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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 08-Jul-2010

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 15

Wordcount: 832

O Lord, spare the gays and berate the usurers



The Premier’s gay gaffe last week wasn’t actually a gaffe at all, but rather an indication of the ridiculous minefield we’ve made of politics. Keneally clearly intended her “saints and sinners” comment to express tolerance, not diss gays. Seeing it the latter way continues the relentless drearification of politics.

But Keneally’s spirited defence of her remarks reveals a deeper, stranger irony. “Where in the gospel,” she asked, “do they talk about same sex relations?” Plus, she added, “there are parts of the Bible that prohibit usury – making interest on money.”

Now I’d be the last to suggest a reintroduction of church into state. But it’s curious that while our hapless addiction to usury has us demanding more debt even as it brings us to our knees, it’s homosexuality – “same sex relations” is the politician’s euphemism – that cops a bucketing from the church.

Homosexuality may be both legal and productive (mardi gras alone generates an estimated $38 million for Sydney) but still Pope Benedict makes it the moral equivalent of razing the rainforests. The Brisbane priest Peter Kennedy is sacked for offering a gay-friendly liturgy and Fred Nile denounces “the indecent homosexual mardi gras” as obvious child porn territory.

And sure, there’s history here. Dante’s Divine Comedy puts both sodomites and usurers in the inner ring of the seventh circle of hell, below suicides (but above, incidentally, politicians), in a flaming desert pelted by flakes of fire. (I like the idea of hell’s inner rings, which I picture as super-heated inner-tubes in a way that resonates with my childhood hunches about the role of Vulcan in patching bike punctures. Hell, like politics, was so much more interesting for Dante; these days you’d be lucky to incur six weeks with a broken telly.)

Of the two, though, sodomy was worse. In Dante’s book, usury violates order, but sodomy violates nature.

Yet we modern homos (as in sapiens) would probably put it the other way round. For us, homosexuality may perhaps be a sin against order – order at least of the four-square, Family First, wife-and-three-veg variety – but usury, well, you needn’t be a genius to see how usury trashes nature.

Like the Premier said, usury is the lending of money for interest. The latest definition adds the qualifier “excessive”, as if single-figure usury is okay but credit-card levels, boy are they sinful. Excessive or not, though, usury presumes growth. If money isn’t going up, how can you justify charging for its use, much less basing an entire global system on that principle?

Both a borrower and a lender be. We all do it, although all the major religions frown upon it. The Koran prohibits it, as does the Torah, and although the book of Deuteronomy seems briefly to make usury all right, as long as you only do it to strangers (sometimes translated as “gentiles”), in general, from Exodus to Ezekiel, the Bible admonishes more strongly and frequently against usury than against sodomy.

In the millennia or so since, usury was generally presumed a Very Bad Thing. Pope Innocent IV’s 13th century prediction that legalising usury would halt investment in industry and agriculture and produce famine may yet seem prescient.

But you’ll never guess who made usury acceptable. Calvin, of all people, writing that “reason does not suffer us to admit that all usury is to be condemned without exception.”

Indeed, Calvin’s various defences of usury are widely credited with Geneva’s resilience after the 1535 recession and, subsequently, with the weird marriage of banking and Protestantism that powered America through three and a half centuries.

No Calvin, no Swiss bank account, no white-collar crime, no Sydney standover men.

Analyse that.

But it’s been obvious at least since the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth in 1972, and arguably since Malthus’s essay on population in 1798, that ceaseless growth is no option. Even Calvin’s beneficiaries must now see it.

Even without rampant consumption, a rising population graph and a finite planet must crash. Bubbles burst. The only question is when.

Before the Industrial Revolution it wasn’t really an issue. The world was bigger than our minds, death was commonplace, and income and consumption were, per capita, pretty flat. The steam engine shrank the planet and pushed consumption uphill fast, entrenching the idea that convenience was a god, comfort a right and perpetuity a given.

These are dangerous ideas indeed. Add the doubling and tripling, since, of every generation’s expectations and, eventually, regardless of rolling technological fixes, each person’s piece of planetary pie must shrink.

Yet we buy political exhortations to “spend our way out of recession,” desperately guzzling the very world beneath our feet, and accept the $42 billion stimulus package with no sustainability strings whatsoever. We could have solar-powered every household in the country for that.

Economists have so tirelessly insisted that civilisation demands growth that we believe it. But I’m with the Premier on this. Re-running usury-as-usual poses a far greater threat to our social and moral fabric than “same sex relations” ever could.


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