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This week's strange religious comebacks: Indulgences and Usury

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The news sounded positively medieval at times this week.

Can you believe the Catholic Church is bringing back indulgences? First the church teaches there is a place called purgatory, a sort of reform school you go to after you die, where you get punished for your sins, before you are allowed into heaven. Then they say they can intervene with the Authorities and get you time off purgatory. If you do the right things, say the right prayers, support the church in various ways, they can give you an indulgence to prove you're getting the sentence in purgatory reduced. The sale of indulgences was one of the main things that drove Martin Luther to his protest, which eventually escalated into Protestantism. The church now says they are not for sale, but, ahem, if you make a charitable contribution it can help you get one.

Is this true or was the New York Times article a spoof?
I'm wondering if Buddhists and Hindus couldn't encourage their faithful to good works by issuing certificates assuring them they will come back in their next life as something better than a beetle. Maybe I could ask my boss, Rabbi Michael Lerner, to assure all spiritual progressives who sign our ad calling for an international conference to resolve the Israel/Palestine situation, that... that what? There's simply no equivalent comfort on offer: there can be no believably assured outcomes in this life for anyone who has taken the Holocaust seriously (or the tsunamis, cancers, AIDS and limitless catastrophes that have happened to the good people as much as to the bad--however you determine who deserves those labels), nor even in a next life for anyone who has learned the most basic lesson of comparative religion: that humility is in order, when it comes to pronouncing on the Unseen. Giving out indulgences, for even the best of reasons (like encouraging people to do good) seems to me the height of arrogance (the sin of Original Arrogance maybe?).

I had an opposite reaction to the news story about usury, though. Usury is what the medieval church called the practice we now describe as charging interest. In 1179 the church decreed that if you accepted interest on loans you could neither receive the sacraments nor be given a Christian burial. When I studied for my history degree, laws against usury seemed to me as quaint and absurd as indulgences. I learned that in this matter the medieval church served the interests of the landed aristocracy, their paymasters, who hated having to borrow money at interest to raise their armies and fight their wars. It was only when the capitalists became ascendant that the church suddenly discovered that, lo, usury was a good thing after all.

When I heard in recent years that large parts of the Islamic world continued to reject usury, I thought it just more evidence that they were behind the times. But I am much impressed by this article which describes how devout Muslims' financial practices have insulated their investments from the economic downturn.

Renouncing interest is the high-profile element of Islamic finance that relates to the current economic crisis. For Islamically correct investors, that means there are limits to how much debt a company can have or how much profit it can derive from interest-based investments. That criterion eliminated the possibility of holding stocks in financial services companies, like Citigroup or Washington Mutual, whose stocks lost 86 percent or all of their value last year, respectively.

But it's more than that:

Islamic finance also prohibits selling assets you don't own, selling someone's debt and engaging in high-risk investments. Thus, there was no participation in practices that have been blamed for Wall Street's meltdown: complex derivatives trading, short-selling and the $30 trillion market in credit default swaps.

And I especially liked the news of home owners unaffected by the mortgage crisis, because of the "Islamic requirement that the lender and the borrower share the risks and rewards of a loan," The lender is expected to work every way they can to enable the borrower to get through hard times. The example is from the Ameen Housing Cooperative in San Jose, CA.

Good for them. So they earn less in good times, but are cushioned in bad times. What's finance about, anyway? Creating the community, leading the good life, caring about each other and the planet, that's what. We need more examples of people who make economic practices and profits subject to their values, and not the reverse. Old time religion had some good points after all. We can skip the indulgences, though.