The Sin of Usury and “The Other” as Sinner

The other day I posted a link to an article on the site Gay Christian, which noted that the Bible contains more than 100 references to the evils of the love of money but only six passages that could be interpreted as against homosexuality.  “So my question to all of you,” the article’s author Andrew asked rhetorically is “why are those SIX verses focused on so much and yet you never hear people preaching about the absolute evil that the love of money holds?”

I was reminded of a story I recounted in the book Broke is Beautiful about Father Jeremiah O’Callaghan who lost his ministry and was forced to leave his native Ireland for America after he insisted on making the sin of usury his cause.

Today we think of ‘usury” as charging excessive interest on a loan, but originally usury referred to any interest on a loan at all.  Beginning in 1819, O’Callaghan became convinced that usury was the great sin of his time.

He pointed out, quite rightly, that the official church position was that usury was a sin.

But, as Chritian historian Ray C. Petry noted in a biography of St. Francis of Assisi, “Jesus’ legacy of the poor life was, in time, to prove a challenging, if somewhat embarrassing, bequest to his followers… All too many religious associations began with Jesus’ injunctions and then rationalized them to suit the pressing demands of worldly circumstances.”

O’Callaghan’s stance annoyed some of the prominent members of his church, and put him into conflict with his boss the bishop.  While the Catholic church was not ready to officially reverse its stand on the issue of usury, it was too pragmatic to be comfortable with a priest who branded some of the most influential and prominent citizens as sinners. O’Callaghan fought a long, quixotic battle to remind the church of its own doctrine— and lost.

Daniel Gilbert pointed out in his book Stumbling on Happiness that the ideas that are the most successful are not necessarily those with the most truth, but those that have something about them that aids in their transmission.

A religion that questions the morality of the rich and powerful is likely to remain a religion of the powerless and marginalized.  Abandoning the focus on usury as a sin was one of the many small concessions that came with adapting a religion of a powerless and oppressed minority to the dominant, mainstream cultures of Rome, Europe and America.

Imagine if this were not the case and if churches were as passionate and vehement in their opposition to lending with interest.  Can you picture the Westboro Baptist Church marching around Wall Street with colorful signs that said “God Hates Bankers?”  How would our own consumer focus look through the lens of a faith that focused less on sexual morality and more on the sins of excessive greed?

The second part of Andrew’s question is why out of all of the potential infractions in the Bible, especially the Old Testament, (I’m thinking of mixing cotton and linen, eating shellfish, gossip, idolatry, not performing the proper burnt offerings) why have so many churches taken up homosexuality in particular as their cause?

My theory is this:

I have seen figures on the percentage of the population that is gay and lesbian that range from 2-12%.  Whatever the source and the figures you use, homosexuals make up a very small minority.  Somewhere around 90% of us are basically heterosexually oriented.

Putting emphasis on the sin of homosexuality, therefore, is making the big sin something most of the population actually has no particular drive or desire to do.  It makes the sinner someone else.

Making the sinner an outsider relieves the responsibility of self-examination.  It does not make the more challenging demand that we focus on our own trespasses and strive to be more ethical and moral individuals.

Straight people who rail against the sin of homosexuality are able to be affirmed in their own morality for doing what they wanted to do all along— chase after money and enjoy heterosexual intimacy and family life.  Having your lifestyle affirmed by the community feels good, and this aids in the transmission of the belief system.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”-Matthew 7:3-5 (New International Version)


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