Faith & reason: Why money does not grow on apple trees

Medieval doctrines on usury were not as barmy as is often supposed. The lingering consequences of Third World debt are proof of that, argues Margaret Atkins.
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The Independent Online
Noticing how poorly the children look, the social worker asks them if they have eaten recently. "Yes, Miss, yesterday Mummy made little cakes from wet newspapers . . . We eat them, drink some water and feel nice and full inside." So wrote Susan George, reporting a story from Brazil, in her book A Fate Worse than Debt. The Bible has things to say on debt too. "Lord, who shall . . . dwell on your holy mountain? He . . . who takes no interest on a loan" (Psalm 15).

We live in a world where all lives are interconnected. To state the case baldly, vast numbers of children are starving partly because we cannot contemplate a reduction in our effortlessly luxurious and wasteful lifestyles. And we and they are linked by the interest on a loan.

"Usury today is a dead issue." Thus wrote John Noonan, in his learned history of medieval views on usury, published in 1957. It is a sad irony that the thinkers he described were better prophets than he. Pope Innocent IV argued that usury led to famine: if the rich can charge to lend money at interest, they stop investing in land; farmers can no longer afford the animals and tools they need; so the poor go hungry. And that is not far from what has been happening, on a global scale, in the late 20th century.

Another favourite medieval argument was that money is not like an apple tree: it does not bear fruit. Therefore it is worth the same when you return it after a year. Why should you pay for borrowing it? It is nearly impossible for us to think back behind the centuries of modern commerce, which have depended on the fiction than money breeds money. Money grows of its own accord, so we believe. But the medievals were right. Our money does not magically expand when we leave it in the bank. If we get richer, it is because someone else in the world, often someone poorer and hungrier, is working to make our money make money for us. There was much wisdom in the medieval fear of charging for loans.

Gradually, as the economy grew more complex and more international the theologians were persuaded to follow where the merchants led. The concept of "interest" was invented. It seemed reasonable to be compensated for what you lost by not being able to use the money you had loaned. Usury was thus redefined; but it was not defined out of existence. The laxest moralist still recognised that loans at exorbitant rates were unjust; and that loaning at interest to the needy was an offence against Christian love.

The problem is that our own imaginations are enslaved, and not to God. From the dreaming spires of Oxford to the Scouser's Kop, we see everything in terms of cash. The desire for money, unlike hunger and thirst, has no natural limit. The more we have, the more we want. How can we free ourselves from this vicious spiral?

The Christian answer is that God breaks the chains. Long before Adam Smith, the word "economy" referred to God's work in the world, the dealings of a God who gives and forgives. Because God had given freely to His people Israel, they were to give with generosity to the poor and stranger. A striking sign of this economy of gift and forgiveness was the jubilee year, to be celebrated every half-century, when those who had been dispossessed were given back their land.

The New Testament brings these themes to a climax. The Son of God himself gives his life for our forgiveness and reconciliation. As he hangs dying on the cross he prays, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." And he teaches his disciples to pray daily for the breaking of the chains of debt and unforgiveness: "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors." We are not bargaining with God here: "We'll forgive them if you forgive us." No - it is God who has already taken the costly initiative. Our imaginations can be freed from the stranglehold of profit- seeking only when we acknowledge what we ourselves have been given and forgiven.

There are 900 days to go to the millennium. The group Jubilee 2000 is campaigning to celebrate with a true jubilee: to liberate the desperately poor from the burden of international debt. You can keep your Millennium Dome. Jubilee 2000 has a proposal that is truly imaginative and exciting.

Jubilee 2000, PO Box 100, London SE1 7RT