Sex & Money, part 1

Sex & Money, part 1 May 29, 2010

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.

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