Michael Hoffman – Usury as Satanic

hoffman

Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. – Luke 6:35 NSRV

This essay is not to agree or disagree with the morals of usury, but to present my findings from Michael Hoffman’s Usury in Christendom: The Mortal Sin that Was and Now is Not. Though I grew up as a Christian, I no longer practice it. I do have some sentiments toward the religion however. The way I look at religion is more through the social context. Usury in Christendom is an interesting read and tells you the sentiment of the times before modern day capitalism. Though Hoffman is against capitalism, he claims to be for the free-market – that is one that is compatible with biblical scriptures. I have long been an advocate for free-market capitalism, but this book gave me something to think about.

Modern day Christians are completely oblivious to the fact that for most of Christianity (up until the 16th century), usury was condemned. Usury was forbidden regardless of the circumstances. The law was black and white with no middle ground. The church forbade expecting more than what you lent in return. The church was extremely strict and saw usury as a sin worthy of eternal hell-fire for those who practiced it. St. Ambrose written in 380 AD that usury was equivalent to murder. William of Auxerre considered usury even worse than murder, “since it is sometimes morally permissible to take another’s life for a morally overruling purpose; usury, however, being sinful both in se and secundum se, i.e. being intrinsically evil, is never permitted.” (Hoffman, p101)

The usurer is worse than the robber, because the robber usually steals at night. The usurer, however, robs by day and night, having no regard for time or solemnity, for the profit which accrues to him through a loan never sleeps, but always grows. – John Bromyard

“This sin is denounced in many places in Scripture. Ezekiel accounts the taking of interest and receiving back more than one gave as being among the greatest evils, and the Law specifically forbids this practice: ‘You shall not charge interest to your relative or your neighbor.’ St. Basil in his second Homily on Psalm 15 (Septuagint)

“…lending at interest can be called ‘another kind of robbery or bloodshed…since there is no difference in getting someone’s else’s property by seizing it through covert housebreaking and acquiring what is not one’s own by exacting interest.” St. Gregory of Nyssa in Contra usurarios (circa 379 A.D.)

The only time usury was permitted was to enemies in times of war. They were not permitted against your neighbors or even to strangers. Even 1 percent usury was sinful. There was no distinction between usury against the poor or the rich as many Christians nowadays believes. Usury was usury regardless of the circumstance. The church even saw loans without interest as problematic and ordained all debts to be canceled after seven years. After the 49th or 50th year (Jubilee), all debts were to be completely eliminated and property returned to the initial holders. The author believes that without Jubilee, you become a perpetual debt slave to the State, with the State having the ultimate title to all properties.

“You shall count off seven Sabbaths of years, seven times seven years…Then you shall make proclamation with the blast of the horn…you shall make proclamation with the horn throughout all your land. And you shall make holy the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof. It shall be a Jubilee to you, every one of you shall return to your own ancestral holding, every one of you, to your family…You shall not sow, nor reap what grows, nor gather the grapes of the unpruned vines…And the land shall not be permanently sold, for the land is mine.” Lev. 25: 8-23.

Christian burials, which were a big deal in those days, were denied to those who were discovered to be loaning money at interest unless they confessed and returned their gains:

“Indeed, as they approached their deathbeds, it seemed that usury was not just a, but the sin on the minds of wealthy men. Their illegitimate children…their … gluttony and general intemperance worried them far less. Or perhaps it was just that usury, unlike other sins, could only, according to Church law, be expiated through full restitution of what was sinfully gained. This was difficult if you’d spent the money… (Hoffman, p116)

Burials were denied not only to the one accused, but also to the accused’s offspring unless the accused confessed. Those who practiced usury did it with tremendous worries because of the fear of eternal hell-fire after death.

Usury as illegitimate

The church saw usury as a trick and as a selling of time:

Therefore the usurer sells the debtor nothing that is his, but only time, which is God’s. – Courson (Hoffman, p99)

More cursed than all . . . is the usurer, for he sells a thing not bought, as do the merchants, but given by God, and afterwards takes back his good, removing that of another with his own: a merchant, however, does not take back a good once sold. – Opus imperfectum in Matthews (Hoffman, p100)

Cicero condemns usury as being hateful to mankind, and makes Cato say that it is on the same level of moral obliquity as murder; and Seneca makes a point that (later) became of some importance in the Middle Ages, namely that usury is wrongful because it involves the selling of time. (Hoffman, p134)

Greenham even went so far as to repeat the medieval contention that usury was an alchemical ruse, the pretension that money itself could beget more money. (Hoffman, p227)

Christian Usury vs Jewish Usury

Contrary to what many believe, widespread acceptance of usury didn’t start under Jewish influence, but mainly under Christianity, particularly within the Catholic church. Christians in earlier times often scapegoated Jews as a cover for their own usurious activities. In many cases usury was permitted to Jews because they were outside of church law, while Christians who practiced it were cursed.

Christians perceived that usury was alien to the Gospel and therefore alien to sincere followers of Jesus, making a Christian who was a usurer a perverse and unnatural creature; whereas usury, being unscrupulous, was viewed as normative for “the Jew,” who was thought to have few scruples, beginning with the fact that he did not scruple to follow Christ. (Hoffman, p323)

Sentiment was widespread among early church leaders that Christian usurers were worse than Jews:

“…he that kills a man, rids him of his pains at once, but he that takes usury is long in butchering his patient, suffering him little by little to anguish and sucking out his heart blood…a usurer is worse than a Jew, for they to this day will not take any usury of their brethren, according to the law of God.” – Philip Stubbes, Puritan compiler of the customs of Shakespearean England

Jewish interest did in time merge with Christian ones and eventually the separation of church and state contributed to a more market economy. Usury became to be seen as not theft but a natural feature of markets.

Hoffman on Von Mises:

The most radical economic theoreticians of capitalism, from Jeremy Bentham to Ludwig von Mises and Ayn Rand, are extremely antagonistic to Christianity and literally hate the teachings of Jesus Christ. Von Mises, patriarch of “Austrian School economics” whose only god is greed, is perhaps the most revered and influential of all “free market capitalists,” across the spectrum of the Right wing. In chapter 29 of his book, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, Ludwig von Mises wrote: “Jesus’ words are full of resentment against the rich, and the Apostles are no meeker in this respect. The Rich Man is condemned because he is rich, the Beggar praised because he is poor. (Hoffman, p276)

Von Mises’ indictment of Jesus Christ as progenitor of “evil seed” is purely distilled hatred which ought to disqualify him as an economist which any faithful Christian could follow. Alas, he is the doyen of the “Christian” capitalists. Von Mises states further: A living Christianity cannot, it seems, exist side by side with Capitalism.” (Hoffman, p277)

Governments in their spending spree on public works, such as on cathedrals and civic buildings, became hungry for money and pressured church leaders in reinterpreting laws to allow usury. Sometimes during the 16th century, the church gradually accommodated usury through lawyer loopholes in church law and “alternative” interpretations of biblical passages. Many money-lenders by then were already working around laws such as by disguising usury as a “gift” from the borrower or applying fees for paying back “late”. During the early days, usury was permitted at “low” interest rates and to those who were not disadvantaged. According to the author, widespread usury started in Florence under the Catholic church. Citizens were all too ready to take advantage of earning an income by loaning money to the state.

 – AD

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