James Howell: For the poor; against “10% is enough”

It’s wise to listen before you lean. So one pastor listened to bankers on the IAF’s proposal, and left thinking it’s wrong-headed.

Note: This is a response to Dan Rhodes’ post last Monday in favor of the “10% is enough” campaign.

How might we locate the elusive intersection between biblical mandates designed for farming and husbandry, a massive modern capitalist economy pressed by a not-so-invisible hand, and our burning passion to lift up the poor? For the IAF representatives who approached me asking for support, the 10% is Enough anti-usury campaign is one way to do it.

All my natural proclivities lured me toward this idea. I did wonder, “Why 10%? Why not 8% or 11% or 4%?” I also chuckled at the very expression, “10% is enough.” As a pastor, I have sensed the bankers now being asked to buy into a 10% cap respond to my appeals to tithe by thinking, “10% is too much.”

So I began to piece together some theological reflections on the economy, going back to Doug Meeks’ fine “God the Economist” and other stellar writings on the subject. The IAF folks had asked me to lean on bankers. A good idea. Yet it’s usually wise to listen before you lean. So I interviewed a fair number of well-placed bankers. I chose them based on their solid church membership, and what I know to be their personally generous posture toward the poor, both in terms of money donated and time invested.

Not one of them thought the 10% cap was a good idea. Not surprising, perhaps. But I detected not the slightest hint of “If we only get 10% I won’t be able to buy a second yacht.” Each one exhibited a genuine concern for finding the best possible way to help those in need. Each was worried about unintended consequences. Basically, after offering fairly simple, logical explanations of market pricing on interest, they all said “If 10% is the limit, no money would be loaned.” It’s complicated, but not so complicated that a preacher like me couldn’t parse it out. A certain number of all loans will simply fail, and the interest received has to make a profit versus the interest defaulted. The bank, at the end of the day, isn’t a nonprofit charity. Their job is to make and move money, and they’ve not succeeded in this lately. In fact, all the bankers with whom I spoke explained how the recent crash in the economy was due precisely to failed interest policy. That is, people weren’t able to pay back low interest loans. Hence the near implosion of the economy.

They believe, and I can’t muster wise arguments against it, that the wisest way to help the poor financially is through budgeting education, outright donations to help with housing or other resources, rent subsidies, and Habitat-style endeavors. Most major banks, and many bankers, are generous donors within their communities.

So where does one land in this discussion? In the bible people fought against usury. But was it the interest itself that was so objectionable? In ancient, subsistence level economies, largely enacted among tribes who were kin to one another, the only result of interest would be abject poverty and outright meanness. Today, if a 10% cap would only shut down the flow of money, or drive banks toward what we saw last year, do the poor suffer more than they do now? Could it be there is a tendency in the general public, and so certainly also among theologians, to demonize banking as the industry that must be at fault for economic woes?

And most importantly, what is the best strategy to help the poor today? Because I don't think this is it.

James Howell is the senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and author, most recently, of "Introducing Christianity" (Westminster).