Man cannot possibly be good unless he stands in the right relation to the common good,

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica

By , on May 7, 2011

Justice and Jurisprudence


Against Usury

 

1. In depicting the character of the perfect man, of him, that is, who is ordained to ascend to the life of everlasting peace, the prophet reckons among his noble deeds his never having given his money upon usury. This particular sin is condemned in many passages of Scripture. Ezekiel reckons taking usury and increase among the greatest of crimes. The law distinctly utters the prohibition ‘Thou shalt not lend upon usury to thy brother’ and to thy neighbour. Again it is said, ‘Usury upon usury; guile upon guile.’ And of the city abounding in a multitude of wickednesses, what does the Psalm say? ‘Usury and guile depart not from her streets.’ Now the prophet instances precisely the same point as characteristic of the perfect man, saying, ‘He that putteth not out his money to usury.’ For in truth it is the last pitch of inhumanity that one man, in need of the bare necessities of life, should be compelled to borrow, and another, not satisfied with the principal, should seek to make gain and profit for himself out of the calamities of the poor. The Lord gave His own injunction quite plainly in the words, ‘from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.’ But what of the money lover? He sees before him a man under stress of necessity bent to the ground in supplication. He sees him hesitating at no act, no words, of humiliation. He sees him suffering undeserved misfortune, but he is merciless. He does not reckon that he is a fellow-creature. He does not give in to his entreaties. He stands stiff and sour. He is moved by no prayers; his resolution is broken by no tears. He persists in refusal, invoking curses on his own head if he has any money about him, and swearing that he is himself on the lookout for a friend to furnish him a loan. He backs lies with oaths, and makes a poor addition to his stock in trade by supplementing inhumanity with perjury. Then the suppliant mentions interest, and utters the word security. All is changed. The frown is relaxed; with a genial smile he recalls old family connexion. Now it is ‘my friend.’ ‘I will see,’ says he, ‘if I have any money by me. Yes; there is that sum which a man I know has left in my hands on deposit for profit. He named very heavy interest. However, I shall certainly take something off, and give it you on better terms.’ With pretences of this kind and talk like this he fawns on the wretched victim, and induces him to swallow the bait. Then he binds him with written security, adds loss of liberty to the trouble of his pressing poverty, and is off. The man who has made himself responsible for interest which he cannot pay has accepted voluntary slavery for life. Tell me; do you expect to get money and profit out of the pauper? If he were in a position to add to your wealth, why should he come begging at your door? He came seeking an ally, and he found a foe. He was looking for medicine, and he lighted on poison. You ought to have comforted him in his distress, but in your attempt to grow fruit on the waste you are aggravating his necessity. Just as well might a physician go in to his patients, and instead of restoring them to health, rob them of the little strength they might have left. This is the way in which you try to profit by the misery of the wretched. Just as farmers pray for rain to make their fields fatter, so you are anxious for men’s need and indigence, that your money may make more. You forget that the addition which you are making to your sins is larger than the increase to your wealth which you are reckoning on getting for your usury. The seeker of the loan is helpless either way: he bethinks him of his poverty, he gives up all idea of payment as hopeless when at the need of the moment he risks the loan. The borrower bends to necessity and is beaten. The lender goes off secured by bills and bonds.

 

2. After he has got his money, at first a man is bright and joyous; he shines with another’s splendour, and is conspicuous by his altered mode of life. His table is lavish; his dress is most expensive. His servants appear in finer liveries; he has flatterers and boon companions; his rooms are full of drones innumerable. But the money slips away. Time as it runs on adds the interest to its tale. Now night brings him no rest; no day is joyous; no sun is bright; he is weary of his life; he hates the days that are hurrying on to the appointed period; he is afraid of the months, for they are parents of interest. Even if he sleeps, he sees the lender in his slumbers—a bad dream—standing by his pillow. If he wakes up, there is the anxiety and dread of the interest. ‘The poor and the usurer,’ he exclaims, ‘meet together: the Lord lighteneth both their eyes.’ The lender runs like a hound after the game. The borrower like a ready prey crouches at the coming catastrophe, for his penury robs him of the power of speech. Both have their ready-reckoner in their hands, the one congratulating himself as the interest mounts up, the other groaning at the growth of his calamities. ‘Drink waters out of thine own cistern.’ Look, that is to say, at your own resources; do not approach other men’s springs; provide your comforts from your own reservoirs. Have you household vessels, clothes, beast of burden, all kinds of furniture? Sell these. Rather surrender all than lose your liberty. Ah, but—he rejoins—I am ashamed to put them up for sale. What then do you think of another’s bringing them out a little later on, and crying your goods, and getting rid of them for next to nothing before your very eyes? Do not go to another man’s door. Verily ‘another man’s well is narrow.’ Better is it to relieve your necessity gradually by one contrivance after another than after being all in a moment elated by another man’s means, afterwards to be stripped at once of everything. If you have anything wherewith to pay, why do you not relieve your immediate difficulties out of these resources? If you are insolvent, you are only trying to cure ill with ill. Decline to be blockaded by an usurer. Do not suffer yourself to be sought out and tracked down like another man’s game. Usury is the origin of lying; the beginning of ingratitude, unfairness, perjury.…

 

4. But, you ask, how am I to live? You have hands. You have a craft. Work for wages. Go into service. There are many ways of getting a living, many kinds of resources. You are helpless? Ask those who have means. It is discreditable to ask? It will be much more discreditable to rob your creditor. I do not speak thus to lay down the law. I only wish to point out that any course is more advantageous to you than borrowing…..

 

5. Listen, you rich men, to the kind of advice I am giving to the poor because of your inhumanity. Far better endure under their dire straits than undergo the troubles that are bred of usury! But if you were obedient to the Lord, what need of these words? What is the advice of the Master? Lend to those from whom ye do not hope to receive. And what kind of loan is this, it is asked, from all which all idea of the expectation of repayment is withdrawn? Consider the force of the expression, and you will be amazed at the loving kindness of the legislator. When you mean to supply the need of a poor man for the Lord’s sake, the transaction is at once a gift and a loan. Because there is no expectation of reimbursement, it is a gift. Yet because of the munificence of the Master, Who repays on the recipient’s behalf *, it is a loan. ‘He that hath pity on the poor lendeth unto the Lord.’ Do you not wish the Master of the universe to be responsible for your repayment? If any wealthy man in the town promises you repayment on behalf of others, do you admit his suretyship? But you do not accept God, Who more than repays on behalf of the poor. Give the money lying useless, without weighting it with increase, and both shall be benefited. To you will accrue the security of its safe keeping. The recipients will have the advantage of its use. And if it is increase which you seek, be satisfied with that which is given by the Lord. He will pay the interest for the poor. Await the loving-kindness of Him Who is in truth most kind. “What you are taking involves the last extremity of inhumanity. You are making your profit out of misfortune; you are levying a tax upon tears. You are strangling the naked. You are dealing blows on the starving. There is no pity anywhere, no sense of your kinship to the hungry, and you call the profit you get from these sources kindly and humane! Wo unto them that ‘put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter,’ and call inhumanity humanity! This surpasses even the riddle which Samson proposed to his boon companions:—‘Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness.’ Out of the inhuman came forth humanity! Men do not gather grapes of thorns, nor figs of thistles, nor humanity of usury. A corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. There are such people as twelve-per-cent-men and ten-per-cent-men: I shudder to mention their names. They are exactors by the month, like the demons who produce epilepsy, attacking the poor as the changes of the moon come round. “Here there is an evil grant to either, to giver and to recipient. To the latter, it brings ruin on his property; to the former, on his soul. The husbandman, when he has the ear in store, does not search also for the seed beneath the root; you both possess the fruit and cannot keep your hands from the principal. You plant where there is no ground. You reap where there has been no sowing. For whom you are gathering you cannot tell. The man from whom usury wrings tears is manifest enough; but it is doubtful who is destined to enjoy the results of the superfluity. You have laid up in store for yourself the trouble that results from your iniquity, but it is uncertain whether you will not leave the use of your wealth to others. Therefore, ‘from him that would borrow of thee, turn not thou away;’ and do not give your money upon usury. Learn from both Old and New Testament what is profitable for you, and so depart hence with good hope to your Lord; in Him you will receive the interest of your good deeds,—in Jesus Christ our Lord to Whom be glory and might for ever and ever, Amen.



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