(Sunday Homily) Usury More Clearly Contradicts God’s Law than Abortion!


Readings for 30th Sunday in ordinary time: EX 22: 20-26; PS 18: 2-4, 47, 51, I THES 1:5C-10; MT 22: 36-40. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/102614.cfm

Today’s readings raise the question of usury – a word we don’t often hear today, though its reality is part of the air we breathe.

Wikipedia defines usury as: “. . . the practice of making unethical or immoral monetary loans intended to unfairly enrich the lender. A loan may be considered usurious because of excessive or abusive interest rates or other factors, but according to some dictionaries, simply charging any interest at all can be considered usury.”

In the light of that definition, consider the following:

• Last Sunday’s New York Times editorial addressed President Obama’s proposal that interest rates on loans to veterans be capped at 36 percent. The editorial began by saying that “poor and working-class people across the country are being driven into poverty and default by deceptively packaged, usuriously priced loans.” The NYT editorial board argued that the 36 percent interest cap should be extended to all U.S. citizens. Thirty-six percent!

• The same editors reported a case where “. . . (A) South Carolina lender gave a service member a $1,615 title loan on a 13-year-old car and charged $15,613 in interest — an annual rate of 400 percent — without violating federal law.”

• Despite such surprises, Wednesday’s NYT edition ran another story headed “States Ease Interest Rate Laws that Protected Poor Borrowers.” It reported that lenders such as Citigroup, One Main, Springleaf, and the American Financial Services Association claim a need to increase interest rates on their poorest customers in order to keep their rates in line with their own increased business expenses for rent, electricity, and gasoline.

• Meanwhile the prime interest rate for bankers and corporate high rollers is 3.25 percent.

• Last June U.S. Senate Republicans shot down Elizabeth Warren’s Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act. The bill would have allowed people with federal and private debt to refinance their loans at 3.86 percent. That would have given relief to more than 25 million borrowers owing $1.2 trillion in student loans. The GOP objected partly because the Refinancing Act would have created a new tax on millionaires to offset the lower interest rates.

The practices just described raise the question: how much interest can be charged before the rate becomes usurious? Today’s liturgy of the word suggests an answer.

Begin with a consideration of today’s gospel.

There Jesus is asked a question consistently addressed to rabbis and to wise persons in all traditions. “Which is the greatest of God’s commandments?”

The question is reminiscent of the familiar cartoon where the bedraggled seeker climbs up that mountain, confronts the guru sitting in front of his cave and asks him, “What’s the purpose of life?” That’s really the gist of the question presented to Jesus. What is life’s purpose?

Jesus’ response is not humorous as we’re always led to expect from those cartoons. His answer is not even surprising. Instead, it’s the standard one usually given by rabbis and wise people: “Look within,” he advises. “Find Ultimate Reality and devote yourself entirely to it. And then love that Reality’s every manifestation beginning with the people closest to you and finishing with the trees, soil, rocks, and cockroaches.”

That’s the meaning of Jesus’ response in today’s gospel. It mirrored perfectly the answer, for instance, of Rabbi Hillel, one of Jesus’ near contemporaries. Both of them said, “Love God with all your heart, mind, and spirit – and your neighbor as yourself. That’s the greatest commandment,” they agreed. “That’s the purpose of life. That summarizes all the content of humanity’s Holy Books. All the rest is commentary.”

We get a snippet of that commentary in today’s first reading from the Book of Exodus, which supplies practical content to the general answer about life’s purpose invariably given by the wise. (And it’s here that the business of interest enters the picture.) Today’s 16 line excerpt from Exodus focuses on two issues: (1) treatment of the most vulnerable in the community, and (2) prohibition of taking interest on loans. The two matters are intimately connected in a world where the poorest among us suffer from crushing debt as earlier described.

The reading says that loving God and neighbor means taking care of society’s most vulnerable – beginning with immigrants and including single mothers and street children. Reality decrees that mistreatment of people like that will bring karmic consequences and death by an invading enemy.

The reading goes on. When dealing with immigrants, remember you were once in their position. So treat them the way you would have liked your great-grandmother to have been treated when she arrived at Ellis Island from the Old Sod.

The second part of the Exodus reading addresses the most common instrument oppressors employ for mistreating society’s vulnerable. You guess it: it’s usury and debt.

You might have been surprised to read that God’s Covenantal Law as recorded in the Bible prohibits the taking of interest at all. The Law indicates that God considers usury (or any interest) sinful! It’s a form of “extortion,” Exodus says – meaning, as the dictionary explains, the “criminal offense of obtaining money, property, or services from a person, entity, or institution, through coercion.” The definition goes on to say that extortion is commonly practiced by organized crime.

For more than a millennium, moral theologians within the Church that developed following Jesus’ death agreed with our dictionary. Under pain of sin (as they put it), no interest could be charged on loans.

But then modern economists discovered the wonders of compound interest. That changed everything. Suddenly, charging interest became not only moral, but virtuous – including for Christians! Even the Vatican owns a bank whose underlying foundation is interest!

So times have indeed changed. Currently, moralists explain that the modern science of economics now understands what was not grasped in the ancient world of Exodus. So, morality had to change to keep up with the times and the advances of science. It’s a new world. (Hmm . . . . Does that same reasoning apply to matters such as homosexuality in relation to the insights of the modern science of psychology? And what about abortion and what modern medicine has disclosed about the beginnings of specifically personal life? After all, the Bible has this clear and strong teaching about prohibiting interest and says nothing at all about abortion.)

The suggestion here is that if we kept The Commandments as explained by Jesus and all the world’s great spiritual teachers:

• We’d prioritize concern for the welfare of immigrant children on our border, single moms in run-down neighborhoods, and street children everywhere. Their welfare, Jesus says, is identical with our own.

• We’d realize that the ability of immigrants, widows, and orphans to meet their transportation, rent and electricity bills is in God’s eyes more important than similar abilities on the part of Citigroup, One Main, Springleaf, or the American Financial Services Association.

• We probably wouldn’t support interest of any amount. (Certainly an interest rate of 36 percent would be out of the question, not to mention 400 percent.)

• At the very least, we’d demand that student loans would be refinanced at the prime rate.

• We probably wouldn’t support “capitalism” as we know it.

• We’d make usury as important a “Christian issue” as some make abortion.

• We’d hear about that from the pulpit, at least occasionally.

• We’d vote accordingly.

After all, an unmistakable critique of usury is actually found in the Bible. That’s not the case with abortion.

Sunday Homily: Pope Francis’ “New Song” – Seven Points You May Have Missed in “Evangelii Gaudium”

Francis Singing

Readings for Second Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 49: 3, 5-6; PS 40: 2, 4, 7-10; I COR 1: 1-3; JN 1: 29-34 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/011914.cfm

What will Pope Francis do next? Since his election nine month ago, he seems to be in the news on a daily basis.

We all know, for instance, that he was Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year.” And just last week, the New York Times ran two substantial articles on him. “He has already transformed the tone of the papacy,” one of those articles said, “confessing himself a sinner, declaring ‘Who am I to judge?’ when asked about gays, and kneeling to wash the feet of inmates, including Muslims.”

The article went on to describe the reforms the pope is making in the Vatican. He has disempowered influential conservatives favored by his predecessor, Benedict XVI. The demoted include American Cardinal Raymond L. Burke, and Italian Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, along with Archbishop Guido Pozzo. Such reactionaries have been replaced with Francis’ allies like Secretary of State Pietro Parolin whom the pope listed among those he will make a cardinal in February.

Even more broadly, the Times described the pope’s employment of six Jesuit “spies” to assess and report on various Vatican offices. That’s making Roman apparatchiks very nervous. As a result, job insecurity has become the order of the day in Vatican City, where clerical careerists , the Times said, have responded like sulking teenagers plugging in their headphones, retiring to their rooms, and hoping the storm will pass them by.

Another Times report last week detailed Pope Francis’ recent appointments to the College of Cardinals. The Parolin appointment notwithstanding, the nominations represent a departure from tradition in that the majority of the 19 new cardinals will come from Latin America, Africa, and Asia instead of Italy and Europe. The appointees promise to change the tone of the consistory the pope plans to convene at the end of next month where discussions will begin about decentralizing church decision-making processes and about pastoral responses to changes in family structure including questions of divorce and homosexuality.

Couple last week’s moves with last September’s hugely successful mass demonstration in St. Peter’s against the bombing of Syria, with his denunciation of free market capitalism, under-regulated financial speculation, and “murderous” world-wide income inequality, and you have a worthy successor to John XXIII, the soon-to-be-canonized Great Reformer who convened the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65).

Put otherwise, in a very short time, Pope Francis has made his own the words of today’s responsorial psalm, “The Lord has put a new song in my mouth.” The song the pope is singing takes the emphasis off formal religion – what the responsorial calls the “sacrifice and offerings.” That’s not what God wants, the psalmist says. Instead God’s desire is “a people that hear and obey” — specifically the law of justice that God has placed in the heart of all human beings whether they think of themselves as believers or not . So far, the pope’s actions show that he agrees.

In terms of today’s gospel reading – a continued reflection on last Sunday’s account of Jesus’ baptism – it’s as if we’re witnessing the descent of the Holy Spirit upon a man determined to follow in the footsteps of Jesus of Nazareth.

Like Jesus, Francis has made a “preferential option for the poor.” He’s signaled justice for the oppressed as the overriding theme of his papacy. He has completely rejected war as a solution to any of the world’s problems. This pope is no hawk or friend of hawks — or of the rich who advocate free market solutions to problems of poverty and its attendant hunger and disease. For him, terrorism is blowback for injustice.

As most of us know, all of this is clearly explained in Francis’ “Evangelii Gaudium” whose significance in terms of church reform cannot be overstated. But there are some important aspects of the pope’s exhortation that may have escaped notice. Let me name just seven that have special connection with today’s liturgical readings and their emphasis on peace, justice and the Spirit of God. (Parenthetical numbers refer to the relevant sections in the papal document.):

• “Evangelii Gaudium” is not trivial. The pope writes “In this exhortation my intention is to map out the path for the church to follow in the immediate future” (2).So the pope’s concern for the poor and rejection of war are not simply expressions of his idiosyncratic aspirations. They represent attitudes and actions he expects the church and Roman Catholics to adopt.

• As the Huffington Post has put it, “Evangelii Gaudium” also represents a “remarkable about-face” relative to liberation theology. Significantly, the pope met with Gustavo Gutierrez, the doyen of liberation theology, last September. Gutierrez’s themes are found throughout the pope’s Exhortation – the “preferential option for the poor” (198, 199), the affirmation of “popular piety” (122-126), the historical perspective (54), social analysis uncovering unfettered capitalism as homicidal (53, 57), and recognition of “structural sin” (59, 202). . . .

• The Exhortation’s position on private ownership is much more radical than many have acknowledged so far. The pope actually states that the goods of the earth belong to the poor, not simply to those who can pay for them. Quoting “an ancient sage,” the pope says “The goods we possess don’t really belong to us but to the poor” (57). Can you imagine a stronger rejection of capitalism’s understanding of private property?

• In general, the Papal Exhortation is friendly towards theologians. This also represents an about-face from his immediate predecessor who routinely investigated, warned, condemned and silenced theologians – 106 of them by Matthew Fox’s count. By contrast, Pope Francis values the role of theologians whatever categories of reason they might use – even, one might conclude, if the categories are Marxist. Consider the suggestion in these words: “When certain categories of reason and the sciences are taken up into the proclamation of the message, these categories then become tools of evangelization; water is changed into wine. Whatever is taken up is not just redeemed, but becomes an instrument of the Spirit for enlightening and renewing the world. . . The church . . . appreciates and encourages the charism of theologians.”

• The pope’s appreciation of theologians means that “Evangelii Gaudium” holds promise for women and the campaign for women’s ordination – despite its specific rejection of women priests (104). This is because virtually no theologians or scripture scholars find credible the reasons advanced for restricting ordination to males. Even the pope’s Exhortation suggests the contrary. No sooner does he reject women priests than he falls into the traditional language of “holy mother church” (e.g. 139). The pope writes “. . . the church is a mother, and . . . preaches in the same way that a mother speaks to her child.” Do you detect the dissonance here – of males alone being allowed to speak as women?? Sooner or later that penny will drop.

• The pope’s promotion of the “sensus fidei” (119) holds similar promise for changes in church teaching on contraception. According to the pope, “God furnishes the totality of the faithful with an instinct of faith – sensus fidei – which helps them to discern what is truly of God.” For theologians, sensus fidei means that when the bishops, theologians and laity agree on a matter of faith or morals, their agreement represents the work of the Holy Spirit. On the question of contraception, previous popes have cut the laity and theologians out of the equation entirely. In the spirit of Vatican II, the pope’s words promise to include them once again. Theologians and laity overwhelmingly agree that church prohibition of artificial contraception needs change.

• In his Exhortation, the pope shifts away from just war theory to complete pacifism (239). He devotes a whole section to the rejection of war (98-101). Moreover, he identifies inequality as the cause of violence and war. He writes, “Inequality eventually engenders a violence which recourse to arms cannot and never will be able to resolve . . . weapons and violence rather than providing solutions, create new and more serious conflicts” (60). What if the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics took the pope’s words to heart?

All of this represents the work of the Holy Spirit – the same Spirit that today’s reading from John’s gospel describes as descending upon the just-baptized Jesus. John the Baptist describes Jesus as the gentle “Lamb of God.” The Spirit is pictured as a dove – the symbol of peace.

Like John the Baptist on Jordan’s banks, Pope Francis is calling the faithful to “Behold the Lamb of God” imitating Jesus’ identification with the poor and his gentle non-violence.

The New York Times on Drones: In Defense of Mafia Face-to-Face Hits

One of the unmanned drones in the growing U.S. arsenal

The New York Times recently  published an article called “The Moral Case for Drones.” It was authored by one if its national security reporters, Scott Shane. As the title indicates, the piece’s intention was to argue that U.S. drone policy is indeed morally defensible. However the article refused to address the really difficult moral issues. It concentrated instead on providing a rather obvious response to the question whether the use of drones avoids the wholesale slaughter of civilians that has been associated with modern warfare since the U.S. Civil War.

Of course it does! Is there anyone who would argue that carefully calibrated drone use would be worse than the direct targeting of civilians that occurred in Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki? However by focusing on the “lesser of two evils” approach and resolving it in favor of drones, Mr. Shane’s article leaves inattentive readers with the impression that drone policy is somehow moral and humane.

But what about those other questions?

For instance, nowhere in the article does Mr. Shane even gesture towards the basic moral issue (not to mention its constitutional counterpart) of whether or not the President of the United States actually possesses the authority to order extrajudicial assassinations by drone or any other means. If the President claims that authority, do we accord that same right to any head of state — even if he or she decides that Mr. Obama himself is an international outlaw?

But that’s not the only issue the Times article chooses to ignore. In fact, it begins by bracketing a whole host of moral questions about drone use. Mr. Shane opens by saying:

“For streamlined, unmanned aircraft, drones carry a lot of baggage these days, along with their Hellfire missiles. Some people find the very notion of killer robots deeply disturbing. Their lethal operations inside sovereign countries that are not at war with the United States raise contentious legal questions. They have become a radicalizing force in some Muslim countries. And proliferation will inevitably put them in the hands of odious regimes.”

At the outset, then, the Times author mentions some of the real issues only to set them aside. What about remote control assassinations? What are the moral implications of human agents making life and death decisions safely sequestered in air conditioned locations thousands of miles from the kill zone? Does it make a moral difference that justification comes from questionable sources, or that such justification is frequently circumstantial, based on hearsay, and often amounts to guilt by association? Is it a moral issue that the executioners’ decisions might be erroneously or casually made since they are immediately based on information provided by devices resembling video game screens?

Similarly removed from moral analysis is the fact that lethal operations inside sovereign countries not at war with the United States are not only “contentious” (as the article admits), but clearly contravene international law, not to mention the U.N. Charter. Is it possible to make a “moral case” in such a context? Wouldn’t that be like waxing eloquent about the moral case for face-to-face Mafia hits rather than spraying restaurants with machine gun fire? Like their drone equivalents, such hits successfully avoid all that messy collateral damage. However both types of extra-judicial killings are the work of “professionals” who immorally place themselves above the law.

Moreover, in an essay that will make that argument that drones diminish civilian casualties, Mr. Shane’s piece from the beginning chooses not to consider whether in the final tally, drones actually increase civilian casualties. Are the civilian deaths caused by such terrorists not to be calculated? Similarly what about the casualties caused by making drone technology available to those “odious regimes?” Their leaders find the United States similarly “odious.” Will the civilian casualties they cause seem thankfully minor when representatives of those particular agents fly their drones into the Sears Tower in Chicago?

Choosing not to consider such questions is like asking Mrs. Lincoln, “Apart from the assassination, what did you think of the play?”

However such incomplete and inconsiderate “moral analysis” also leads to the conclusion that United States drone policy is (as one of the article’s quoted experts says) “not only ethically permissible but might also be ethically obligatory because of their advantages in identifying targets and striking with precision.”

It’s the type of incomplete and deceptive moral analysis that would do Mafia ethicists proud.