"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Evil of Moneylending

Just released late last year is a book that manages to be both 'ancient and ever new,' that is, to draw on ancient sources still relevant today in our ongoing discussion about fiscal issues and policies in  the world's economies: Brenda Llewellyn Ihssen, They Who Give from Evil: The Response of the Eastern Church to Moneylending in the Early Christian Era (Pickwick, 2012), 207pp. I asked the author, who teaches at Pacific Lutheran University, for an interview and here are her thoughts:

AD: Tell us a bit about your background.

BLI: Well let me begin by saying “thank you” to you for this opportunity to answer some questions about myself and my work. I was born and raised in western Washington State, on the Puget Sound. I completed my Bachelor’s Degree in English and Education, and taught English in the public school system in Oregon state for a few years. Though I enjoyed my job and knew that I was called to the vocation of teaching, still I desired to study the early history and theology of the Christian church. I took a leave from teaching and returned to school; I completed my Master’s degree in theology at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, California, and then my PhD at the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto. After I graduated I returned to teaching, but not to the junior high classroom. I returned to the Pacific Northwest, where I teach as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion at Pacific Lutheran University.

AD: What led you to write this book in particular?

BLI: This began as a dissertation. I was directed towards this topic by my Doctor-Father, T. Allan Smith at the Faculty of Theology (St. Michael’s). Many dissertations emerge from places of deep passion for students; this was not my situation. That said, I found myself quite wooed by the topic of usury and by those about whom I was writing; quite quickly, their concerns became mine. I cannot help but think that this had something to do with the fact that I did not grow up with wealth and as a graduate student I was deeply in debt.

After I completed the dissertation I assumed that I would put this away and move on, but people were interested, and so I kept working on it. From the dissertation I produced an article for the Journal of Early Christian Studies, a chapter for the book Reading Patristic Texts on Social Ethics: Issues and Challenges for Twenty-First-Century Christian Social Thought (Catholic University of America Press, 2011) and another chapter for a forthcoming compendium on the social justice theologies of the patristic authors. While these projects seemed to close the chapter on this topic for me, enough people encouraged me to revisit the dissertation and revise it for publication as a monograph. I found myself rewriting large sections in light of what I have learned since 2004, and so I am ultimately glad that I revised the work for those who are interested in the social justice theologies of early Christian authors.

AD: Your title already "telegraphs" a rather stark view of many early Christian leaders about money-lending. In what did the evil consist? 

BLI: The evil for patristics lies in the deception of the one who lends, and this is an attitude that has quite ancient roots. The one who lends operates under the pretext of helping someone in need; while it appears as if the lender is offering assistance, in fact they are setting up a condition of debt from which it is often unlikely that the impoverished individual will successfully emerge. I compare this in my book to a usurer throwing an anvil rather than a rope to a person who is drowning. That said, the one who borrows is not off the hook, and individuals are cautioned—especially in the works of Basil and Gregory—to refrain from borrowing money for an extravagant lifestyle. In such cases, they are not innocent.

AD: You open with a chapter on Basil and Gregory of Nyssa and most of your focus is on them. What led you to them in particular? 

Well they are exceptional because they are the only two Greek patristic theologians to write sermons dedicated solely to this topic. Other writings on usury were simply tangential portions embedded in writings that had other intentions. In the Latin west there is Ambrose, but his sermon on this topic draws directly from Basil. So I was interested first in the scarcity of the topic, then on the fact that these two brothers—from affluent families, no less—are both writing on usury, and they are the only ones devoting concentrated attention to it. Then I was intrigued by secondary scholarship that seemed to dismiss Gregory’s contribution though my interpretation was that Gregory had something unique to offer. My desire to go forward with this project was supported by the patristic scholar Paul Fedwick, who felt that it was a good time to reassess the value of these sermons, most especially that of Gregory.
Basil the Great

AD: Are there other patristic sources, in addition to Basil and Gregory, who are important for or influential upon the questions of moneylending?  

It is worth pointing out that patristic theologians of both the Eastern and Western realms of the Empire were in agreement on the subject of usurious lending; though legal, usury was understood as contrary to divine law, and therefore any interest at all was condemned. This does not mean that the patristics did not recognize that lending did take place; it just meant that they did not agree that it should. In the Eastern Empire, Clement of Alexandria relies on biblical precedent in the Hebrew Scriptures for his statements in the Stromata against usurious practices, and Cyril of Jerusalem lists usury in his On the Ten Points of Doctrine within a list of sins that includes tavern-hunting, necromancy and witchcraft! Gregory of Nazianzus also condemned the practice in his poignant Oration 16. John Chrysostom is probably the most important and condemning of the practice; apart from our brothers Basil and Gregory, he has the most to say about moneylending and wealth in general. Many of Chrysostom’s homilies argue that the only investment worth making is in heaven; therefore one should give to the poor as Christ and earn interest for themselves in heaven, not on earth. Of the Latin fathers, perhaps the most important is Ambrose’ De Tobia; though his text lifts whole sections from Basil’s sermon, nevertheless his contribution is both important and provocative. It is worth noting also that the patristic theologians East and West inherited their attitudes from philosophers such as Philo of Alexandria, Plutarch, Aristotle and Plato. In this way, the Christian authors stand in a tradition of great thinkers on this topic.

AD:  Some Christians today would say that these early strictures about interest, usury, and related notions are no longer applicable because the economies of our time--at least in most of Europe, North America, and Australasia--are so vastly different. What are your thoughts on that?  

Yes, I hear this often. But while our economic systems and structures for handling finance have radically changed, people have not. We continue to have problems associated with greed and abundance, and we continue to fail to solve the problem of scarcity. A great example of this is that in late November—just after the holiday in the United States devoted to domestic arts—I read in the news that between thirty to fifty percent of food is wasted globally due to problems with storage, rigid adherence to expiry dates on packages and a need for fruits and vegetables to match an aesthetic criterion that is unreasonable. It takes no technology to fix this problem; it takes only a willingness to be morally responsible to the needs of the people and the planet. One might choose to purchase and eat food that is not perfect, or to not buy foods in bulk if they may go to waste. Or, if something might go to waste one could quickly share it with someone who might need it. These are three simple solutions, and this same type of thinking is found in the writings of Basil and Gregory. For example Basil (drawing on the works of Plutarch and from Proverbs), encourages those in need to avoid borrowing if they can, and to look first to their own resources first before enslaving themselves to money-lenders. He writes “Do you have metal plates, clothing, beasts of burden, utensils of every kind? Sell them; permit all things to go except your liberty.” This is as good a suggestion today as it was then, so while the systems are different, I think that the solutions are still appropriate. I do think that these early strictures about interest and usury are as applicable today as they were in the fourth century.

AD: The end of your first chapter references the subprime lending and mortgage crisis that sent much of the world into economic tumult in the last five years. Were they alive today, what advice would the Cappadocian brothers give to these problems?

I think that Basil would not have soothing words to say to those who tried to live beyond their means and borrowed too much, but I also think that he would take banks to task for holding out the promise of low interest to people who are not able to understand fully what financial deal they are making. I think that we can turn to John Chrysostom for the most extreme response to the evil of the type of lending that has been so disastrous for our country, for he equates a moneylender in his Homily Five on Matthew with a murderer: “under the cloak of kindness he digs the pitfall deeper, by the act of help burdening a man’s poverty, and in the act of stretching out the hand thrusting him down, and when receiving him as in harbor, involving him in shipwreck, as on a rock, or shoal, or reef.” Elsewhere Basil agrees with this sentiment, that one who has it in their good to do power but instead does evil is equated with a murderer, and Gregory refers to a usurer as a “murderous physician” who kills rather than heals. This is not an image of their own making, for the Hebrew Scriptures equate financial sins with murder, and Psalm 15—the Psalm on which Basil and Gregory focus their sermons—notes that the usurer will not be counted among those who will dwell on the Lord’s “holy hill.” Even Cato the Elder when asked “What do you think of lending at usury?” replied, “What do you think of killing a man?” So, what do I think of those who lent to those who did not have the capacity to pay their mortgages? Well, what do you think of killing someone?

AD: You note (p.109) that no Father was as adamant as John Chrysostom in his denunciations of affluence and usury. What are the problems he sees? Is his thinking broadly representative of the other sources you look at? 

I would agree that he is broadly representative of the sources, not only in his theology but also in his method. Like the other Fathers whom I highlight in the text, Chrysostom includes usury in homilies devoted to other subjects, but the financial concerns are brought into the discussion as part of something larger. As well, with respect to the problems that he sees regarding unjust financial transactions, Chrysostom is largely concerned with the direction of people’s investments. In other words, they are investing in transitory, material things rather than in that which is divine, or Heaven. Of course this seems odd to many who do not come from an Orthodox or Catholic background with a tradition of the Fathers; how can one invest in Heaven? To understand what this means for the Fathers, one has to understand something of their anthropology and theology. If God is accessible through God’s uncreated energies, then investing in Heaven is possible in the “here and now” because when one aids someone in need, then one is responding to God. This is a concept that all of the Greek Fathers seem to share, but it does seem that for Chrysostom it is a theme to which he returns many times. Gregory of Nyssa also promotes this same way of thinking about giving as “investing in heaven,” going so far as to call God a debtor to us! But of course what he means by that is that God, who gives from God’s abundance, is the model for giving.

 AD: How do you, and the Fathers, understand the problem of moneylending in directly theological terms? That is, usury is condemned (presumably) not just because of socioeconomic problems it creates for people, but also because such practices do not reflect who God is. What images of God, what descriptions of His nature, emerge from the Christian tradition's treatment of usury? 

BLI: All of the Fathers on whom I write are approaching their topic through the lens of asceticism and monasticism. In other words, they are individuals who have intentionally divested themselves of unnecessary wealth and they live among a community that supports that ideal. Of course, we have to recognize that they lived during an age when ecclesiastical leaders were expected to be connected to monastic communities and being an “ascetic” had become rather part of the job description of the professional religious. Further, they had communities that supported them spiritually, emotionally and materially, so to divest oneself of wealth while still be provided for is hardly the same thing as divesting oneself of wealth and not knowing a single soul in the city. As well, these were all individuals who were classically educated, and so their image of God is very much shaped by that education. Their theology has an impact on their understanding of economic practices as each moment, each financial interaction, becomes for them—and for us as well—an opportunity to meet God in the poor. However, this also means that something of God’s nature (the divine energies) cannot be approached or known as long as human nature is dressed in the garments of sin and stained by avarice. Gregory of Nyssa, in his Sermon 5, Forgive us our Debts, writes that an evil response by the wealthy to the poor distorts the inherent goodness of creation. This is ultimately, for Gregory, tied up in his Christology, for a proper understanding of shared human nature on the part of the giver will move both the giver and the receiver towards an original state of purity. In this way, acts of benevolence and goodness clarify the divine image that both parties are capable of demonstrating. “For as you practice goodness,” he writes, “you are clothed in Christ and as you become like Christ you become like God.”

AD: Sum up for us what you hope to accomplish with this book, and then tell us what you are working on now.  

First, I hoped that this book might provide a helpful history of the development of lending in the Greek, Roman and Hebrew cultures. Many times books on economic history are pretty formidable, and so I attempted to write a history that would be accessible to those with more than a passing interest but yet not necessarily students of ancient economies or legal systems. Second, I felt strongly that Gregory of Nyssa did not receive due treatment in secondary materials that analyzed his work; it felt too often that his sermon was treated as a mere copy of Basil’s, when in fact it was Ambrose who lifted who passages out of Basil’s sermon! I think that many times Gregory’s writings on similar topics of Basil’s were his way of saying “I have something to contribute as well,” and that is an attitude that we should model. I think it would have been challenging to have been the sibling of Basil, and even though Gregory has in no way suffered with respect to academic treatment of his theology, still, with respect to this one sermon I felt that it warranted—and that he deserved—a closer look.

What I am working on now is something quite different. I am completing for Ashgate a manuscript on the writing of John Moschos, a late sixth, early seventh century monk who composed a document known as the Pratum Spirituale, or The Spiritual Meadow. Along with his companion Sophronios, Moschos traveled around Palestine and Sinai and collected what we call “beneficial tales,” very brief stories most often focused on monastic life. Moschos is an enigmatic figure, and my manuscript seeks to uncover through close analysis of select tales in his text what we might be able to learn of the social history of the early Byzantine monks and lay people at a turning point in the history of the Eastern Empire. Now this seems like a project that is unrelated, but it is actually the topic of finances that led me back to Moschos’ Pratum. Years ago I realized that many of the tales dealt with—in some way—problems of scarcity, greed and financial suffering. So when it was time to embark on a new scholarship project I found my way into the text through, once again, the theme of social justice.

1 comment:

  1. I've been very much enjoying this book. Good review so far of pre-Christian Greco-Roman views of usury broadly with good hints at what's to come.

    The only critique I would give is that it still feels very much like a former thesis (which isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially given the wealth of references), and it very much needed a better proofreader/editor at the publishing house rather than a misplaced faith in spell check.


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