Our Interest in Interest

It was clear that Enrico Scovegni was concerned about his eternal destiny. Dante, in his epic poem, Inferno, had placed Enrico’s father, Reginaldo, in the inner ring of the seventh circle of hell. There, he suffered a fate reminiscent of the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah, sitting upon flaming sand while burning flakes fell down upon the heads of all who had committed violence against God.

Enrico, who was no doubt familiar with Dante’s work since Inferno circulated while he was still living, had followed in his father’s footsteps. He believed he would likely be sitting in agony next to him in the afterlife if he didn’t take action. So in a desperate attempt to expiate the sins of both he and his family, Enrico built an extravagant chapel, the Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy. It is among the most opulent chapels standing today, on the order of the Sistine Chapel. He dedicated it in March of 1303 “for the salvation of his own soul and those of his predecessors.”[1] It was masterfully adorned with a program of grand frescos painted by celebrated artist, Giotto di Bondone, some of which depict the terrible fate of those who indulge the sin of which Enrico and his family was guilty.

The sin of the Scrovegni family, for which the inner ring of the seventh circle of hell awaited, was the violent act of charging interest: Usury.

Filling the entire west wall of the Arena Chapel is a stunning illustration of the last judgment. In one corner of the painting, usurer’s hang in Hell, dangling upon a rope suspended by the weight of their money bags.

Loaning money to others, particularly the poor, is something widely endorsed in the Bible. In fact, the Old Testament spells out the process by which loans are to be issued and then forgiven[2]. It was assumed that loans would be needed regularly since crop failure or draught might send a family to the brink of starvation. Loans were to flow freely, but charging interest on that loan was a damnable offense right up until the Protestant Reformation.

Money is a curious substance. It is the means by which we survive; a fairly simple system of trade whereby we exchange something of value for something else. Yet it can be so incredibly toxic to the soul. There is soul-corroding power in the stuff in our wallets and in our bank accounts. The Apostle Paul warned Timothy that to love money is a root of many different kinds of evil, and that some eager for money had wandered from the faith (I Tim. 6:10). This warning, and others like it, prevented Christians from charging interest for centuries.

Isn’t charging interest simply an acknowledgement that loaning money over time incurs a cost for which one needs to be compensated. How is it that the early Christians believed making money off of money is a manifestation of this dangerous love affair at the root of all kinds of evil?

Jesus adds a radical twist on the idea of loaning money without interest when he said, “… if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.” Luke 6:34-25. Never mind about interest. Jesus warns us not to get attached to the principle, even when loaned to enemies!

So what’s at the heart of our interest in interest? What motivates us to make money off of money? More often than not, we aren’t in personal relationship with the people using our money and are happy to increase our wealth at the expense of strangers. Much of our investment money today is not even assisting a person; it’s feeding a non-soul-bearing corporation. Putting our money into banks and investment funds is not generally about improving the circumstances of a person in need, or done to improve society as a whole, it is purely an attempt to increase our personal wealth.

Make no mistake. I have investments and use a traditional bank. Why not get my money working for me while I set it aside little by little for future needs? Even with our investments, by the time my children graduate college and get married, my wife and I do not expect to have any investment funds left, save for the retirement account my employer provides. But these investments make me a little nervous. They run in direct opposition to Jesus’ injunction to loan money without expecting anything back. And I know myself well enough to sense that making money off of money feeds my greed.

To write checks or save money and use credit cards today, without the banking and investment industrial complex, seems impossible. But there have to be alternatives. If a handful of us wanted to save money in ways that would not indulge a personal wealth-building addiction enflamed by our culture (and by our broken DNA), how would we go about it? Are there ways to loan money, interest-free, or at extremely low levels in ways which won’t be exploitative (in either direction) and will be used by people with whom we are in personal relationship?

We may have to save a little longer without the benefit of interest income, but I'd love to see some Jesus lovers re-imagining banking, saving and even investment without indulging our soul-poisoning interest in interest?

[1]Derbes, Ann and Mark Sandona (2008) The Usurer’s Heart: Giotto, Enrico Scrovegni, and the Arena Chapel in Padua, University Park, PA: Penn State University Press p. 35

[2] Deut. 15, Leviticus 25

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