January 27, 2010

Capitalism and the Spirit of the Church Fathers

By His Eminence Metropolitan Hierotheos 
of Nafpaktos and Saint Vlassios

Deification of money, hedonism and easy living are the things that prevail in the age we are living in.

The utilization and exploitation of money came to be developed within Protestant circles, within a morality that presumed money to be God’s blessing and the rich as those blessed by God. This topic has been expounded in detail by Max Weber in his widely-known classic, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In it, he maintains that Capitalism, the rationalized utilization of money and life, are the result of all the principles that were developed by the various Protestant groups in Europe.

Specifically on the worth of money, Max Weber quotes the guidelines given by Benjamin Franklin, which we find in his books, Necessary Hints To Those That Would Be Rich and Advice to a Young Tradesman. In these books, Franklin advises:

"Remember that TIME is Money…Remember that CREDIT is Money…Remember that Money is of a prolific generating nature. Money can beget Money, and its Offspring can beget more, and so on... Remember this saying, that 'the good paymaster is lord of another man's purse'. He that is known to pay punctually and exactly to the time he promises, may at any time, and on any occasion, raise all the Money his friends can spare...."

This is the basic principle of the financial market that is nowadays undergoing a crisis.

Max Weber comments that man is governed by his thirst to acquire money - an acquisition that is expressed as a life objective. When asking himself why people must make money, Max Weber comments on the advice given to Benjamin Franklin by his strict Calvinist father and his reference to the Book of Proverbs: “Seest thou a man diligent in his business? He shall stand before kings.” (Prov. 22:29). According to Weber, “The acquisition of money within the contemporary financial order is – if done legitimately – the result and the expression of virtue and progress in a profession, and this virtue and progress are – as can be easily surmised – the true alpha and omega of Franklin’s morality.”

This mentality of modern-day man is clearly capitalistic. It is observed in the West and it has influenced many, all over the planet. This is what contemporary, foreign theologians have observed, who have analyzed the respective teachings of the Holy Fathers of the Church.

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Professor of the Pacific Lutheran University of Tacoma, Mrs.Brenda Ihssen, wrote two essays in which she analyzed this matter. The first is titled Usury, Hellenic Patrology and Overall Social Teaching, in which she touches on topics such as: “What do the patristic authors say about social morality?”, “Who are considered usurers?”, “What are the significant questions that should be posed that the researcher should be aware of when approaching a patristic, social-moral text?”, “Under what prerequisites or up to what point can patristic sources be regarded as contributing towards the overall social teaching?”. Within these central chapters we can we find many subdivisions, such as “The Prohibition of Usury in the Bible”, “the usurer as a threat to the community (mean, wild beast, liar, even murderer)”, “the spiritual indigence of the usurer”, usurers as “members of the community”, “if there are exceptions to lending”. She furthermore responds to three basic questions, such as:

“Do the texts of the Hellenic Fathers have any bearing on reality?”

“Are they interested in the texts having a bearing?”

“Is the presence of Hellenic-Roman matters incontestable?”

Her second essay is titled Basil and Gregory’s Sermons on Usury: Credit Where Credit Is Due. In it, she examines their motives for preoccupying themselves with the matter of usury; the influences they were subjected to by philosophers; the use of the Holy Bible with regard to the demand for interest, to usury as a form of stealing, to the turmoil caused by usury; to the images that are used to describe the usurer, and to the celestial “interest”.

At this point, I would like to present Brenda Ihssen’s Introduction, the Conclusion to her first study, and a basic excerpt from the central theme. And I regard this to be a good thing, inasmuch as she was born, raised and teaches in a University in America, where the exploitation of money is a science on its own.

In her Introduction, she writes:

“It is an undeniable ascertainment that the discussion of the moral repercussions of interest and usury no longer provokes the interest of the average citizen. Interest is not regarded as a problem, but a natural element of life. ‘We are happy to pay 4%, as long as we can buy the holiday pillows that the specialists insist we are in need of’. Unfortunately, millions of people on the planet are suffering at the hands of others, who are happy to keep them in poverty, through exorbitant and exhaustive compound interest.

"In my class, students wonder where the problem is if someone borrows money and pays it back with interest, if they are adults and are aware of what they are doing. It is my conviction that the problem lies in the fact that the 21st century holds grievous poverty, hunger, homelessness and deaths, for both debtors and their families. A further issue is the salvation of the usurer, whose acts cut him off from the sight of God.

"In antiquity, interest on loans was condemned in Jewish society, whereas it was considered a normal part of transactions in the Hellenic and Roman system (although it had not become fully accepted in the Hellenic system). Thus, although condemned by Plato (who considered it a “vulgar” thing), interest was regarded as fair compensation for the time and the risk that was undertaken by the lender. Inasmuch as the lender was unable to use the money he had loaned, interest is seen as a form of 'gratitude' for the time required for its return. 'Risk' meant that the lender may never see his money again, consequently, the larger the risk, the larger the compound interest would be.

"Nevertheless, for Hellenic Patrology, time and risk did not count. Any guarantee whatsoever against money loaned was regarded as dishonesty; any percentage above the principal loaned constituted usury. Even a one percent desire for profit placed one’s salvation in jeopardy.”

In a certain point of her text she mentions what bearing the Church Fathers’ teaching against usury had on reality. She writes:

“The excerpts that show our theologians as addressing acquaintances in their own community lead us to the conclusion that they are referring to a problem closely linked to the reality around them.

"As far as our age is concerned, I have to admit that they continue to have a bearing on reality, for the following reason: because each community continues to contain people who are willing to profit at anothers expense. Consequently, I believe that we can learn what these authors had to say about the results of greed within a community. Their writings also comprise a reflection of the ascetic ideal of theologians, for whom the chief importance of the text was the extraction of a moral meaning for implementation in current situations.

"Finally, all these theologians believe that money – whether someone possesses it or not, or whether someone loans it or not – constitutes an obstacle for one’s effective relationship with God" (page 5).

In her Conclusion, she writes:

“The virtue of offering is a continuous course that never reaches perfection. According to our theologians, he who gives instead of lending is distancing the obstacles that sin created; obstacles that do not allow people to have wholesome and maintainable relations between each other. True love desires to share whatever is its own, while true greed desires only whatever is to its own advantage. Usury represents the exact opposite of love, and in fact with a benevolent facade. A self-serving Christian can assert that he has a right to lend money with interest – even with an exorbitant compound interest – firstly because it is legal, and secondly because a Christian is freed of the law. This is the same logic that the Apostle Paul had encountered in Corinth, where his response was 'everything is permissible for me, but not everything is beneficial'.

"To summarize, the Hellenic Fathers regarded usury as something that is not moral, cannot be justified and is not beneficial. Contemporary authors maintain that the matter of usury is dead in our age, given that everyone lends and borrows with interest, without giving it a thought. I hope they are mistaken. Universal poverty is such that the matter of usury is significant to all those who contemplate on contemporary financial catastrophes that are brought about by unfair loan practices. Capitalism has subjugated human health and dignity to financial ends for far too long. As a topic, usury does not provoke discussions; poverty provokes them. We need to be deeply concerned about the evil that interest on loans inflicts on people, on families, on communities, on countries and – if our theologians are correct – even on the salvation of each and every one of us” (page 8).

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We are living in an age where loaning – the official and legal one through banks – prevails and is somehow also regarded as moral. Many seek loans to acquire a house, to put their children through school, to afford a vacation, etc. In certain cases, like acquiring a house, one can say that loans are beneficial. In these cases, a fair society can be of help to those in need – without of course causing damage to those who aren’t. The science of political economics can balance out things, so that banks will benefit with measure, legitimately, but at the same time, those in need can be helped to solve the problems in their life without losing their freedom. If this is put into effect in a legal and fair manner, then it can function along the principle of brotherly love.

However, when lending is linked to hedonism, easy living, bliss, the quest for wealth, etc., then it cannot be acceptable. We need to address the issue and the passions that it cultivates, along with the overall mentality that it develops when our mind is fixed only on money and possessions and is not allowed to attend to other, more important matters.

We must stigmatize and cauterize usurers who exploit the anguish of their fellow-man and who remain unemotional in the presence of their misfortune.

The characterizations of the Fathers for these people are extremely weighty ones. In such cases, those who have money should practice philanthropy and provide interest-free loans to those who are in need of money for coping with the hardships of their life. Furthermore, according to contemporary reality, the hoarding of money in banks is considered a necessity and interest is something fair and legitimate. No one can deny such a logical possibility, especially for householders. However the crucial matter is that when bank savings are seen in the context of the passion of acquisition and avarice, and more so when charity and philanthropy are withheld and man’s hopes now hinge on money, and his faith in God’s Providence is cast out, then this cannot be justified by ecclesiastical morality.

Generally speaking, we should not increase our “needs”. We should not strive to live opulently; that way, we will not be forced to borrow money, because that is the way we will lose our freedom. A frugal life is a respectable life. Besides, “poor” is not the one who does not possess money, but mainly the one who generates the need for many “needs” and is obliged to borrow from banks and from people, and as a result, lose his freedom. The Holy Metropolis is frequently visited by people who have lost their fortunes and their homes on account of such loans.

The ascetic lifestyle, which also involves avoiding luxury and bliss, can benefit us in the present era also, so that we can preserve our spiritual freedom and our non-dependence on situations that literally subjugate us. In a capitalist society where everyone lives with the dream of money and reality shows, which is also what the various lotteries aspire to, we have a duty to live ascetically and to labor honestly and thus adhere to the word of the Gospel. And our mind should always be turned in the direction of the pre-fallen life of Man and to the eschatological life; in other words, in the words of Saint Gregory the Theologian, "to look not towards the pursuant division, but to the initial isonomy-equality".