Puzzle of Faith and Profit

In the early years of Christian development the founders, movers and shakers of the cult were keenly concerned about the inequities between the rich and the poor throughout the Roman Empire.  Indeed, there are several New Testament verses regarding secular affairs and profits made from trade throughout the Roman Empire.  And it was an understanding in Christian practice that clerics and bishops were not to be involved in profit trades.  Remarkably, even into the Middle Ages the church kept in place strict restrictions on accumulating wealth and the pursuit of profits.

For example, the system of  profit taking was one of the concerns taken up at The First Lateran Council in 1123 under Pope Calixtus II, which adopted canons forbidding the sale of indulgences: that was rightfully seen as profiteering.  Contrarily, it was also at this Council that the canon forbidding marriage of clergymen became church law, which was put in place for the sole purpose of preventing the children born to a married clergyman from inheriting the father’s material wealth.  The marriage prohibition had nothing at all to do with spiritual purity, as claimed.  The Second Lateran Council in 1139, held under Pope Innocent II, renewed the canons prohibiting clerical marriage (for the same reason: to protect church profits).  Even into 1179 the Third Lateran Council addressed the trade of  money lending and virtually branded money lenders as outlaws.  This restriction of a particular trade practice was then reaffirmed at the Councils of Lyons (1273) and of Vienna (1312).

“Saint” Thomas of Aquino (1226-1274) was summoned to the Council of Lyons by Pope Gregory X, but he died en route.  Thomas’ position on church and profits was politically convenient for the church, however, for Thomas had clarified a distinction between usury and interest.  The “saint” had declared, “…to accept usury for a loan of money is by its nature unjust.”  Even so, Thomas provided an escape clause for church activities, saying, “…usury is gain from a loan; (but) interest is compensation for a risk of inconvenience.”  Thus it all got centered on motivation, and therefore Thomas’ hairsplitting judgment was that trading for a profit (usury) was not the same as trading at a profit (interest).

Later interpreters, not surprisingly, had a range of opinions on profit.  Martin Luther (1483-1546), German reformer, said that the Devil had invented the traffic in interest.  The reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) maintained that striving for excessive profits should be subdued for the glory of god.  John Wesley (1703-1791), evangelical preacher and founder of Methodism, on the other hand, used the NT book of Luke (16:9), stretching a point a bit, for a different slant on profits in which he reasoned three principles of money use.  1) Gain all you can;  2) Save all you can; and 3) Give all you can.  With the second principle Wesley also advanced eight points on how a Christian could be penny-wise and judicious.

In a sense, it can be said that the Calvinist interpretation of scriptures, which virtually ruled out a person’s good works as the sole means of salvation, set the approval for free market systems.  This is because Calvin placed more significance on following personal inclinations in fulfilling one’s calling—he called this “ritualistic behavior”—because the need one has for provisions was not deemed to be the person’s choice, but was put in place by god. This notion could then be rationalized that if a person sees a chance for profit, then the person must follow the call by pursuing the opportunity. 

In this interpretation of what a Supreme Being desired for mankind there then had to be established some justification for god’s allowance of owning private property.  That some people could lay claim to property, but others were limited, brought the question of justness and fairness in the role of society.  The idea of owning property necessitated an interlocking scheme to support it, and that was found in laissez-faire, the irrational but accommodating concept that government should not interfere with commerce.  Here, again, the Calvinistic assessment of an individual following their “ritualistic behavior” and applying effort could be rationalized as the holy reason for profitable results.  From this interpretation of god-privileged circumstances, it became accepted that self-interest was really a social blessing, and was a prime factor for receiving material compensation.  Once this excuse for selfish conduct became wrapped in divine propaganda, individuals happily came to believe that in satisfying their self-interests they automatically served society!

With this we are brought into modern western societies of today, especially in the USA.  In the United States this is glaringly exemplified in the shameless conduct of the Religious Right’s domination of the Republican Party since 1996, which has now become even further infected with the clueless Tea Party mob.  This is self-interest in its most degraded form, not an implementation of imagined social blessings.  Devotion to self-interest, as history has proven repeatedly, results only in oppression, coercion, exploitation, economic collapse, injustice, violence, torture, and even threats to the environment.

All of this is a far cry from the early teachings associated with the early Christian movement.  Few among the self-interest crowd calling themselves Christians pay any attention to what is said to have been taught by the teacher.  The message presented in the New Testament books of Matthew and Mark, however, is that one will find that it is in their greater self-interest to devote themselves in heartfelt service to others.

Somehow that teaching does not quite equate with misappropriating money that was gathered from everyone’s taxes and using it to finance vouchers for private schools of some faith system.

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One Response to “Puzzle of Faith and Profit”

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