Ever heard of it?
It used to be considered a pretty big deal for Christians. Moses outlawed it (Exodus 22:25), Jesus called it robbery (Matthew 21:12-13). King Edward I of England compared it to blasphemy. Historically many Christian (and Islamic) countries outlawed it. Roman Catholics have excommunicated those who practice it. Protestants have condemned it (e.g. 19th-century Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.) And yet it is - and it remains - one of the driving forces behind the modern U.S. economy.
So what is it?
The word usury simply refers to a monetary loan with interest. In the Western World interest (not to be confused with necessary banking fees) was, until relatively recent times, deemed immoral and sinful as it always enriched lenders and frequently impoverished, exploited, and even enslaved borrowers.
So what position should the modern American Christian take on the common practice of usury in our society? Furthermore, in light of our culture's historic stance against it and the numerous biblical prohibitions against it - how should we respond? (see Leviticus 25:36-37, Deuteronomy 23:19-21, Ezekiel 10:17, Psalm 15:5)
These questions are made all the more relevant when one pauses to consider that 80% of all Americans are in debt according to CNBC with 12% of those expecting to die in debt. According to nerdwallet.com overall U.S. household debt has increased 11% in the past ten years alone with current indebted households owing $134,924 on average. This means that in the U.S. (where the real median household income is $55,775) interest payments cost the average American household more than $6,600 per year or roughly 12% of total household income.
Coupled to these alarming statistics are a number of ethical questions regarding the policies of modern lending practices. According to the Catholic academic, Dr. M. Oliver Heydorn, in an article entitled Usury, Social Credit, and Catholicism, "The conventional financial system centralizes wealth, power, and privilege in the hands of those who have acquired monopoly control over financial credit (the lenders). The policy... is self-serving..."
Despite the fact that usurious loan practices have become both legally permissible and commonly practiced today (not to mention central to our national economy) shouldn't the handful of statistics cited above at least give Christians pause to think? Shouldn't the widespread indebtedness of our fellow citizens (not to mention ourselves) at least encourage us to think critically about whether usurious loan practices really do impoverish, exploit and enslave borrowers just as previous generations of claimed? And if so... shouldn't the American church have something to say about it?
It is certainly a complex situation to address and as with all complex situations the question is 'where do we start?'
Read the Bible:
Consider what the Bible teaches about usury (there are a number of texts cited above.) Once you've done this consider whether your understanding of usury has been derived from God's point of view or from the 'permissible' norms of the modern American marketplace.
Consider what people of the past have said on the subject. Ask yourself why so many countries strictly limited usury - if not banned it entirely. Were our ancestors justified in their actions against usury? When usury was practiced in the past did it help or hurt the average man?
Ask an Expert:
The video below captures a very interesting 'man on the street' conversation between two men. The man on the right (who for some inexplicable reason is dressed like Hercule Poirot) is explaining to the man on the left why usury, over and above all else, is a mathematical fraud. Though the man on the left is a little slow to understand it, the man on the right provides expert commentary on the subject along with a number of good illustrations. See if you find his explanation helpful.