The Bible Condemned Usurers, Too

First appeared in the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review, November 30, 1996

GAY RIGHTS ADVOCATES sometimes suggest that if the Bible condemns homosexuality, so much the worse for the Bible. Yet that position hardly works for everyone. Many people maintain that the Bible is the true word of God, and not all who do are die-hard homophobes. Some are social liberals who feel torn between their political and their religious convictions. Others are gay and lesbian youth who feel forced to choose between being gay and following God. To tell such people “so much the worse for the Bible” seems counterproductive, even cruel.

But what is the alternative? Is it possible to affirm the truth of the Bible yet deny the anti-gay conclusions the Church has drawn from it for centuries? To answer that question, I want to explore another case where the Church has re-interpreted Scripture: usury. For centuries the Church used the Bible to condemn the lending of money for interest — for any interest, not just excessive interest. Today it has more money in the bank than many major corporations. And its explanation for this shift — that cultural changes render the Biblical prohibitions inapplicable — works just as well for homosexuality as for interest banking.

The Bible condemns usury in no uncertain terms. In the Book of Exodus God says “if you lend money to my people, to the poor among you. you shall not exact interest from them” (22: 25). The fifteenth Psalm says that those who lend at interest may not abide in the Lord’s tent or dwell on his holy hill (1-5). Ezekiel compares usury to adultery, robbery, idolatry, and bribery, and asks whether he who “takes advanced or accrued interest; shall he then live? He shall not. He. shall surely die; his blood shall be upon him.” (18: 10-13; see also Deut. 23:19, Lev. 25: 35-37, Neh. 5: 7-10, Jer. 15:10, Ezek. 22: 12, and Luke 6:35)

The Biblical case against usury does not stand alone. Plato and Aristotle condemned the practice, as did Aristophanes, Cato, Seneca, and Plutarch. So did Saints Anselm, Augustine, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Jerome, and Ambrose, citing both Scripture and natural law. Numerous church councils and synods forbade usury: for instance, at the Third Council of Lateran (1179 C.E.), Pope Alexander III declared that both the Old and New Testaments condemn it and that violators should be excommunicated. Subsequent popes repeated these sanctions. In 1745, in the encyclical Vix Pervenit, Benedict XIV pronounced that “any gain which exceeds the amount the creditor gave is illicit and usurious.” Protestant opponents of usury included Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, and Urlich Zwingli. Nor is this condemnation unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition: the Qur’an condemns usury as well (2: 275, 3: 130). In short, the case against usury, like the case against homosexuality, appears to have strong biblical, philosophical, patristic, ecclesiastical, and theological grounds.

So what happened? Did the Church suddenly realize that it was missing out on something lucrative, and thus rescind its earlier prohibition? Not surprisingly, Church leaders offer a quite different explanation. According to them, economic conditions have changed substantially since Biblical times, such that usury no longer has the same consequences as it did when the prohibitions were issued. Therefore, those prohibitions no longer apply. As Father Richard McBrien, former chair of the University of Notre Dame theology department, writes,

The teaching on usury changed because certain theologians in the sixteenth century concluded that economic conditions had changed, making the old condemnations obsolete, and that the experience of lay Christians had to be listened to. Thus, Navarrus (d. 1586), a professor at Salamanca in Spain and author of a Manual for Confessors, argued that an “infinite number of decent Christians” were engaged in exchange-banking, and he objected to any analysis which would “damn the whole world”

McBrien’s example of Navarrus is helpful here, for it shows how the Church’s pastoral experience influenced its understanding of Scripture. Faced with otherwise “decent Christians” engaging in a traditionally forbidden practice, the Church re-examined the earlier prohibitions and found that they depended on conditions that no longer held.

Yet are we not today in a similar position regarding homosexuality? Even Christian traditionalists have begun to recognize that the stereotype of all gays as corrupt, hedonistic, sex-crazed heathens is unsupportable. On the contrary, many gay and lesbian relationships appear loving, nurturing, and fulfilling. As Richard B. Hays, a Methodist professor of New Testament at Duke University, points out, “There are numerous homosexual Christians whose lives show signs of the presence of God, whose work in ministry is genuine and effective. How is such experiential evidence to be assessed?”

Hays is appealing to a familiar Biblical principle here: “By their fruits ye shall know them” (Matt. 7:20). Surprisingly, however, he ultimately concludes that homosexual relationships are immoral. I suggest that Hays, and countless other theologians like him, have dropped the ball. They notice that many gay and lesbian relationships manifest themselves as good, but then opt for the prohibitions of Scripture over the evidence of their own experience. What they fail to notice is that the Church’s history on usury provides a way out of this apparent dilemma.

Consider the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans, perhaps the most problematic text for gay and lesbian advocates. Paul writes of Gentiles who have given themselves up to “dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons due penalty for their error” (1:26-7).

It seems fairly clear that Paul viewed such acts as a sign and consequence of the Fall. (Some, like John Boswell and William Countryman, have argued that Paul’s use of “unnatural” — para physin — carries no moral force. My argument does not require this conclusion, but if it is true, so much the better.) Granting (for the sake of argument) that Paul morally condemned such relationships, must contemporary Christians condemn homosexual relationships as well? Not necessarily. Suppose that in Paul’s time homosexual relationships were typically exploitative, paganistic, or pederastic — as virtually all scholars would agree. If Paul condemned homosexuality because it had such features, but such features are no longer typical, then Paul’s condemnation no longer applies. Substantial changes in cultural context have altered the meaning and consequences — and thus the moral value — of homosexual relationships. Put another way, using the Bible’s condemnations of homosexuality against contemporary homosexuality is like using its condemnations of usury against contemporary banking.

This context-sensitive approach preserves not only the inerrancy of the Bible but also the authenticity of experience. For the religious believer, both are important: surely the Creator of all things reveals himself in lived experience as well as ancient texts. Indeed, to accept the text at face value while ignoring the evidence of experience would be to betray a rather impoverished view of revelation — one that has been rejected by centuries of official Church teaching.

But does this approach leave any room for mystery or for faith? If we need only consult experiential evidence to determine God’s will, of what use is the Bible? I have not suggested, however, that we need only consult experiential evidence; I have merely suggested that experiential evidence, like Biblical evidence, is an important source of revelation. Nor have I denied that Biblical evidence may contradict experiential evidence and thus result in mystery. In this case, however, the contradiction is merely apparent. There is still room for mysteries of faith; this just happens not to be one of them.

The usury analogy also provides a better model for re-interpretation than do the more commonly cited issues of divorce and slavery. The Biblical case against divorce is at least as strong as that against homosexuality; indeed, Jesus forcefully condemns divorce (Matt. 5: 31-32) but never mentions homosexuality. This fact is startling when one considers how many advocates of “traditional Christian values” — Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole, and Phil Gramm, for instance — are divorced. Perhaps they consider divorce a one-time failure as opposed to an inveterate sin (though Jesus, who likened divorce to adultery, apparently disagrees). Or perhaps they accept an argument similar in strategy to the usury argument: divorce during Jesus’s time had disastrous social consequences for women that it no longer has; thus, the Biblical condemnations are obsolete. The problem with the divorce analogy is many fundamentalists maintain that those who divorce and remarry are inveterate sinners, just as Jesus’s words suggest.

By contrast, virtually no one wants to maintain the Bible’s approval of slavery. Nevertheless, the Bible’s position appears clear: Leviticus states, “You may acquire slaves from the pagan nations that are around you” (25:44). St. Paul writes, “Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ” (Eph. 6:5). Are such pronouncements (and many more like them) context-specific in a way that renders them inapplicable today?

Many believers think so. They argue that during Biblical times slavery was significantly different from its antebellum American form; specifically, Biblical masters were much kinder to their slaves. This argument concedes that cultural context is relevant to interpretation, and thus buttresses the case in favor of homosexuality. But it also concedes that under some certain circumstances human beings may own one another — a repugnant conclusion. Some believers try to avoid this conclusion by noting that according to St. Paul, “there is no longer slave or free” (Gal. 3:28). Yet this response also buttresses the pro-gay case, for the same passage says, “there is no longer male and female.” Erase that distinction, and homosexuality becomes a non-issue.

Perhaps the slavery example shows that the revisionist approach — or at least, the assumption that the Bible is inerrant — inevitably leads to absurdity. Perhaps it is time for gay rights advocates to bite the bullet and say, “Look, the Bible’s just wrong sometimes.” For those unprepared to make that concession, the Church’s stance on usury suggests a useful and coherent alternative.