Friday, May 16, 2014

Proposed Biblical Principles and Guidelines for Borrowing and Lending in the North Central Conference

by Mark Adams and Gideon N’Gobi

The NCC Board of Administration, at the request of Superintendent Mark Adams, requested a review of biblical and ethical principles and guidelines that may inform the practices of the Board of Administration and Loan Fund.  Mark Adams (Superintendent) and Gideon N’Gobi (member of Board of Stewardship and Finance) have invested some time and effort to fulfill this task.  What follows is a preliminary effort to provide guidelines and context for borrowing and lending in the NCC.

Are there biblical and theological principles which the North Central Conference should apply in relation to institutional borrowing and lending?

 Throughout history there have been abundant practical, theological and ethical discussions regarding economic development, and the practices of money-lending and borrowing.  For most of the history of the church, the practice of lending money with an expectation of repayment with interest, also known as usury, has been either forbidden or strongly regulated.  As local, civic, business, national, and corporate interests have evolved over time, the application of theological principles have often evolved along with them.

 The early and emerging Roman Catholic thinking tended to ban lending with any interest at all.  The protestant reformation ushered in looser views of the practice of charging interest.  Significant changes in modern finance and business began to rapidly emerge in the 18th century and blossomed into a complete reinvention of financial institutions, tools, borrowing and lending in the 20th century which has largely blurred or removed theological discussion of borrowing and lending in much of the western world.  Economic expansion since the industrial revolution and beyond has contributed to creating a material standard of living for many in the world unparalleled in history, and has simultaneously led to the threat of national and even global economic collapses and a rapidly expanding gulf between the rich and poor within and between nations.

The focus of this paper is to offer guidance to the NCC Board of Administration and Loan Fund relating to borrowing and lending.   Deep and penetrating analysis of each scripture and theological principle, a thorough history of thought relating to economic development, and an analysis of different particular financial instruments is far beyond the scope of this document.  The simple goal is to reveal biblical principles that can be applied today so that our lending and borrowing honors God and one another.

The Bible and Borrowing and Lending

What does the Bible say about borrowing and lending?  How have good biblical principles been applied through time?  What are principles we can look to today to guide our thinking in particular as it relates to the North Central Conference?

Defining terms. What does it mean to borrow?  One may borrow many things, but we are limiting our discussion to borrowing money.  The person or organization that “borrows” receives money from another person or organization with an agreement to repay the money.  A loan, borrowed money, is not a gift or grant, but money that belongs to the lender, temporarily placed in the possession of the borrower, who agrees to repay the sum borrowed under the terms agreed upon with the lender.

What does it mean to lend?  One may lend money to a borrower with the expectation that the money will be repaid.  To lend is not to give, but to enter into a financial agreement for repayment.

When the North Central Conference Loan Fund (or Conference Board of Administration) lends money, an individual is not making an agreement.  Rather, a group tasked with the stewardship of funds entrusted to the organization by the collection of churches called the North Central Conference, is making the loan.  When congregation borrows money, it is not borrowing money from an individual lender, but making a good faith agreement with its sister congregations to responsibly repay the funds borrowed.  Nor, under most circumstances, is the borrower an individual, but rather a church which, under the direction of a pastor (usually) and local board of administration, agrees on behalf of that institution to borrow funds.

The Bible and borrowing. Many Scripture passages address borrowing, and demonstrate that it was a common practice among communities in both the Old and New Testament eras.
For example, in 2 Kings Elijah assists a widow providing a way to repay her debts (2Kings4.1-7).  The high responsibility associated with a good steward of borrowed resources is revealed in 2Kings6.1-7.  When borrowed resources are lost, restitution must be made to the owner by the borrower even when the resource is lost, for example, a borrowed ox that becomes injured (Ex.22.14-15).  Biblically, it is a wicked thing to borrow and not repay the debt (Ps.37.21).  Christians are urged in Romans to “give everyone what you owe him… let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another” (Rom.13.7-8).
There seem to be significant problems described in the Bible when a lender took undue advantage of a borrower, particularly a poor or destitute borrower.

Economics and justice with particular concern for the poor are closely tied in the Bible. Much Old Testament law is written in light of the Exodus, and the experience of Israel as an oppressed, enslaved people.  The God of the Bible is deeply concerned about justice, equality, treating one another with a sense of fairness and equity, and avoiding those practices which create economic bondage or slavery of any kind among the people of Yahweh.  For example, “Do not pervert justice, do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly” (Lev.19.15).  “Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow” (Deut.27.19). “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne, love and faithfulness go before you” (Ps.89.14).   “’Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom, or the strong man boast of his strength, or the rich man boast of his riches. But let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,’ declares the Lord (Jerm9.23-24).”

Usury, or charging interest in the Bible is usually associated with injustice. Consequently, lending practices in the Old Testament tightly regulated or prohibited “usury” or the charging of interest because of the potential this has to lead to societal inequity and unjust treatment, particularly of the poor.  For example, requiring collateral from the poor that would leave them exposed to harm was strictly forbidden, as in Deut.24.17-18, “Do not deprive the alien or fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow in pledge, remember that you were slaves in Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this.”

Nehemiah chastised the rich Israelites for charging interest on the poor Israelites as they were rebuilding the protective wall around Jerusalem.  Nehemiah says (9.5-11), “What you are doing is not right! Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies? I and my brothers and men are also lending the people money and grain. But let the exacting of usury stop!”  The matter of lending and charging interest in Nehemiah’s day was quite excessive as the complaints that led to his plea were that the poor were being forced into slavery, required to give up their land, their homes and their crops to their lenders (Neh.5.1-12).

In his response to the rich Israelites taking advantage of the poor by charging interest, Nehemiah was reflecting on Levitical law.  Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy all have passages prohibiting the charging of interest or making a profit by lending (Ex.22.25, Lev.25.37, Deut.23.19), which would later be reinforced by the prophet Ezekiel (18:3-17).

It is noteworthy, however, that the charging of interest was not prohibited in general. That is, the prohibition in the Law of God does not have a universal application, because it is limited specifically to the internal affairs of Israel (Deut.23.20).  In later centuries, as the Roman Catholic Church began to grow in influence, usury and charging interest was in fact interpreted more universally.  Christians who sought to conform to the teachings of the church were not permitted, based upon Levitical law, to profit from lending.  However, they often needed to borrow.  Since Jews were not prohibited from lending to gentiles, a significant occupation (leading to many modern stereotypes) of Jews in the medieval era became money-lending.

“Usury” and “interest” are virtually interchangeable in the Bible. Some have argued that, Biblically speaking, there is a difference between “interest” and “usury”, the former being a percentage charge on what is borrowed for the privilege of borrowing it, the latter charging an unfair or excessive percentage on what is borrowed.  The Hebrew words generally translated as interest are tarbit and marbit which connote ‘increase’ and nasa which is to exact, closely related to nasak or to bite.  Ezekiel (chapter 18) makes a distinction between charging interest and excessive interest, but neither are commended.  Neither ‘to increase’ nor ‘exact’ in these Old Testament passages, are to be practiced by Israelites among Israelites.

However, ample evidence indicates that the amounts of interest, the “bite” taken from what was borrowed, was indeed most obscene by any modern standard.  Ancient civilizations demonstrate that requiring interest between 30% and 100% of what was borrowed was not uncommon. Further, draconian measures which would essentially place entire generations into indentured servitude to the rich as a result of a family’s impossible debt repayment were quite common.  Charging moderately small interest rates would have been quite the exception, not the norm.  A problem faced by ancient societies, and modern alike, is the application of tactics that intentionally impoverish people to such a degree that the lender “owns” them. Such practices continued into the Christian era among many people (including unscrupulous Christians).

The New Testament and Usury.  Jesus, consistent with the Word Christians believe He inspired, regularly advocates justice and generosity.  It is interesting, however, that he does not seem to have a negative view of lending or charging interest.  “Give to the one who asks you and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you,” says Jesus (Matthew 5:42).  In Luke (6:35) he encouragers disciples to “love your enemies, do good to them, and lend without expecting anything back.”  Jesus, it would seem, desires his followers to be generous, and even to lend with an attitude of forgiveness if the one borrowing cannot repay.

 Neither of these passages equate lending with giving – a loan is still meant to be repaid – and a Christian who borrows should expect to assume the moral obligation of repayment.
Neither Jesus quote mentions usury. Yet, Jesus tells parables that assume usury and the exacting of interest on loans as apparently a normal matter of doing business.  The parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) portrays servants who were given stewardship of resources and expected to make profit from these resources.  The minimal profit would have been gained by placing money on deposit with moneylenders and to receive it with interest (25:27). For not doing at least this, a servant is severely judged by his master.  A similar story is recounted in Luke 19.  It is highly unlikely that Jesus would have used placing money in an interest bearing account to please the “king” (presumably meant to imply God in these parables) as an analogy for our Christian fruitfulness if it were, in His day and in His estimation, an evil practice to charge interest.

Some general biblical principles on borrowing and lending

What emerges as the Old and New Testament teachings on the practices of borrowing and lending, and charging interest, is that there are changes over time.  Still, some things never change.

What never changes are some lasting principles that may guide the NCC in general. The people of God ought to treat one another, and even their enemies, equitably.  We ought to take measures to avoid practices that lead to the oppression of the poor.  We should practice generosity wherever possible. We should take obligations into which we enter seriously with every intent to repay what we borrow.  We should avoid entering into debt whenever this is possible.  A lender should not lend to a borrower who cannot repay (though a generous person may offer a gift).  A lender should not lend, if interest will be involved or collateral required, in such a way that may lead to the ruin of the borrower.

Some things have changed even with the Scriptures themselves.  What seems to have changed even as one flips through the Pentateuch and makes way toward the gospels and epistles, is that a view on the use of charging interest does change.  From a forbidden practice, to one that is forbidden among fellow countrymen but permitted among outsiders, to ensuring that no money-lending leads to the enslavement or financial ruin of the borrower, to not charging ‘excessive’ interest, to seeing the charging of interest as a normal practice in day to day affairs.  This seems to be the progression of “usury” as it is described in Scripture.

Concepts on borrowing and lending that have emerged over time

There are a few interesting concepts that Christians in particular have dealt over the ages and in different cultural and economic environment. First, while extremely high interest rates were quite common prior to the Christian era, regulated interest rates and usury caps instituted by the church, by nations, and even by most states in the United States, have generally ranged between 4 and 15 percent.  This has been true for 1,500 years.  The reason or logic behind this is unclear, but that it has been generally viewed through most of our common era as an acceptable range of interest is interesting.

The basic moral and ethical logic behind charging reasonable rates of interest revolve around two basic concepts, good stewardship of a resource and managing risk. The owner (or steward) of the money is renting out his/her resource as a matter of making profit in much the same way as the owner of a home may rent a home, or the owner of an office complex may rent that complex.  As money tends to be devalued over time, the worth of what has been lent decreases over time, making the charging of interest or fees minimally necessary simply so as not to take a loss in what was lent.  Additionally, there is risk involved in lending money.  Primarily this is the risk of the borrower’s default, which must be factored into the process of identifying the potential fees, interest or collateral which will be required to make a loan reasonable.  John Calvin, for example, argued that no one should not profit from the poor, but in dealing with people of means, making business transactions, “usury is freely permitted… and ought to be paid to the creditor in addition to the principal, to compensate for loss… Reason does not suffer us to admit that all usury is to be condemned without exception” (Calvin, Commentary on Exodus).

Corporations aren’t always people, too. When an individual makes a loan, or borrows money, there is potentially a fairly high degree of flexibility in terms of risk assessment, and the degree to which a loan or debt may be forgiven.  Christians are called upon to err on the side of generosity by Lord Jesus.  That is, a borrower may freely choose to gift the lender in excess of what was borrowed out of a heart of thanksgiving, or a lender may choose freely to forgive a debt that is owed.  These matters of individual conscience are the prerogative of any individual.  It is not fair or Christian to expect, as a borrower, that your lender must forgive a debt.

The requirements and level of risk assessment and stewardship are different and higher when an organization or institution lends or borrows to an individual or another organization.  It would not be ethical for a banker responsible to steward funds on deposit from investors (Christians or not) to freely forgive debts on behalf of others.  Nor would it be ethical for corporate bodies (like churches) to choose not to repay debts that the corporate body, perhaps in ages past and under different circumstances, assumed.  In community, our responsibilities are higher, and our obligations must be entered into with much more care.  

Modest historical context impacting debt problems

During the “Age of Enlightenment,” it became quite clear that people were borrowing consumptively and falling into debt that could not be repaid. Consumptive borrowing meant either borrowing to pay for day to day expenses or to live beyond ones immediate means in order or appear to be of a different class (and hence have a potential business or cultural edge in opportunity).  In other words, Europe experienced a sharp increase in the ever increasing and indebted poor and an emerging heavily indebted consumer-oriented middle-class.  Prison awaited both.  Usury laws prohibited charging interest, but did not prohibit charging fees, or levying very heavy fines if loans were not repaid.  Debtors’ prison became the new home of far too many people caught in the inescapable trap of debt – even in a time and place when usury was formally not allowed.  One simple solution advocated and increasingly implemented as a just and protective measure was to make it very difficult to offer funds to people who had very little likelihood of repayment.  Don’t lend to people who can’t pay back the debt.

Throughout the history of lending, until the 1970s and 1980s, requirements to secure loans were fairly consistently high.  Loans were only written, for example, to purchase homes when a buyer produced a 10-20% down payments, terms were written for 15 years or less, and clear evidence of income to repay the debt was required.  Corporate land purchases required 20% or more for down payments, and generally higher interest rates were charged.  After the 1980s, deregulated markets, the deconstruction of many state usury laws, and bundling loans into securities that the loan originators were no longer responsible to maintain allowed for an explosion of high risk loans, consumer credit at unscrupulously usurious (by even ancient standards) rates. These (and other) factors led to unprecedented bankruptcies, property losses, and deep personal and corporate financial ruin.  Rather than protecting the consumer by limiting credit to only those who are creditworthy, at least in the United States, purchases on credit have become a virtual norm.

The Loan Fund is wise is not lending to churches that cannot likely repay a loan.  A loan cannot be predatory or harmful if it is not made, and it cannot become a loss to those investing.

Theologians prefer simple over compound interest.  There are a few historic rules of thumb employed by Christian thinkers throughout the history of the church.  While compound interest is not a new innovation, it has been viewed as excessive interest, and the implicit definition of “usury” for most of church history.  Simple interest is (I=Prt or Interest = principle * rate of interest * time period of loan) has been viewed as morally superior to compound interest. Compound interest has the potential to create rich rewards for the lender but also to create a cycle of debt repayment difficult for a borrower to escape.  Compound interest is (M=P(1+i)n or Final aMount = Principle amount * annual interest rate * to the power of the number of years invested.  The difference in outcome for the lender, for example, between the two, for a common loan written by the NCC might be:

Borrowing $20,000 to repair a roof, with a 7 year term at 6% simple interest provides this result:  $20000 * .06 * 7 yields a total payment over 7 years of $28,400.  The interest paid, assuming regular payments, is $8400.  Borrowing the same amount using compound interest yields this result:  $20000 * (1.06)7 = $30,072.  The interest paid (assuming regular payments) is $10,072.

However, the amount required to repay a debt are considerably higher if no or partial principle payments are made, and much higher still if interest accumulates and is charged again on that accumulating interest.
Should we ever cap a loan amount or the interest due?  Another common ethical principle applied to writing a just or fair loan has been that no borrower should ever be required to pay more than the amount borrowed.   Perhaps a more generous rule of thumb might be capping a loan at 50% of the principle amount borrowed, or not writing a loan that would be extended so far as to require an interest rate that exceeds 50% of the principle to be paid.  In the example of simple verses compound interest above, a twelve year note at 6% would require the borrower to pay more in interest than the original amount borrowed, and is likely an unethical loan (either to have been secured by the borrower or agreed to by the lender).

Is it unethical to charge compound interest?  Certainly most investors prefer to receive compound interest, which according to Albert Einstein, is the “eighth wonder of the world, he who understands it earns it, he who doesn’t – pays it.”  Most modern thinkers would suggest that is it not unethical as long as both the borrower and lender fully understand and mutually agree upon the terms.  However, it is our experience in the North Central Conference that most churches seeking to borrow funds are doing so out of necessity of repair, or to accommodate growth in their congregation, and may have no other lender to which they may turn (nor which has a moral obligation to provide mutual support in the connection called the NCC), and will assume that the conference is providing a fair and ethical loan.

If the NCC were to adopt a simple rather than compound interest model in writing loans, it may provide more relief and be a fairer practice for the borrower while still providing reasonable stewardship and providing for risk factors on the part of the lender.  However, there would be a diminished return on the investment for those who have placed their funds in the NCC Loan Fund, including the church planting and revitalization endeavors of the conference which are currently largely paid for through interest earned on the Church Planting Endowment Fund, an NCC investment on deposit with the Loan Fund.

How should interest rates be established?  This requires more research.  Until 1981 most states had caps on interest that could be charged, often a percentage (usually around 5%) above the rate set by the Federal Reserve on the day a loan is made.  Many still do, Kentucky being among the highest (19%) but most hover around 10%.  Consumer credit and predatory lending institutions routinely disregard these limits, but that there are limits on interest rates is quite an American practice.  The rates under 10% are not viewed as predatory or excessive in most cases.  If the NCC uses the common 5% above the Federal Reserve rate, then we would be charging just slightly under 6% currently.  The NCC currently charges 6%.

How should NCC investors be compensated when loans are made using their money? It is quite common and a practice even among Christians during eras when all usury had been banned, to charge a “fee” for use of money, and pay a percentage of that “fee” to investors in order to fund a moneylending enterprise.  Simply to conduct business, capital and/or access to credit is required, and this is not free.

While the investors who have funds on deposit with the NCC reasonably expect a return on their investment, it is also clear that investors expect or desire more than merely a fiscal return.  True to biblical ideals no investor would desire to be profiting from their Christian brothers and sisters in a way that was unfair or oppressive.  Likewise, understanding that the combined resources of our investors are being used to plant, revitalize, repair and expand our churches provides a very positive incentive to be generous in terms to the borrower, while expecting that this generosity will be reciprocated with responsible repayment.  A modest return on the investment of 2 percentage points below the current interest being charged a loan seems a fair return, is competitive with current market standards, and is a solid mark for Christian financial partnership rather than a predatory practice.  

What happens if a congregation cannot repay the loan?  It is not uncommon for a church in deep decline to have significant repair needs and seek funds from the conference to make those repairs.  Generally, when this happens, guidance is offered regarding church growth and health in the sincere hope that a church will grow healthy, not merely in order to repay a financial debt, but of course to be a vital, active, disciplemaking congregation.  However, there are times when a church will close after having grown too weak to sustain a budget or a building.  It is the common practice, if a loan had been written for such a church to recoup the funds upon sale of the building, or to keep a note against the sale or repurposing of the building.  In essence, church property is the collateral, and sometimes that property becomes the responsibility of the conference and a financial asset to the conference, invested into the loan fund for the sake of helping other churches, when it closes.  However, under no circumstances has a church been seized or closed in order to take property to cover a debt.  As a matter of principle, the NCC would not desire to fall under the judgment of one does the equivalent of the reprehensible taking of a widow’s cloak in pledge (Deut.24.17-18).

Should a debt ever be forgiven? Is there a point at which the NCC could justify the forgiveness of a debt, and still be true to the task of stewarding well the resources entrusted to it by fellow churches investing in the loan fund?

The Bible speaks of a year of jubilee, and the year of the Lord’s favor, or a Sabbatic year every seven years.  For example, Deuteronomy 15:1-6 declares: “At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the LORD’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your fellow Israelite owes you. However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today. For the LORD your God will bless you as he has promised, and you will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. You will rule over many nations but none will rule over you.”

Similarly, Leviticus 25:8-13 states the same principle, but ties it to an event that is to occur every 49 (or possibly 50) years – seven sevens – in which debts are cancelled, slaves set free, and as it is tied to the “day of atonement,” sins are forgiven.   It is in Leviticus that the phrase year of Jubilee arise.

Scholars are divided over how often, or even whether at all, this Sabbatic year was actually practiced.  Nonetheless, there is clearly a biblical admonition designed to systematize or institutionalize a practice of regularly equalizing Israel.  In this way, the generational accumulation of wealth could not create a long-term and much-dreaded separation between the very wealthy and deeply impoverished.   Neither the Sabbatic year nor Year of Jubilee has been observed for a very long time, as the law requires that all twelve tribes of Israel are in fact living in Israel for the event to take place.  This was made impossible after the 6th century BC invasion and dispersal of Israel by Assyrian invaders.

Canceling debts was not unique to Israel.  Archeologists and historians have discovered with certainty no less than 30 national debt cancellations throughout ancient Mesopotamia between 2400-1400 BC.  Debt cancellation is written into the code of Hammurabi, as is a capping interest at 33%.   If there is a unique Hebrew addition to the concept of leveling the economic playing field among the ancients, it is in providing a clear schedule upon which this would happen.  Such a schedule allowed for planning on the part of both lender and borrower.

A year of Jubilee or Sabbatic year principle, regardless of how often it may have been actually applied, demonstrates a biblical heart to ensure equity and avoid generational poverty or wealth.   While it would be quite clearly useful in our modern western world as a means of leveling the economic playing field, it is very unlikely to actually occur and it does not particularly apply to the types of loans arranged within the North Central Conference.  There are no overlords earning unjust gain at the expense of increasingly impoverished churches.

However, there may be cases in which a year of jubilee, or the forgiveness of debt, may be warranted as just, merciful and healthy for the conference in the long run.  For example, if a church or organization (a camp for instance), discovers that for various reasons it is no longer able to make payments on large capital expenditures, neither the conference as a whole, nor the organization in specific benefit from continually capitalizing unpayable and increasing debt installments.  The Loan Fund, or the NCC Board of Administration, may consider freezing such a loan (no longer capitalizing unpaid balances), and simply leaving a lien against property or assets in the event of the failure or dissolution of that organization.  It would seem that such a decision would need to be made with a majority (or perhaps totality) of consent among those who are investors in the fund, as such an act of forgiveness may be moral only when those who have invested the money are able to provide that forgiveness.  Nor would this necessarily be a true forgiveness, as the funds may be repaid at some point in the future when assets are liquidated.  Or perhaps the investors in the fund may actually agree to entirely forgive an amount.

This is not a recommendation on how the NCC ought to conduct its business, but a thought or principle to consider that is consistent with the year of jubilee concept in our current time.  It would allow an opportunity to investors to act as benefactors rather than business partners (there is nothing wrong being business partners which in fact do benefit one another).  To simply forgive debt on behalf of someone else, however, while romantically Robin-Hoodesque, may indeed be equivalent to stealing from one to give to another, which is not defensible in either the Old or New Testament.

Other matters that may be useful to address outside the scope of this paper are 1) principles for making personal loans which the NCC Board of Administration has done on rare occasion, but which the Loan Fund is prohibited from doing, 2) compliance with federal and state rules and regulations for lending institutions – and we do comply with our current legal charters, 3) improving the communication of terms, billing, benefits, disbursements, etc., 4) guidance in selecting those who administer the loan fund and financial matters of the North Central Conference, 5) clearer guidelines for applying for and approval of loans, 6) and no doubt much more.

“Every church does business,” said a member of the church board, “most just do it badly.”  It is the hope that North Central Conference will do business well.  Doing business well requires that we carry out business in a manner which respects biblical principles, and honors God, as well as respecting the laws of the land and employing best practice in the application of the financial tools offered to our churches.

We hope that this document furthers the conversation in each of these areas.

Mark Adams
Gideon N’gobi

Calvin, John. Commentary on Exodus. Amazon Digital Services (Kindle Book). 2013.
Constitution of the Illinois Wisconsin Conference Loan Fund.  North Central Conference, 1989.
Cooper, Benjamin. The Ethics of Usury. Latimer Trust. 2012.
Elliot, Calvin. Usury: A scriptural, ethical and economic view (1902). Kessinger Publisher. 2009.
Ferguson, Niall. The Ascent of Money: A Financial history of the world. Penguin Books. 2009.
Geist, Charles. Beggar Thy Neighbor, A History of Usury and Debt, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.
Richards, Jay. Money, Greed and God: Why capitalism is the solution, not the problem. Harper One. 2010.
Tenny, Merrill and Silva Moises. Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible, Revised. Zondervan, 2009.
Toussaint, Eric. The tradition of debt cancellation in Mesopotamia and Egypt from 3000 to 1000 BC.  Committee for Abolition of Third World Debt. September 2012.
Zarlenga, Stephen. A brief history of interest. American Monetary Institute Research and Articles. December 18, 2010. (

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Locus Swarms and NextGEN

It’s easier to get along with people just like me. But the future won’t let that happen. And I’m pretty sure that’s part of God’s big plan.
   The happiest places on earth are filled with people who are very much like each other. Multiple international studies over the past ten years have demonstrated that, all things being equal (political and economic extremes avoided), most people are happiest when they are surrounded by others who share their same language, skin color, cultural references and overall world view. Per the United Nations World Happiness Report 2013, the happiest nations on earth are Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, Netherlands and Sweden. The USA is in upper 2/3rds of the 89 nations studied. Togo is the unhappiest place on earth. 
   Many things contribute to a global happiness (economics, food resourcing, education, political stability, ecological environment, etc.). Remarkably, homogeneity contributes significantly. 
   Humankind’s ultimate future is revealed in Revelation (7:9): “I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb…” 
   As Christians, as Free Methodists, we strive toward a world-view and culture in which Colossians 3 is not mere lip service. “Take off your old self with its practices, put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”
   Still, it is difficult, and if human history tells us anything, perhaps impossible to allow the glue of culture, nationalism, tribalism (like-me-ism) to be dissolved…. Without the renewed nature which flows from grace received through faith…. Without continually coming to the cross to die to self, seeking to see and hear the “other” through the perceptive, forgiving and grace-filled perspective of our mutual Creator. 
   As Annual Conference 2014 approaches, we will address how to approach NextGEN – the next generation. Each generation has its distinct challenges, and passing on the faith from one generation to the next is always our great joy, though never an easy task. 
   I believe however, that cultural shifts in our American scene have the appearance of the locust swarm which the prophet Joel bemoaned. All seems destroyed. Crops, hope for the future, eroded in the face of a horde that seemed overnight to bring despair. 
   Joel writes (1:2-3) “Hear this, you elders; listen, all who live in the land. Has anything like this ever happened in your days or in the days of your forefathers? Tell it to your children and let your children tell it to their children, and their children to the next generation.”
   Just a few of the locust-like cultural shifts that we are not well prepared to face… Slow-pace to Nano-pace. Small town to Urban. Homogeneous Communities to Divergent Mosaics. Industry to Service. Respect for Authority to Mistrust of Institutions. Logic and Word to Emotion and Image. Our Faith Tradition to My Spiritual Journey.
   It is disheartening to see a rapid depopulation of churches around the country. It is disorienting to experience multiple “truths” being “balanced” and navigating shifts in relationships between power structures, racial groups, gender issues and increasingly widening generation gaps.
   On the one hand, there are no easy answers to passing eternal truths from one generation to the next. On the other hand, since real truth is indeed eternal, God’s word and Spirit continue to move hearts even in the midst massive social and cultural upheaval.
   As we gather for AC2014, we have much work to accomplish. I pray that among the work to be done, we will also walk away with a better understanding of the NextGEN and healthy ways to “Tell it to your children and let your children tell it to their children, and their children to the next generation.”

   Many young leaders are emerging in our midst –full of the Spirit, grounded in the Word, alive with Christ’s truth. They are eager to build upon the ancient foundations new “temples” with different architecture suited for a more a diverse, digital, urban, complex world than their parents and grandparents inhabit. We are full of hope, not despair, full of confidence that the eternal Creator is still making all things new.