Jubilee, interest and the nature of money: Christianity has something to say to economics
Does Christianity have something valuable to say about economics?
I think it does. Israel was an agricultural community and at the heart of an agricultural community are weights and measures. Weights and measures are the means by which you determine value, and we read again and again that the Lord detests inaccurate weights and measures. When the unit by which we trade and measure value itself becomes corrupted, the whole system is in danger of collapse.
It’s never ceased to surprise me, sitting down with different political leaders around the world and going through the kind of things the Bible does actually have to say about economics, seeing their eyes light up and say, “wow, that’s very insightful, I had no idea that was in there. What else is in this book?”
What would the principles of a Christian economics be?
God’s kingdom speaks to us of the nature of his rule, and his righteousness speaks of the standards that he employs for us. And we’re going to have to decide who’s number one in our lives – God or money?
And if the goal isn’t simply to make money, but the Bible doesn’t seem to be necessarily against the idea of someone making a living by what they do, we’re now asking a question about what it means to trade goods and services at a profit. Why are we doing all of this in the first place? And for whose greater glory and for whose greater good?
We have been here before. The Victorian reformers did an awful lot of thinking about this, which is why working practices in England changed, and our legal practices and social practices changed. It wasn’t that if you have a coal mine you have to offer it at a loss. The question was, if coal mining is your business, how do you do that in a godly way? In a righteous way? In a way God himself would approve of? And what’s the purpose? And that changed practices, it changed models, and it also changed responsibility. Because, as you became aware of how much you had, you also became aware of how much may be expected of you.
So, I think we have been here before as a Church, and I think we may need to dust off some history books and be humble enough to learn from those who came before.
One concept that is probably quite familiar to the Church is that of jubilee, in regards to international debt etc. Does jubilee have a place more widely, or has that been misinterpreted?
What’s interesting about the jubilee concept is that we are not sure how often it was implemented in reality. But clearly, it’s very much there. And what we do realise is that when debt is simply passed on from generation to generation, with no hope of alleviation, all other forms of desperation can follow in its wake.
In both the Old and New Testaments, we have parables and teachings about the cancellation of debts, and we find all of them problematic because we find them personally challenging. They challenge the idea that everything revolves around us. Sometimes we have to step further back, which I think is what the Bible does do, and ask: what is best for a nation? What is best for a society? And, therefore, what should look different? And I think that’s what jubilee drives us to. It forces us to ask a much bigger question.
What is your understanding of the biblical view of charging interest?
All the way back to the Ancient Greeks, people found the idea of interest to be morally troublesome – that money should be the begetter of money. It is only relatively recently that interest has actually become more acceptable.
I think there may be two separate things here. One is the question: should we charge interest or not? Which is slightly more complex even scripturally, because there are questions about who interest may or may not be charged to, and whether it’s just a blanket ban. But what is more compelling, I think, is the biblical teaching about how much debt we’re actually allowed to get into, which is regulated more effectively in the absence of interest. In the sense that you want to stop simply lending to someone if there is no interest thrown back to you, as the numbers get bigger and bigger.
But in a more cynical view, someone may say, “the more I can convince you to borrow at a higher rate of interest the more money I can make.” And I think this is what’s behind the Archbishop of Canterbury’s remarks about groups that lend out short-term loans for a huge amount of interest. That kind of thing really does lead to slavery and bondage.
We have sadly, I think, created a lot of people who aren’t economically literate enough for the society in which they live to understand necessarily what it is they are being sold by their bank, or being asked to do. And that has meant that people have sometimes got caught up in things indirectly that they didn’t even know they were affected by. And that’s no longer an economic issue in and of itself, but also a question of justice, law and transparency – and obviously the Bible has lots to say about those as well.
Does the Bible speak into the question of whether it is capital or labour that creates wealth?
I think the Bible does have some things to say about that. We have had a system which has really tried to encourage the growth of capital, potentially at the expense of labour, and also allow people to take on risk in such a way that it feels like a one way bet. The biggest challenge, and the biggest attraction to any investor, would be the capacity to make money out of nothing.
Now historically governments were able to do that. Governments were able to print as much money as the public, at large, trusted them to, and it still retained its value. And when that trust collapsed then the value of that currency collapsed with it.
However, the creation and destruction of money in an economy now isn’t so much in the hands of the government as it is in the hands of private banks and even individuals. Everyone has a credit card, and every time we go further into debt using our credit card we’re spending something that doesn’t exist to procure real goods and services. Now that does become increasingly problematic, because what do you do with that mounting amount of credit?
Although it by no means exhausts our financial crisis, part of it has been that, as credit has become easier, we are increasingly used to spending things that we do not have. And that capacity to create credit is made through private banks – and it may well be in their interest to see that private credit created at a massive scale.
Countries have got themselves horribly into debt, individuals have got themselves horribly into debt, and governments have often got themselves re-elected by promising more and more goods and services, and by taking themselves more and more into debt, and at some point someone’s going to have to pay. And what we’re learning, paying back that huge amount of accumulated debt ourselves, even as a rich nation, is that it’s very costly and at times very painful.
Michael Ramsden is Regional Director of RZIM for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and joint Director of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics. Formerly, Ramsden worked for the Lord Chancellor’s department investing funds and he has given addresses at the White House, Nato HQ and to bankers and investment managers on the current global financial crisis.
Reproduced here with the kind permission of BMS World Mission