‘Scenes from the Life of St Matthew’ 1390-1399, by Niccolo’ di Pietro Gerini, Church of San Francesco, Prato, Italy. St Matthew is the patron saint of bankers. Photo by Getty Images
Moneylending has been taboo for most of human history. So how did usury stop being a sin and become respectable finance?
‘A banker and a theologian’ sounds like the start of a bad joke. But for David Miller it’s merely a job description. After working in finance and business for 16 years, Miller turned to theology, and received his PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary in 2003. Now he’s a professor of business ethics and the director of Princeton University’s Faith and Work Initiative, where his research focuses on Christianity, Judaism and Islam. ‘How to Succeed without Selling Your Soul’ is the students’ popular nickname for his signature course.
In 2014, Citigroup called. The bank had been battered by successive scandals and a wave of public mistrust after the financial crisis, so they wanted to hire Miller as an on-call ethicist. He agreed. Rather than admonish bankers to follow the law – an approach that Miller thinks is inadequate – he talks to them about philosophy. Surprisingly, he hasn’t found bankers and business leaders to be a tough crowd. Many confess a desire to do good. ‘Often I have lunch with an executive, and they say: “You do this God stuff?”’ Miller told me. ‘And then we spend next hour talking about ethics, purpose, meaning. So I know there’s interest.’ Miller wants people in finance to talk about ‘wisdom, whatever its source’. To ignore these traditions and thinkers, as the bulk of the industry tends to do, is equivalent to ‘putting on intellectual blinders’, he says.
Today, a banker listening to a theologian seems like a curiosity, a category error. But for most of history, this kind of dialogue was the norm. Hundreds of years ago, when modern finance arose in Europe, moneylenders moderated their behaviour in response to debates among the clergy about how to apply the Bible’s teachings to an increasingly complex economy. Lending money has long been regarded as a moral matter. So just when and how did most bankers stop seeing their work in moral terms?
In the early 1200s, the French cardinal Jacques de Vitry wrote a collection of exempla, morality tales that priests used in their sermons. In one story, a dying moneylender makes his wife and children swear to hang a third of their inheritance around his neck, and to bury him with it. His family does as instructed. However, later they decide to open the man’s grave to recover the money – only to flee ‘in terror at seeing demons filling the dead man’s mouth with red hot coins’, de Vitry wrote.
In de Vitry’s world, the moneylender deserved to be defiled by demons, because he’d committed the sin of usury – charging interest on a loan. De Vitry didn’t care whether the rate was high or low, because the Church’s position was that extracting a single cent of interest was evil. The roots of this revulsion run deep, and across cultures. Vedic law in Ancient India condemned usury, and rulers routinely capped interest rates from Ancient Mesopotamia to Ancient Greece. In Politics, Aristotle described usury as ‘the birth of money from money’, and claimed it was unnatural because money was sterile and should not ‘breed’.
Judeo-Christian religions cemented the usury taboo. The Old Testament reads: ‘Do not charge a fellow Israelite interest,’ and the Book of Luke advises: ‘[L]ove ye your enemies: do good, and lend, hoping for nothing thereby.’ In the 4th century CE, Christian councils denounced the practice, and by 800, the emperor Charlemagne made the prohibition into law. Accounts of merchants and bankers in the Middle Ages frequently include expressions of anguish over their profits. In his Divine Comedy of the 14th century, the Italian poet Dante Alighieri put the usurers in the seventh circle of Hell; in the case of Reginaldo Scrovegni, one Paduan banker singled out by Dante, his son ended up commissioning a chapel painted with frescoes by Giotto to expiate the family’s sin. Over the ensuing centuries, the philanthropy and patronage of other Italian Renaissance families such as the Medicis was partly inspired by guilt about how they’d profited from charging interest…