, un-needed “helpful advice” from people who wouldn’t dream of contradicting their boss when that boss makes a poor business decision?
    Power changes lots, and one thing it changes is who gets all the well-intentioned unwarranted interference.

  • http://colorlessblue.blogspot.com colorlessblue

    I got all confused, reading the thread in small increments and under the influence because an injury put me on limited computer time, so I don’t even know how it got to unsolicited advice, but that’s one of my least favourite things in the world. Maybe if you’re not under pressure to fit all the time, or if you’re not expected to be quiet while you’re ordered around, you can see it as a friendly gesture, but otherwise, it’s a tentative of control, and infuriating. I have the privilege of choosing my career, my friends, my partners and my hobbies, but even I still have all kinds of experiences, going from people just walking up to me to button up my shirt (which is open over another top and totally decent already, and which you can’t button while obeying the laws of physics because store-bought clothes aren’t made to fit me, and if they weren’t as arrogant as to think they know more about me than myself, and have a right to touch me uninvited, they’d know it), to being berated on the street to remove my jacket because I’m too covered for the weather, to strangers telling me I’m ordering lunch wrong and should eat something else instead.

  • Tonio

    I’m talking about unsolicited free advice and opinions. And that’s just the stuff I appreciate.

    While one can think that one knows what is best for another person, one can never really know this. (This principle assumes competent adults, as opposed to say, children.) Among people who offer unsolicited advice, there’s a minority that seems to have a messiah complex, where “playing God” seems to feed their ego. A majority seem to operate from good intentions, mistakenly assuming that their own life experience is applicable to everyone else. “Should” is a loaded concept that is usually involved with unsolicited advice, and usually not involved with solicited advice.
    Pius’s point about power comes into play when the phenomenon extends across an entire culture. Cultural sexism means, in part, that women are told explicitly and implicitly by their cultures that some personal choices aren’t acceptable for them but are acceptable for men.

  • hagsrus
  • Jay

    This all boils down to: “Jesus wasn’t addressing Modern, Sophisticated Us. Except when He was. We will let you know, on a case-by-case basis, whether to hew slavishly to His words or completely ignore them.” In this case, His intent was unambiguous: you GIVE the money, you don’t LEND it. There is no business case to be made.

  • Interrobang

    A conflict like this one is what made me an atheist — the Bible contradicted the world in a big, obvious way, and I thought to myself, “Who am I going to believe, the Bible, or my lying eyes?” and so I did the easy thing and ditched the Bible and all the baggage that goes with it and went with the world.
    By the way, there is a substantial amount of evidence that the Neutral people of southern Ontario regularly practiced cannibalism, primarily of their war captives (hence the reason why no one but no one wanted to go to war with them, and they became called the “Neutrals”), but nobody really wants to talk about that, even when they’ve just pulled another human bone with human teeth marks all over it out of another Neutral midden.

  • Daughter

    Off-topic here; I need some advice. When I was a kid, my adult teeth often started growing in before the baby teeth would fall out, so usually the dentist had to pull them. If we waited too long before pulling them, the adult teeth grew in crooked. Fortunately, all my crooked teeth are on the bottom, so they’re not very noticeable when I smile.
    My daughter, who just turned five, is having the same issue. One of her adult teeth came in a few months ago, and when I called her dentist to ask about it, her assistant said the dentist never pulls teeth in those instances. Instead, she prefers to wait until the teeth fall out on their own. I accepted that at the time, but since then, a second adult tooth has started to emerge, and DD is still a full year away from losing any of her baby teeth.
    My daughter’s semi-annual checkup is next week, and I’m trying to figure out what to do. If we go to the appointment and the dentist maintains her stance, I don’t know if our insurance will pay for us to have a second opinion. (I plan to call tomorrow to find out). But in the meantime, I want to find out as much information as I can before the appointment.
    What I’m really wondering is the rationale for pulling the baby teeth vs. not pulling them. Does anyone know if one is better than the other? All I can see now is my daughter in school having two rows of teeth, with its accompanying discomfort and teasing by other kids, or needing braces in five years because her adult teeth are out of alignment, when both could have been prevented. (Given that we’re trying to pull ourselves out of several years of financial setbacks, I doubt we’d be able to afford braces in 5 years). But if there’s a good reason for not pulling the baby teeth, I’d like to know what it is.

  • Daughter

    sorry, didn’t mean to post that here, but under the current topic!

  • http://www.pornoizlesex.net porno

    What a great time! Can’t wait for next year!

  • http://www.savetubevideo.com from youtube to mp3

    This is an unloving, screwed-up culture we live in (among all the other screwed-up cultures) and I think it’s wonderful that there are voices like Fred’s hollering “NO!” He’s a prophet, I think.


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