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Usury and UnityUsury and Unity

Usury and Unity

Most of us are familiar with payday loan companies—we see their advertisements on television, or we see their signs as we drive. Those of us who live in Hamilton see an unusually high number of them, especially in our partially rotten downtown core. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

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Topics: Business, Justice, Markets, Pontificating
Usury and Unity August 8, 2013  |  By Brian Dijkema
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Expulsion of the Money-changers from the Temple. Giotto 1267-1337Expulsion of the Money-changers from the Temple. Giotto 1267-1337
"I said to him quite bluntly 'we're not in the business of trying to legislate you out of existence, we're trying to compete you out of existence.'"

The sting and force of the words are palpable, aren't they? The quote above comes from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, from a conversation with the head of payday loan company called Wonga.

Most of us are familiar with payday loan companies—we see their advertisements on television, or we see their signs as we drive. Those of us who live in Hamilton see an unusually high number of them, especially in our partially rotten downtown core.

But why would the leader of one of the world's largest churches lay down the gauntlet against them? The answer is simple and entirely uncontroversial for the Christian: they are usurious, and usury is a sin.

There are, of course, ongoing and heated discussions of what, exactly, usury is. In this case, I'm less interested in debating whether or not payday loans are usurious and more interested in what the Archbishop's words and actions represent.

Consider this statement:

The weakest members of society should be helped to defend themselves against usury, just as poor peoples should be helped to derive real benefit from micro-credit, in order to discourage the exploitation that is possible in these two areas.

The Archbishop's actions on the payday loan issue are in line with this statement, but the words here aren't his. They're Benedict XVI's and they come from his social encyclical Caritas in Veritate; Benedict's successor, Francis, has been equally strong in his criticisms. This is another example of what British writer Damian Thompson calls "the most important and surprising development in global Christianity for decades . . . [An alliance between Catholics and Evangelicals that] goes beyond questions of sexual ethics." Welby's action on payday loans is yet another piece of surprising evidence of unity in the Church.

From Cardus's perspective, there's one more interesting bit: Welby's preferred method of attack against the money-changers. He doesn't pick up a whip, and he doesn't look to the House of Commons. His preferred option is to create a viable alternative. There are, of course, hard questions to be asked about whether or not the church as an institution should create credit-unions, but his posture towards the problem is also worthy of a closer look. He's not looking to chastise, he's not looking to the government, but he's trusting in the vitality of the church to provide a glimpse of what it might look like to love your neighbour in the world of finance. He's "putting his money where his mouth is." Christians in the U.K. (and here in Hamilton too!) are already addressing these questions in one way; the call for Christian credit unions aims to get to the source of the problem. I wish him God speed.

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