C.S. Lewis: Usury or Generosity

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You shall not charge interest to your countrymen: interest on money, food, or anything that may be loaned at interest. Deuteronomy 23:19

“There is one bit of advice given to us by the ancient heathen Greeks, and by the Jews in the Old Testament, and by the great Christian teachers of the Middle Ages, which the modern economic system has completely disobeyed. All these people told us not to lend money at interest; and lending money at interest—what we call investment—is the basis of our whole system. Now it may not absolutely follow that we are wrong.

Some people say that when Moses and Aristotle and the Christians agreed in forbidding interest (or ‘usury’ as they called it), they could not foresee the joint stock company, and were only thinking of the private money-lender, and that, therefore, we need not bother about what they said. That is a question I cannot decide on. I am not an economist and I simply do not know whether the investment system is responsible for the state we are in or not.

This is where we want the Christian economist. But I should not have been honest if I had not told you that the three great civilizations agreed (or so it seems at first sight) in condemning the very thing on which we have based our whole life. One more point and I am done. In the passage where the New Testament says that everyone must work, it gives as a reason ‘in order that he may have something to give to those in need’ [Ephesians 4:28]. Charity—giving to the poor—is an essential part of Christian morality: in the frightening parable of the sheep and the goats it seems to be the point on which everything turns. Some people nowadays say that charity ought to be unnecessary and that instead of giving to the poor we ought to be producing a society in which there were no poor to give to.

They may be quite right in saying that we ought to produce that kind of society. But if anyone thinks that, as a consequence, you can stop giving in the meantime, then he has parted company with all Christian morality. I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc, is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditure excludes them. I am speaking now of “charities” in the common way.

Particular cases of distress among your own relatives, friends, neighbours or employees, which God, as it were, forces upon your notice, may demand much more: even to the crippling and endangering of your own position. For many of us the great obstacle to charity lies not in our luxurious living or desire for more money, but in our fear—fear of insecurity. This must often be recognised as a temptation. Sometimes our pride also hinders our charity; we are tempted to spend more than we ought on the showy forms of generosity (tipping, hospitality) and less than we ought on those who really need our help.”

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) in Mere Christianity (New York: Harper One, 1980) 85-87.

While I have previous quoted a portion of this meditation, in his exploration of “Social Morality” I believe Lewis puts his finger on the fundamental flaw in the economy of this world. Work should not driven by greed for personal gain and investment rooted in usury. We work to have something to enjoy and share. Consequently, in the economy of God all investments are based not on usury but linked to generosity, which Jesus describes as storing up treasures in heaven.

Rather than comment any further myself, listen to the concluding comments of Lewis for this section of Mere Christianity (one of my top-ten all-time favorite books)! They are most fitting for American readers today because of the political climate in which we find ourselves, though applicable all around the world.

“And now, before I end, I am going to venture on a guess as to how this section has affected any who have read it. My guess is that there are some Leftist people among them who are very angry that it has not gone further in that direction, and some people of an opposite sort who are angry because they think it has gone much too far. If so, that brings us right up against the real snag in all this drawing up of blueprints for a Christian society. Most of us are not really approaching the subject in order to find out what Christianity says: we are approaching it in the hope of finding support from Christianity for the views of our own party.

We are looking for an ally where we are offered either a Master or—a Judge. I am just the same. There are bits in this section that I wanted to leave out. And that is why nothing whatever is going to come of such talks unless we go a much longer way round. A Christian society is not going to arrive until most of us really want it: and we are not going to want it until we become fully Christian. I may repeat “Do as you would be done by” till I am black in the face, but I cannot really carry it out till I love my neighbour as myself: and I cannot learn to love my neighbour as myself till I learn to love God: and I cannot learn to love God except by learning to obey Him. And so, as I warned you, we are driven on to something more inward—driven on from social matters to religious matters. For the longest way round is the shortest way home.”