Usury – John Ruskin

John Ruskin on Usury introducing an explanation for the existence of CCMJ.

John Ruskin (1819-1901) was a leading art critic, artist and pre-Raphaelite supporter who became an Oxford Professor of Fine Art. His travels revealed to him the destitution of England’s poor, and inspired him to write works of critical economics, such as UNTO THIS LAST. ‘The following extracts from ‘Fors Clavigers – the angel of destiny’, republished by the Christian Council for Monetary Justice,

Letter 80 : The dullest of all excuses for usury is that some kind of good is done by the usurer. Nobody denies the good done; but the principle of Righteous dealing. that if the good costs you nothing, you must not be paid for doing it. Your friend passes your door on an unexpectedly wet day, unprovided for the occasion. You have the choice of three benevolences to him – lending your umbrella, lending him eighteen pence for a cab, or letting him stay in your parlour till the rain is over. If you charge him interest on the umbrella, it is profit on capital – if you charge him interest on the eighteen pence, it is ordinary usury – if you charge him interest on the parlour, it is rent. All three are equally forbidden by Christian law, being actually worse, because more plausible and hypo-critical than if you at once plainly refused your friend shelter, umbrella or pence. You feel yourself to be a brute, in the one case, and may someday repent into grace; in the other you imagine yourself an honest and amiable person, rewarded by Heaven for your charity : and the whole frame of society becomes rotten to the core. Only be clear about what is finally right, whether you can do it or not; and every day you will be more’ and more able to do it if you try.


Letter 68 : Now the law of Christ about money and other forms of personal wealth is taught, first in  parables . . . . He likens Himself in these stories several times to unkind or unjust masters, and especially to hard and usurious ones. And the gist of the parables in each case is, “If ye do so, and are thus faithful to hard and cruel masters, in earthly things, how much more should ye be faithful to a merciful Master, in heavenly things?” Which argument, evil-minded men wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, to their own destruction. And instead of reading, for instance, in the parable of the Usurer, the intended lesson of industry in the employment of God’s gifts, they read in it a justification of the crime which, in other parts of the same scripture, is directly forbidden …. Therefore, the only way to understand these difficult parts of the Bible, or even to approach them with safety, is first to read and obey the easy ones. Then the difficult ones all become beautiful and clear ..

The orders, “not to lay up treasures for ourselves on earth”, and to “sell that we have, and give alms”, and to “provide ourselves bags which wax not old”, are perfectly direct, unmistakeable, universal; and . . . . we shall assuredly be condemned by Him for not, under Judgement, doing as we were bid. But even if we do not feel able to obey these orders, if we must and will lay up treasures on earth, and provide ourselves bags with holes in them – God may perhaps still, with scorn, permit us in our weakness, provided we are content with our earthly treasures when we have got them, and don’t oppress our brethren, and grind down their souls with them. We may have our old bag about our neck, if we will, and go to heaven like beggars; but if we sell our brother also, and put the price of his life in the bag, we need not think to enter the Kingdom of God so loaded. A rich man may, though hardly, enter the kingdom of heaven without repenting of his riches: but the thief, without repenting his theft; nor the adulterer, without repenting his adultery; nor the Usurer, without repenting his usury. The nature of which last sin, let us clearly understand, once for all.

Usury is properly the taking of money for the loan or use of anything (over and above what pays for wear and tear), such use involving no care or labour on the part of the lender. It includes all investments of capital whatsoever, returning `dividends’, as distinguished from labour wages, or profits. Thus anybody who works on a rail-road as plate-layer, or stoker, has a right to wages for his work; and any inspector of wheels or rails has a right to payment for such inspection, but idle persons who have only paid a hundred pounds towards the road making have a right to the return of the hundred pounds – and no more .

…. the first farthing they take more than the hundred, be it sooner or later, is usury. Again when we build a house. and let it, we have a right to as much rent as will return us the wages of our labour and the sum of our outlay… say £1000… But if, sooner or later, we take a pound more than the thousand, .we are usurers.

….That hair’s breadth of increase is usury, just as much as stealing a farthing is theft, no

Less than stealing a million. But usury is worse than theft in so far as it is obtained either by deceiving people, or distressing them; generally by both: and finally by deceiving the usurer himself, who comes to think that usury is a real increase, and that money can grow of money; whereas all usury is increase to one person only by decrease to another; and every gain of calculated Increment to the Rich is balanced by its mathematical equivalent of Decrement to the poor . ….

. . . In the meantime, for those of us who are Christian, our own way is plain. We can with perfect ease ascertain what usury is; and in what express terms is forbidden . .

 “And if thy brother be poor, and powerless with his hands, at thy side, thou shalt take his upon thee, to help him, as thy proselyte and thy neighbour; and thy brother shall live with thee. Thou shalt take no usury of him, nor anything over and above, and thou shalt fear thy God…… Thou shalt not give him thy money, for usury; and thou shalt not give him food, for increase.” (Leviticus 25:35-37).

There is the simple law for all of us; one of those which Christ assuredly came not ‘to destroy, but to fulfill: and there is no national prosperity to be had but in obedience to it. How we usurers are to live, with the hope of our gains gone, is precisely the old Temple of Diana question. How Robin Hood or Coeur de Lion were to live without arrow or axe, would have been as strange a question to them, in their day. And- there are many amiable persons who will not directly see their way, any more than I do myself, to an honest life; only, let us be sure that this we are leading now is a dishonest one.


Another founding inspiration for CCMJ is in the 1962 Scottish Congregational Union’s [Dundee] report –‘Wealth – a Christian View’.


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