An Economy of Debt

It is an undeniable fact our modern economy is founded on debt.The average American household is $134 thousand in debt. Our country is almost $20 trillion in debt. There is no signs of this getting better. It’s only gotten worse since 2008 when the world economy collapsed (which was heavily connected to the European debt crisis).

How can this be solved? In a Christian society, this would not be an issue. After all, charging was not allowed in the Mosaic covenant (Exodus 22:25), and all debts had to forgiven every 7 years (Deuteronomy 15). The Church Fathers were also universally against usury. St. Cyril of Jerusalem lists usury as a sin along with “gluttony… licentiousness.. [and] covetousness” (Catechetical Lectures 4.37). St. Basil tells the poor not to get involved in any debt, describing “[t]he lender run[ning] like a hound after the game [and t]he borrower like a ready prey crouch[ing] at the coming catastrophe” (Homily on Psalm 14.2). Other ancient thinkers also disparaged usury. Aristotle attacked usury because it “makes a gain out of money itself, and not from the natural use of it. For money was intended to be used in exchange, but not to increase at interest. And this term Usury which means the birth of money from money, is applied to the breeding of money, because the offspring resembles the parent. Wherefore of all modes of making money this is the most unnatural” (The Politics of Aristotle 1.10).

As a result, Jews heavily ended up running money lending in the middle ages. In the late middle ages, the Catholic Church began to turn a blind eye towards usury, such as that of the Medici family or the Florentine bankers. Money lending was necessary to finance large trading empires. The Protestant work ethic and the liberalism of the Enlightenment lead to the birth of Capitalism, ultimately causing usury to become societally acceptable. Martin Luther in fact thought that loaning money was necessary for a functioning society, separating Christian ethics and business. Luther still thought it was a sin, but John Calvin went further to rule it not a sin. The Catholic Church eventually capitulated and allowed money lending the 19th century. The Orthodox Church has never officially changed its stance however.

CS Lewis reflected on all this in his book Mere Christianity:

“There is one bit of advice given to us by the ancient heathen Greeks, and by the Jews in the Old Testament, and by the great Christian teachers of the Middle Ages, which the modern economic system has completely disobeyed. All these people told us not to lend money at interest: and lending money at interest — what we call investment — is the basis of our whole system. Now it may not absolutely follow that we are wrong. Some people say that when Moses and Aristotle and the Christians agreed in forbidding interest (or “usury” as they called it), they could not foresee the joint stock company, and were only dunking of the private moneylender, and that, therefore, we need not bother about what they said.”That is a question I cannot decide on. I am not an economist and I simply do not know whether the investment system is responsible for the state we are in or not. This is where we want the Christian economist. But I should not have been honest if I had not told you that three great civilizations had agreed (or so it seems at first sight) in condemning the very thing on which we have based our whole life.”

Lewis is very right. We have based our economy on something clearly against the very basic ideas of natural law. We can see this playing out around us. How can we modify our economy to fit this though. Some have advocated for not taking interest in money in the bank. This is in fact what muslims in the west do. This seems quite Pharisaical to me. It is not as though the banks will stop loaning money if we stop collecting interest. It simply fulfills the letter of the law. Most economists would also (probably rightly) recognize that if we banned loaning money, the US economy would collapse.

I think what we should all individually do is to avoid debt ourselves. We should pay off our credit card bill every month (or even better, use a debit card or cash). If you can in your country, perhaps seek to use things like “shariah mortgages.” We should never charge interest when loaning to a friend or loaning from a business we own. We should forgive any debts we can every Forgiveness Sunday before Great Lent, even if it would harm us. It is better we fix our relationships with even our enemies rather than trying to make a few more cents.


The Oxford Handbook of Christianity and Economics

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