The lesson from Deuteronomy was to remind the Israelites of their bondage in Egypt and their suffering. It’s purpose was to maintain the social fabric and avoid the creation of an underclass. Thus creditors were encouraged to be generous with their debtors; to give economic opportunity, so that the debtor could live a more viable life, a life with dignity.
Money is a token of exchange, a token of gratitude and trust, a medium for exchange of gifts and needs, goods and services. Usury, the name we give to extortionate moneylending, is the very opposite of gift, and seeks to use the power of ownership to gain even more. The more of life we convert into money, the more we need money to live. Usury, not money, is the proverbial root of all evil.
The Vatican has called attention to the poverty of ethics and morality within the global economy, “No profit is in fact legitimate when it falls short of the objective of the integral promotion of the human person, the universal destination of goods, and the preferential option for the poor.” [Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel, November 24, 2013), pp. 53-60]. The Scottish Episcopal Church is part of the campaign to deal with the exorbitant rates of interest that payday lenders charge. And Community Money Advice is a Christian charity that operates in our area, enabling churches and charities to provide free, local, face-to-face debt advice.
So how else might we participate in co-creating a new economy that is equitable for all? The problem seems to be that global corporations have governments in thrall. Banks are too big to fail. In our frustration do we take to the streets? Plan a revolution? Ah! but what does St Paul say? “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” [13.1]
To understand what Paul intended we need to examine the context of his letter to the Christian community in Rome. It was written in the mid part of the 1st century in the reign of Emporer Nero whose rule is usually associated with tyranny and extravagance. Nero focused a great deal of his attention on diplomacy, trade and the cultural life of the empire, and his empire-wide program of public and private works put an enormous financial strain on finances which had to be funded by a rise in taxes. That was much resented by the middle and upper classes. There were various plots against his life during his 30 year reign and in the end, having fled Rome, he took his own life.
Paul is in no doubt that there is no ground for traditional imperialist thinking that Emperors were divine. There is only one true God. And Nero was a servant of God and therefore accountable. Paul does not endorse the Roman Empire as good. Rather Paul believes that some structures are needed to keep the world in some sort of order. The need to keep order and punish wrongdoers was something that Paul, a former official of the Jerusalem regime, would have understood. So causing unnecessary trouble and risking martyrdom had to be avoided.
This did not mean that the Jesus followers in Rome should endorse the ways of the Romans, rather that they should not give Rome a reason to come against them. He also warns them not to be arrogant and discriminate against their Christian brethren of Jewish ethnic background. The Church in Rome had to live as a sign of the kingdom to come, characterised by justice and peace, and not be a part of the imperial order of oppression and violence.
So governmental leaders should not try to draw comfort from Paul’s words in Romans 13, and nor should anyone behave arrogantly out of privilege, and try to uphold injustice in the name of ‘law.’ Rather, as it says in Romans 13.10 “Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” While it is good to protest, and I have taken part in protest marches in Edinburgh and London, in themselves protest marches do not bring about change. If anything, taking part in a protest march is about saying that I am the one who is not going to be changed. A more effective way of improving the life of others is to practise living a better life oneself. When I studied politics and theology, one of my tutors was Jonathan Bartley, currently co-leader of the Green Party. He wrote a book called God’s Subversive Manifesto, where he says,
God’s agenda is political in its broadest sense – I mean the stuff of life, the world beyond our front doors. ‘Politics’ in its truest sense is about how society is organised, health care is provided and criminal behaviour is addressed. It is about relations between nations and neighbours. It is about how we deal with terrorists and how we treat our children. In short, politics is about how we order the world that God has entrusted to us. [God’s Subversive Manifesto, (The Bible Reading Fellowship, Oxford, 2003), pp.17-18]
Jesus invites us to stand in solidarity with the poor. The church, manifested in bodily works of mercy toward those looked down on by society, is solidly established in Jesus’s teachings which focus on loving one’s neighbour. Jesus went out of his way to include strangers and those we might regard as enemies. While social norms of propriety and security demanded that all members of society should avoid risk, justice is love and love is behaving out of fairness to all.
Some of the ways of achieving this are by supporting companies who are practicing fair trade and ethical employment policies, by reducing waste, using renewable resources, and investing in healthy communities and ecosystems. By coming close to real people who are hurting, we can bring about change. We know from history that when we band together peacefully against injustice, with moral leaders, activists, and other people of conscience, then we can bring about change. In this way, our country gets better for everyone, not just a select few.