Dr. Liar

Apr. 20th, 2009 01:41 pm
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Chapter 7 of The Gift traces a history of usury in the Judeo-Christian world (with brief visits to Islam, Aristotle, and others). In Deuteronomy, a distinction is drawn: You can charge interest to a foreigner, but not to your brother. A gift economy prevails within the tribe, and a market economy with the outside.

(This kind of inside-outside distinction runs through the book. I thought of how often we'll give CDs to bands we've played shows with, and often receive them in turn; on the same night, we'll charge anyone in the audience ten dollars for the same disc. And then there are border cases. If I know someone is a musician but we haven't been through the ritual of experiencing each other's music, I may not give them our CD, or even think of it. Or sometimes we'll give someone a CD, and they'll say "thanks" and charge us $15 to buy theirs; we gave ours with no strings attached, but it still feels like an affront. It's interesting to revisit these experiences, thinking of them as marking a tribal boundary: Who's in? Who's out?)

Anyway, Hyde writes, "The Reformation changed this." Martin Luther, centrally, approved of new civil laws that allowed for the charging of interest, while redefining usury as interest taken in unjust circumstances, or to an unjust degree. A related dispute was over the institution of Roman law, which "knew only private propery and therefore imperiled the commons - the woods, streams, and meadows shared by the community in old Germanic tradition" (p. 120, quoting Roland Bainton). On both issues, Luther sided with the "princes", praising the virtue of Christian generosity while approving the new civil laws as necessary.

(In so doing, the reformers took the old boundary between brother and foreigner, and relocated it inside each individual. "Now when I meet someone on the street he is either alien or kin, depending on his business. As each man may participate in a universal brotherhood, so he may partake in an unlimited foreignness. He may be an alien anytime he chooses and without leaving home" (p. 125).)

Not everyone thought the new approach was a good idea. Here's Hyde, quoting another 16th-century priest (p. 122):
Thomas Müntzer... actively supported the peasants in Saxony and stood in clear opposition to Luther and his advice to statesmen:
Luther says that the poor people have enough in their faith. Doesn't he see that usury and taxes impede the reception of the faith? He claims that the Word of God is sufficient. Doesn't he realize that men whose every moment is consumed in the making of a living have no time to learn to read the Word of God? The princes bleed the people with usury and count as their own the fish in the stream, the bird in the air, the grass of the field, and Dr. Liar says, "Amen!" What courage has he, Dr. Pussyfoot, the new pope of Wittenberg, Dr. Easychair, the basking sycophant?
What a clear voice! The authorities caught up with this man, tortured him and cut off his head.
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