"May Adonai bless you and protect you! May Adonai deal kindly and graciously with you! May Adonai lift up his countenance upon you and grant you peace!" (Torah, Numbers 6:24-26) And Jesus said, "Allow the little children to come unto me. Forbid them not, for of such is the Kingdom of God. Truly, I say unto you, unless you receive the Kingdom of God as a little child does, you shall not enter therein." (New Testament, Mark 10:14-16)

Sojourning at an Oasis Paradise

My purpose for living this life, and for writing this blog, is to understand the faith that links us to God. I wish to explore and discuss the reality at the heart of all of the world's religions. This is an immense task, but I know that God also has faith in us, trusting that we do desire the truth, as well as freedom, love and wisdom. Thus, as always, He meets us halfway. Even as God has given us individual souls, so we must each of us trace out an individual pathway to God. Whether we reside in the cities of orthodox religion, or wend our solitary ways through the barren wastelands, God watches over us and offers us guidance and sustenance for the journey.

Most of what you will see here is the result of extensive personal study, combined with some careful speculation. Occasionally, I may simply offer some Scripture or an inspirational text. I am a wide reader, and the connection of some topics and ideas to matters of faith and religion may not seem immediately obvious, but perhaps I may spell it out in the end... or maybe, you will decide that it was just a tangent. Anyway, I hope that you will find my meanderings to be spiritually enlightening, intellectually stimulating, or at least somewhat entertaining.

In the coming weeks and months, I intend to transcribe a series of essays that I wrote about 20 years ago in the hope that I might get them published. They represent the nucleus of my spiritual life and the focal point around which my wanderings revolve like an electron in an atom. I hope that they might eventually serve as a springboard for discussions about the common spiritual heritage of humanity. May we come together and embrace each other in peace.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Sign of the Times - A Broken Idol

It was just lying there in the parking lot at the shopping center, a symbol of most, if not all that is wrong with our western civilization, and the widest gap in our relationship to God... a broken piece of a credit card, the kind that "lets you go anywhere you want to go, and puts you in charge"... or so the advertisements used to promise. Most of us know better now, from sad experience. Credit has become a way of life, and a perilous road to travel with many cages and pitfalls for both the unwary and the wiley. The truly wise would do well to despise their "credit score" and avoid credit and debt as much as possible.

It was an old proverb that admonished us: " Neither a lender, nor a borrower be," but even corporations and businesses have walked into this trap today, and succumbed to the lies of the greedy. "Debt is good, so long as it produces income," is the new mantra. The investor doesn't care about the well-being of the borrower. He only wants his money back with interest. If you are foolish enough to agree to his terms and sign his contract you become his servant, spending your efforts to make him richer and only deluding yourself that you are in pursuit of your own goals. For now, he has an enforceable claim on you, and can at the very least make your life miserable if you are late with your payments. He demands what you owe, on time, regardless of your needs or other obligations.

The penalties for "default" have been both various and severe in different places and different times. They have ranged from enslavement of your self or your children, to a term of captive labor in prison. At the very least, you would lose all that you thought you were working for, your house, your land, your chattels, since the creditor could come and seize your property and sell it to reclaim what you owed him. This humiliating process could very likely leave you homeless and destitute, with your name and reputation ruined, so that you must now wander in search of work and sustenance for your family. Of course, no one will give you any kind of a loan. You can soon become a beggar in the streets. And all for what? A dream of a better life? It may not even have been your fault, you did everything you were supposed to do... but the combinations of bad weather, or the vagaries of the market, or just plain bad luck ruined all of your hard work and good intentions. And the creditor does not care, nor will he give you a second chance. No one would be one bit surprised if you simply give up in despair, and wander off into the wilderness to die of shame, hunger and neglect... or worse, go and hide in the alleyways of the city to become a criminal waylaying the innocent.

But this is not the kind of world that God wants. Not at all. He has warned us away from this evil every time He has given us a revelation of his Will. Every Scripture has some prohibition against usury. The loan of money at interest is forbidden by God's law - because it is the antithesis of all He wants us to pursue. Usury is the opposite of Love, Wisdom, Freedom, and even Truth - and yet, it is allowed by all of the Laws and regulations of Man. Why? Because the one who has the gold is the one who makes the rules. The only alternative is violence, or the threat of violence that the rich man's gold can be taken away. But civilization cannot be sustained by violence, only by the rule of Law. Whether by peer pressure, altruistic conscience, sanctions from authority, or submission to the will of God, only by cooperation with Law can civilization survive. And yet, in our world, riches are power. Men desire power - to command what they will and watch to see it done. And always, more is better. Greed is megalomania. Man would usurp God's own power if he could. Money becomes the idol that he worships, and the love of money becomes the root of all evil.

Take a look at the banks, even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that loans money to national governments... They are ruled by the profit motive. They may be regulated by governments, but they will do everything they can to increase profits, to increase their capital funds and enrich their owners and managers. They will charge every cent of interest, and every fee that they are allowed, depending on to whom they are lending. Banks are owned by investors. They do not exist to serve the public. They are the modern equivalent of the tax collectors so hated in Jesus' day, collaborators with the rich and powerful, yet professing to be just like ordinary people while they get rich at our expense. Jesus called Matthew, and he dumped his investment and left his job collecting taxes to follow, for the good of his people and the salvation of his soul. Collaboration with those who worship idols, with those who would set themselves up as gods, is a sin which demands a radical change in one's life. You cannot serve both God and money.

But where is God in all of this? The Christian would say that you should only lend money where you do not expect it to be returned, and to forgive your debtors. Islam forbids loans for interest, allowing one only to collect what one has placed in the other's care. Judaism, more ambiguously, forbids usury and leaves the definition open to debate, but clearly enough it means excessive interest for profit. God does not want us to ruin each other for greed. We are meant to love God with all that we are, and our neighbors as much as ourselves. If we would do that, investment would become collaboration with the borrower and sharing in the profits, or the losses. Investments are more humane as joint venture contracts. The lender has a stake in the borrower's success, and so cares enough to help and give his best advice. The banker would try to measure the chances of success of each venture by the skills and knowledge of the borrowers, and offer his own skills and services toward that success. He would know that failure would demand forgiveness of the debt, not foreclosure on the properties of the unfortunate.

But there is no banking without interest. There is no motivation without an expectation of a return. Our riches cannot be solely in heaven, for we must eat each day that we live here, and we must work or we will starve. So, we must ask, how much interest will be excessive and leading to greed for profits? The Scriptures do give us some values from which we may draw inferences to keep our expectations in balance. In Judaism, God requires a tithe, ten percent, of all produce as a sacrifice to the Temple. Christianity requires the same tithe from our income as an offering to the Church. And Islam requires the faithful to give charity to the poor. Evidently, God Himself only requires and demands that we dedicate to his service ten percent of what we earn. So proper humility would suggest that anyone who demands more would be setting himself above God. That is the primary sin of the man who loves money and power, that he would usurp God's place and demand that which is due only to God. Therefore, the upper limit of any expectation of return on an investment, by one who does not share in the labor of the borrower, must be placed just below ten percent. Ideally, of course, we should give loans for the sake of charity, to uplift our brothers and sisters for the approval of God alone, but we are frail creatures and such motivation is insufficient, as is our compassion for each other. We must be allowed to expect some small reward in this world, or else no action will be taken. God knows this, and accepts the limitations of his creatures. His choice to accept our devotion of ten percent of our produce to his service shows that he knows how much we can bear. It is too burdensom to shoulder any debt that requires more than a tithe of its produce in interest.

By the same inference, we can know how much debt any person can borrow. At most, only ten percent of anyone's income can be dedicated to the service of debt, for we must all remember that we have family obligations, government taxes, and our tithe due to God. How else can we keep our responsibilities in order, except to demand that they remain in balance and proportion?

One caveat must remain: Watch the banker and the investor to be sure that their services fairly earn the return on each investment. To simply give a loan is a service worth less than ten percent, and many loans are today given at much lower rates. Beware those who would charge interest on unpaid interest, although periodically adding interest upon unpaid principal can be agreed as fair. Nor should they be allowed to multiply "services" meaninglessly to add more fees to burden the borrower. Those who use such tricks seek to evade the risk of losses that it is their duty to share. If the lender cannot forgive a debt that has failed to be repaid, lest he himself be ruined, let him hold the borrower obliged to repay whatever amounts he can, as soon as he can without suffering hardship, until the original loan is returned without interest. If the borrower has offered no goods to secure the loan, the lender can not seize any property to regain his money. The risk of such an unsecured loan is to be shared.

Perhaps such a system of credit is not perfect, but in my view, it would be far better for the common man than the one we have now, and it would be flexible enough to allow our economy to function nearly as well, without many of the risks and abuses that we currently suffer. I offer to discuss it at length with any economist who wishes to explain why it would not work. Any comments are, of course, welcome.

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