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Bankers and religious divides

This is the third part in a series that looks at whether bankers are good or bad for society:

[If you just want to get the slides and download the whole speech, click here]

In this entry, we study the role bankers have in religious texts and how money has been at the core of issues causing divides between the Christian, Jewish and Islamic beliefs.

Banker’s Morals and Ethics

Because money and banking is so embroiled in civilisation and society, it is why money is so immersed in religious texts.

For example, I’ve already mentioned the Book of Timothy which states that “for the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil”, but the Bible adds a lot more in the Book of James:

"What is causing the quarrels and fights among you? Isn't it because there is a whole army of evil desires within you? You want what you don't have, so you kill to get it. You long for what others have, and can't afford it, so you start a fight to take it away from them. And yet the reason you don't have what you want is that you don't ask God for it." James 4:1-2

And Mark
“Jesus looked around and said to His disciples, ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!’ The disciples were amazed at His words. Then Jesus said, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God!’” Mark 10:23-25

And Deuteronomy
“Remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you the ability to produce wealth.” Deuteronomy 8:18

But this is not a lecture on Christianity as the Qur’an has similar lessons on money.

1400 years ago, the Qur’an condemned today's modern banking concepts before they were put into wide scale practice:

“And what you give in interest that it may increase on (other) people's wealth, increases not with Allah.”

Qur’an 30:39

As you know, interest-bearing products are banned in Islamic law although the Qur’an goes on to state explicitly that trade is not the same as interest:

“Those who consume interest shall not rise, except as he rises whom Satan by his touch prostrates; that is because they say: ‘Trade is like interest’; whereas, Allah has permitted trading but forbidden interest.”

Qur’an 2:275

Which is why and how Islamic Finance is able to exist.

Buddhism and Judaism have similar lessons. In Buddhism, it is explicitly clear that performing meaningless work to obtain money is not right and in Judaism, the aim is to use wealth to help the poor by donating to charitable works.

In fact the Jewish attitude to money is the one that most clearly shows the role of bankers in society.

The Jewish understanding of money is similar to how we see fire. Fire can burn and destroy or it can light and warm. So, too, with money. Money can accomplish great good but it is also able to bring about great evil. It can build hospitals and schools and help the needy or it can wreck personal character and corrupt society, government and industry. It finances war and causes violence and cultivates crime and yet it can just as well succour the widow and orphan and save the helpless from disaster.

So money and banking is intimately tied into religion, politics and power, and asking whether bankers are good or bad for society should focus upon this challenge: bankers are meant to be the protectors of society by enabling the use of money for good.

Thus, the issue lies with when the protectors of society become sinners themselves.

For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, and many are asking whether bankers are far too often prone to fall in love of money today by indulging in unconstrained greed.

This is explained from the very earliest reasons why money was invented – to support the world’s oldest profession – through the texts of the Bible, Qur’an and the Talmud.

For example, one of the most controversial divisions in religious teachings is the occasion when Jesus threw the moneychangers out of the temple.

In this exchange, Jesus is stated to have visited Herod's Temple in Jerusalem where the courtyard is filled with livestock and the tables of the money changers, who changed the standard Greek and Roman money for Jewish and Tyrian money, which were the only coinage that could be used in Temple ceremonies. According to the Gospels, Jesus took offense to extorting profit from the people to hear the word of God and used a whip to drive out the moneychangers and turn over their tables.

This is one of the first times that bankers are recorded in history as causing issue, and it created the massive divide between Christianity and Judaism. So it is in history that we continually see bankers being questioned about their value to society, creating political and cultural divides and chasms between people and power.

In fact, this divide is one of the core tenets of the huge divide between Islamic and Christian values based upon Usury.

Usury is generally defined as the charging of interest on loans and has historically been condemned or banned in most societies.

The First Christian Council of Priests who convened in Nicaea in 325 AD, forbade clergy from engaging in usury.

The Third Lateran Council who met in 1179 to bring to an end the Holy Wars, decreed that persons who accepted interest on loans could receive neither the sacraments nor Christian burial.

Pope Clement V proclaimed that the belief in the right to usury was a heresy in 1311.

Pope Sixtus V condemned the practice of charging interest as "detestable to God and man, damned by the sacred canons and contrary to Christian charity."

The Hebrew Bible regulates interest taking too, although interpretations vary widely.

One understanding is that Israelites were forbidden to charge interest on loans made to other Israelites, but allowed to charge interest on transactions with lesser non-Israelites. Another states that the Hebrew Bible treats lending as philanthropy in a poor community.

Interest of any kind is forbidden in Islam, although specialised codes of banking have now developed to cater to investors wishing to obey Qur’an law through Islamic banking.

And therein this sermon ends, so to speak.

Before we move on however, the key is that when we ask: “are bankers good or bad for society?” we are actually dealing with fundamental cultural issues around the core of what motivates mankind. The core engine that powers everything we do: money. The core of what can lead into hedonism and indulgence in the seven deadly sins. The core of what causes issues and confrontations between nations and peoples. The core of religion and religious divide.

And the issue lies with bankers, who are the protectors of this core engine of society, and whether bankers become sinners themselves. If bankers are not regulated by fear of gods, then what are they regulated by? Politicians who, in this country, were caught feeding at the same trough of greed as the bankers? No wonder the industry went slightly off the rails.

The critical point made is that money and money minders, bankers, are at the heart of society, they are the essence of civilisation, and their role is one that has strong ties to religious and societal order.

Finally, before we look at this crisis and what comes next, I would like to briefly review why bankers can be good or bad for society through history.

Tomorrow we take a whirl through four of the biggest boom-bust crisis of the past – the fall and rise of the Roman Empire, Renaissance Italy, the South Sea Bubble and the Great Depression. In each instance, bankers were a major force for good in creating these booms, and bad in allowing them to bust.


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About Chris M Skinner

Chris M Skinner
Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog, TheFinanser.com, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal’s Financial News. To learn more click here...

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