Theological Reasons For Not Imposing Theology On Our Laws

After demonstrating the patience that marks true friendship, by reading my 3,500+ word screed on theological stances towards marriage equality in Ireland, a dear friend asked me to elaborate on the theological reasons that we have for not imposing our theology on law.

Jesus and politics

I love questions that allow me to badly regurgitate ideas that Stanley Hauerwas has taught us.

But let me be brave and try to sketch this out without blatantly ransacking the old works published by my teacher and so exposing what another friend called, as if he was alluding to a B.O. issue, my “Anabaptist tendencies”.

I study wealth. This leads me to reading many books about capitalism and globalisation, markets and money. I have become reasonably competent at guiding people through the Christian tradition on how to engage with wealth. And I have noticed that thinking about the theology of having more than you need casts a great deal of light on thinking about other aspects of the Christian life. For one thing: when you get paid to read books about getting paid, you start to really notice how often Christians get agitated about, well, getting laid.

So Christians that I know and love and respect are very agitated about the idea of marriage equality but they are not really comparably concerned (at least by reference to their external acts) about wealth (in)equality. We want to maintain a legal framework that encourages our sexual ethic but we do not want to build a legal framework that encourages our wealth ethic.

Perhaps the reason is because we have no wealth ethic. We just have claims about God in one hand, and our day-to-day life with our bank account in the other, and the left doesn’t know what the right is doing and we are happy with that.

If that seems unfair, let me ask you when was the last time you deliberated on the nature of usury? When was the last time you heard a sermon about the dangers of usury? When was the last time a Christian got themselves invited on drivetime radio to debate with politicians about the futility and delusionary nature of societies constructed on usury?

Christians have reason, it would seem, to impose their views about usury on the world. The Bible is very clear. Usury is out of bounds. The people of God do not engage with it. They cancel debts. They forgive debts. They do not profit from debt. They were enslaved in Egypt, they are now liberated from enslaving others with fictional bonds.

Jesus on money-lenders

Laws progressively changed in post-Reformation Europe so that the concept of usury is now effectively meaningless for us in any legal sense. The failure of the British government to clampdown on parasites like Wonga demonstrates how in a critical contemporary ethical zone a basic Christian commitment has been so unlegislated as to be silent. The Archbishop of Canterbury rails against Wonga, but he is unusual in that. I have heard more Christians laud the welfare cuts, systemic underemployment, and brutal surveillance of David Cameron’s Satanically named “Big Society” than I have heard Christians offer quiet critique of 3000% APR rates.

So why do Christians not lobby for laws that limit (nevermind prohibit) usury?

There are two reasons, as I can see it. Both are pertinent. The first is that we cannot successfully get them passed. We’re better off putting our energy into realisable political goals – like getting funding for a huge educational tapestry that shows Jesus first fighting and then taming the raptors in Jurassic Park that once and for all teaches children the folly of Darwninism.

The second is that we cannot achieve what we want to achieve by passing such laws.

We have laws against murder because it is evident to everyone why murder is wrong. We do not have laws against usury (and soon gay marriage) because it is not evident to everyone why they are wrong. It is only because it was revealed to us that we claim that we should not establish industries that are predicated on profiting without reference to the success of our partners. Murder destroys civilisation. It is not evident that usury does. When we say usury is wrong (something few of us actually seem to believe), we are not just making a claim about licit financial transactions but making a claim about the very nature of reality.

Strip usury out of our society, without that transformation being embedded in a deep trust in the grace and covenant shared with us by the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and we will just find new and more devious ways to enslave each other. Unless we actually believe that God stands opposed to all our attempts at mastering others, boycotting usury will just be window dressing.

In the same way, living for generations in societies where gay people couldn’t get married didn’t create societies where people trusted and lived out the strange and upside-down logic of Christian sexuality.

So pragmatically we can’t pass these anti-usury laws we’ve never even thought about, because no one agrees with us. And on a deeper level, we can’t pass these anti-usury laws because they don’t achieve what we long to see.

This is not some secret anabaptist retreat from the public square. Rather, it is a theologically coherent position that arises from dwelling on what our theological vision for our communities actually looks like. Law limits excess. But the goodness of God is always in excess. Law is great for doing some things, like drawing lines for acceptable behaviour and arranging ways to fight with each other without resorting to pistols at dawn. But the Gospel pushes us over the lines into unacceptable behaviour and it is forever aligning us to love those we are logically meant to fight.

Other arguments can be offered. For example: one could read Hauerwas’ many references to Walter Rauschenbusch as a lesson in how successfully changing society for the better can still lead to Christian unfaithfulness. I could offer a theological argument for the value of tolerance, grounded in the doctrine of hospitality. Tolerance, remember, implies disagreement. But welcoming those we disagree with is central to who we are meant to be as people of the Eucharist. We could argue from history and consider the hellish place Ireland often was when Christians got to make up the laws to suit themselves.

But I think thinking about our failure to think about usury is a good way to approach this question because of how it implicates us. The things we fight for reveal the things we believe. Christians genuinely do want to see strong families and so on, and hence some people are very vexed about gay marriage. But the things we don’t fight for also reveal the things we believe.

Usury shows us that we don’t believe we can bring in the Kingdom by passing laws.

Your Correspondent, Would raise a white flag, but even that is too much participation