Why usury is wrong

First of all, most people do not know what usury actually is. They think it’s something like “lending at too high of an interest rate.” This is false. The interest rate is irrelevant. Usury is lending for profit. Lending here refers only to personal, unsecured loans. Other contracts that are loan-like, are not usury. For a detailed discussion of what is and is not usury, please see Zippy’s FAQ.

Usury is unsecured personal lending for profit. This is rampant in our modern world. Credit cards, bank personal loans, and even some mortgages (depending on the terms of the contract) are usury. There are a great many people in the financial industry who are usurers by profession. If they can feed their children and be a law-abiding member of society by doing that, how can it be bad? Credit cards may have pitfalls, but surely they can be helpful to those in times of need, right?

Wrong.

To understand why usury is wrong, let me first ask you: Is slavery wrong? Is stealing wrong? What about fraud? All of these things are obviously wrong, so it can actually be hard to justify exactly why they are wrong. Most people now days have such a visceral disgusted reaction to slavery that they can’t even start to put into words why it might be wrong.

One simple way of looking at slavery, stealing, and fraud is to ask: Would you like them done to you? Would you want to be enslaved? Would you want to be stolen from? Would you want to be defrauded? Most reasonable people say “No, I would not.” There are edge cases, like when a desperate man sees slavery as a better way out, or when a falsely merciful man looks the other way while being stolen from, or when a lonely widow enjoys the company of the fraudster, in spite of his lies. But we rightly see these edge cases as just that. They are aberrations to what is normally a simple moral judgement. Don’t enslave people. Don’t steal. Don’t be fraudulent. It’s not rocket science.

But when it comes to usury, we no longer have this instinctive moral intuition. Many generations ago, our forefathers did have this intuition about usury, but somehow we have lost it. In order to try and regain our moral intuitions, lets compare usury with some things we know are wrong. Usury is distinct from slavery, theft, and fraud, but it is very similar to all three.

Usury is like slavery, in that it treats another man, and his labor, as personal property. In slavery, the slave is the personal property of the master. In usury, the borrower’s future earnings become the personal property of the lender. Who legally owns your self? You. Who legally owns the product of your labors? You. In slavery, you are sold. In usury, your labor is sold. Both usury and slavery are offenses against the personal dignity of all mankind. By treating man as a tradable commodity, we offend the dignity due him as an image bearer of God. By treating man’s work as a tradable commodity, we offend the dignity due to him as an image bearer of God. Usury is not the same exact thing as chattel slavery, but they are both wrong for very similar reasons. They are both ways of treating people less like people, and more like things.

Usury is like theft, in that it unjustly transfers wealth. In theft, the property does not belong to the thief, because he did nothing to justify having it. In usury, the profit does not belong to the lender, for the same reason.

Usury is like fraud, in that it takes advantage of someone’s lack of understanding in order to get him to give up what is rightfully his.

Usury is wrong, because it is selling something that does not exist. The usurer lays claim to some thing in the future. But the future has not happened. The future does not exist yet. No one can predict the future perfectly.

Usury is wrong.

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Intentional Spiritual Training

Want to be a good guitar player? There are a million teachers out there, thousands of online tutorial videos, hundreds of books, and many well established social institutions dedicated to fostering musical skill.

Want to be rich? There are a million books out there, thousands of teachers, hundreds of blogs, and many well established social institutions dedicated to fostering business skill.

Want to be a good underwater basket weaver? There are a few books out there, a couple of teachers, a blog or two, and probably at least one established social institution dedicated to giving you a major in that.

For any concrete skill or life state you want to acquire, there is concrete, actionable advice available to help you on your journey. But for things of the spirit? Well… There are many books and teachers and churches which all purport to help you on your journey, but things are much less straightforward.

With worldly skills, most teachers agree on what is good and what is not, what will help and what will hurt. Sure, they may put their own spin on it, but one guitar teacher will tell you to finger the G chord the same way as another. But as to how to grow closer to God? You could ask a thousand teachers and get more than a thousand different answers.

Even better, with worldly skills, there is immediate feedback and a sense of progress. You know when you’ve played a wrong note in a song, and you know within a second of having done it. But our relationship with God moves at a much slower pace. Often seasons of life don’t seem to have any value, or be getting us anywhere. Sometimes we feel very close to God, but wonder if it is a mere emotion or an intimation of reality. There is no obvious objective marker we can use to see if we’re progressing or not. Was I closer to God in October or September? This year or last year? I don’t know. How would I even begin to measure it?

Our relationship to God is objective. It is real, and it is the most important facet of our being. Yet, at the same time it is one of the most vague and difficult to understand things we’ll ever struggle through.

I can’t offer very good answers, because these are hard questions, but I do have some ideas.

How do we grow closer to God?

Fall back on what has traditionally worked. A quick glance at the lives of the saints (or the early church members in Acts if you’re a Protestant) reveals many common threads. To quote zippy:

There are tried and true methods for doing this: prayer, fasting, almsgiving, spiritual and corporal works of mercy, devotionals, pilgrimages, studying, and most importantly the sacraments.

Pick one and try to do more of it this month. Don’t expect immediate results. Patience is a virtue, after all, so persevere for longer than you think you can before deciding that it doesn’t work.

How do we measure our spiritual development?

The only real answer to this that I know of is “You will know them by their fruits.” So, keep track of your “fruits.” Important fruits to track are:

  • How often you go to church
  • How often you pray
  • How often you fast
  • How much you give to charity
  • How often you sin. (For Catholics, it is key to track any mortal sins you might be struggling with, and to go to confession immediately after doing so)

If you can’t answer those basic questions, then don’t complain about not knowing how close to God you are. These are all objective, measurable, important facets of your relationship to God. Your relationship to God is more than the sum of these things, but it definitely includes these things.

In conclusion

Growing spiritually is hard, and not made any easier by the conflicting information about how to do it. But, regardless of how confused and far from God you may be, if you thought about it for a few seconds, I’m sure you could come up with something that you could do which would be good for your spiritual growth.

So what are you waiting for?

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Kalb and Social Action

James Kalb has been writing about social action, and floundering Catholic attempts at affecting the world. I had a comment:

I get the feeling that Kalb wavers between forced optimism and overwhelming cynicism. But perhaps I’m just projecting.

I think the heart of modern “social action” issues lies in our lack of a shared conception of Good. We all agree that murder is wrong, but is abortion murder? There society disagrees. We all agree that theft is wrong, but are forcible government redistributions theft? There society disagrees. Etc.

I don’t know anything about the pre-industrial world, but it does at least seem like people knew what was a virtue and what was a vice.

Our confusion about the nature of the good is the heart of the issue. And this confusion can only stem from lack of personal knowledge of God, who is the source of all Good; who is Goodness Itself.

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The Transcendentals

The doctrine of the transcendentals is amazing, and most Christians don’t know it. As Thomas Aquinas put it in the Summa theologiae I, q. 16, a. 3:

As ‘good’ has the ratio of the desirable, so the ‘true’ has an order to knowledge. Now everything is knowable insofar as it has being. For this reason it is said in the third book of De Anima that ‘the soul is in a sense all things,’ through the senses and the intellect. And therefore, as good is convertible with being, so is the true. But as good adds to being the notion of desirable, so the true adds a relation to the intellect.

This means that God is Good, True, and Real, because these things are convertible to each other. Truth is Goodness. Reality is True. In God, who is One, and perfectly unified, these aspects are all the same. We merely perceive them as distinct.

This idea matters quite a lot. This idea contains within it the ideas that:

  • Reality is good. “God saw that it was good.” This created world has intrinsic value. It is better that there is something than that there be nothing.
  • Truth is good. The first thing the devil did was lie, and pervert the Truth.
  • Truth is reality. A lie is is thus a distortion of reality.

Lies are a direct attack on the Good, from the direction of truth, just like murder is a direct attack on the Good, from the direction of life (which is a key part of reality.) To ignore reality, or to distort it is fundamentally, intrinsically bad.

 

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If you love me

Keep my commands.

Love is an act of the will; to will the good of the other with no thought for the egotistical self.

To love God is to follow Him in His great plan through obedience to His commands.

What are God’s commands? I seem to recall Ten of them:

I am the LORD your God:
you shall not have strange Gods before me.

To follow this first of the 10 great commandments is probably the hardest. This means truly treating God as our last end. We should not allow ourselves to usurp His place. We should not allow the things of this world to usurp His place. “Eat of the fruit and you will be like God” was the temptation right from the beginning. Usurping God’s place is our first sin, Pride, and it is as natural to fallen humans as breathing. We constantly look out for ourselves, when we are not what really matters. God is first, the uncaused cause of all things and He deserves to be treated as such.

You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.

This follows on a much more practical level the first command. If we truly see God as the center of our lives, the purpose of our existence, the God before whom we have no others; then we shall certainly treat his name with reverence, not flippancy.

Remember to keep holy the LORD’S Day.

Go to Mass. It is not optional. Sacrifice is central to Christianity–Christ himself was the ultimate sacrifice. We should not fear to sacrifice our time to the Lord.

Honor your father and your mother.

This is probably the simplest to understand and apply. But I think it extends analogically to all authority. If we want to obey God’s commands, we should also obey those He has placed in authority over us.

You shall not kill.

Typically interpreted as a prohibition of murder rather than all killing, this command of the Lord’s serves to highlight the fundamental sanctity of life. If God created all things, we should hesitate to destroy his creation, even in the cases where it is necessary. God is Life Itself, and killing destroys life. How can a murderer say he loves God?

You shall not commit adultery.

Right relationship is impossible without honesty. Adultery is at the same time a betrayal, a lie, and violation against chastity. Remembering Jesus’s take on this commandment, we should be careful to not even lust in our hearts, for that is a kind of adultery.

You shall not steal.

Why shouldn’t I just take what I want when I want it? The correct answer to this question builds civilization. The false answer leads to anarchy and tyranny. This is an application of the golden rule. A thief seeks to cheat reality and avoid the curse of Adam. All men must work for their bread. If men think they can steal, they will not work. If men do not work, there will be nothing to steal. Stealing is self-defeating.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

Lies are literally the tools of the devil. From the very beginning when Satan tricked Eve, deceit was the method. We act based on information. False information leads to bad actions. Lies are false information. Lying directly causes bad actions.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.

Beyond just the lust at play here, I think this command also points to social standing. We see great men and their lovely wives and are naturally tempted to covet. But this we shall not do, if we seek to honor God.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods.

Beyond just the greed at play here, I think this command also points to material power. We see wealthy men and their wonderful homes and are naturally tempted to covet. But, no.

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Equal Equality

In my interminable discussions on equality (or the lack thereof), there has been a frequent conflation of natural equality and legal equality on the part of those who wrongly claim that “all men are created equal.”

Legal equality is man-made. In a society which allows slavery, some may be born a slave, and therefore are legally unequal.

Natural equality is (supposedly) God-made. The existence of this form of equality is the justification for doing away with all formal class-distinctions at birth and treating all men as equal before the law.

In modern America we have formal, legal equality. In 1700s Britain, they did not. This formal-legal equality is present sometimes and not present at others.

The “natural equality” is unchanging. Either it exists everywhere and always, or it does not exist at all. If it exists, it makes laws that treat men of different classes differently before the law unjust. These men may not have legal-equality, but they ought to. If it does not exist, there is no basis for the claim that “all men should be treated equally before the law.”

In what sense are men naturally equal?

Obviously not physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually; the four individual characteristics of any man. Are men naturally social equals? Not really. All men are born into (some kind of) a family, and some families are naturally higher up the social hierarchy than others.

Mr. Wright, and other defenders of the status-quo take as a given this natural equality, and use it to argue in favor of the existence of legal equality. But I do not see any evidence for the existence of this natural equality. I will not assume it exists merely on their word. They must demonstrate why men are equal. In what sense?

The best answer anyone has yet given to my question is: “All men are created in the image of God.” Here we have a powerful argument that there is a minimum baseline of dignity due to all men. But to treat a shared minimum as proof of universal equality is a mistake. This minimum-baseline approach shows why something like slavery can be inherently evil, while something like monarchy or feudalism is not. Chattel slavery treats a man as an object, and not as a man, which is wrong. Bowing to the King treats one man as greater than another, which might be wrong in a particular instance, but might very well be right.

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Equal

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Wrong. These truths are not self evident.

Definition of Equal:

  • Having the same quantity, measure, or value as another.
  • Having the same privileges, status, or rights: citizens equal before the law. 

All men are not created equal, in any specific meaningful sense of the word.

No measurable quantity related to people is uniform across all people. This is another way of saying no two people are physically equal. (Though twins may be very very similar)

No two people have the same value. Value is a tricky word, but the ultimate arbiter of value is God. He is eternal, and He judges rightly, so His opinion on what has value and what does not is final. God does not value all humans equally. My evidence:

“As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated. “ – Romans 9:13

God valued Jacob more than Esau. Therefore at least one human was valued differently, which is enough to break the idea of “equality.” But we can even deduce the great diversity of loves God has for mankind based on the nature of love itself. Love is relational, and as such necessarily takes different forms in different relationships. Since every relationship is unique, all perfect love is unique, which means God loves us all unequally.

What about legal equality? Some countries may grant it in name, but no country grants it in practice. The word of an officer is always taken higher than the word of a peasant. Members of the government always have authority over their subjects. That is just what being in government means.

In no specific sense are all men created equal, unless equal is taken to mean only something vague and pleasant. But if equal is taken to describe some facet of reality, then unfortunately for the idolaters of equality, their idol is a false one, nowhere to be found on this earth, or (probably) in the next.

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