The Spirituality of #OccupyWallStreet (2): the Logic of Usury vs the Logic of the Gift

The Spirituality of #OccupyWallStreet (2): the Logic of Usury vs the Logic of the Gift

It is absolutely no accident that the Occupy encampments in NYC and throughout the world are operating as communal gift economies with free healthcare (in the form of medic tents), free education (in the form of teach-ins, speakers, and lending libraries), free food, free shelter (in the form of donated tents, clothing, sleeping bags, etc.), and free entertainment (as people share their musical and artistic skills).

Excerpted from Carolyn Elliott:

“To begin, the banking industry’s practice of usury is a practice that was recognized in spiritual traditions throughout the ancient world as an act which promoted division, suspicion, and alienation within a community. I think we need to reconsider ancient and indigenous attitudes towards usury in order to understand the extent to the unity and spiritual virtue of the United States has been violated by Wall Street.

Today, “usury” means “lending at unbearably high interest.” In the ancient world, usury just meant charging any interest at all on a loan.

Lending at interest itself is now widely accepted and taken for granted as perfectly acceptable and normal. Loan-sharking, or lending at really high and outrageous interest, is the only stuff that raises eyebrows now. Loan-sharking on the part of the banks is a large part of what created the sub-prime mortgage crisis.

We can keep in mind that the banks have practiced the intense form of usury-as-loan-sharking and that this practice has led to the current widespread poverty and outrage, but in order to understand the severity of loan-sharking, I want to start by discussing the problematic spiritual dimensions of usury, period.

In order to understand why usury (which is now so widely accepted) would be seen as a spiritual problem, we first need to understand a little bit about the way gifts work.

The Increase of the Gift

An interest-free loan is a form of a gift. For example: if I give you an interest-free loan of $1000 dollars, and you are able to use that loan to invest in a business which then makes you money. A year later, you return to me $1000, but you’ve still been able to create an “increase” out of the loan that I gave you, an increase that you wouldn’t have been able to enjoy if I hadn’t loaned you the $1000 to begin with. So the increase that you make on account of me loaning you $1000 is a kind of gift from me to you. Theoretically, if I had held on to my $1000 and not given it to you, I could have used the $1000 to invest and thereby enjoyed the increase myself.

Gifts are really cool because they create relationships of community and connection. There’s something magical and in harmony with the natural growth and decay of nature in the increase that properly treated gifts can create.

In indigenous cultures which maintained gift economies, it was always considered imperative that the increase generated by a gift be passed on or used up, and never hoarded or used as capital itself. This passing-on or “paying it forward” was thought to be necessary in order to keep the “spirit of the gift” moving. So, for example, if you were able to make $2000 out of the $1000 interest-free loan I had given you, it would be good form for you to spend that $2000 on necessities for you and your family or to throw a big party and share the wealth. It would be very bad form for you to keep that $2000 to invest as capital or to hoard in savings.

The idea behind this is that gifts in a community should be kept in circulation and not used to unduly benefit or to create an unfair advantage for any one individual. When gifts are hoarded or used to create only private benefit, the spirit of the gift dies and the nihilism of separation, meaninglessness and isolation arises. This nihilism of separation creates a general atmosphere of cruelty. It’s the atmosphere we’re living in now. It’s the atmosphere that the Occupy movement has arisen to protest.

The Spirit of the Gift

We can think of the “spirit of the gift” as a sense of gratitude that puts human beings in an attitude of reverence and love for each other, nature, and divinity. When gifts are kept moving and circulating, no one person has giant storehouses of money or goods to use as “security.” The “security” and “prosperity” of an individual is instead intimately tied to the security and prosperity of the community, and thus to relationships of good will, love, and interdependency. Furthermore, a person who is living in the spirit of the gift, rather than seeking to extract and hoard the riches of the earth in warehouses instead respectfully fosters and tends for the earth so as to continue to enjoy the bounty of her gifts in a sustainable fashion.

Living in the spirit of the gift is an act of faith. It involves a surrender of control. This surrender entails two spiritual attitudes that are largely unknown to our control-obsessed modern world: 1) A general trust that the community / nature / divinity will continue to provide and 2) A graceful willingness to accept death and suffering in the event that the community / nature / divinity does not provide.

The act of living in the spirit of the gift is something which my favorite poet and all-around-awesome dude, Jesus, pointed to many times, perhaps most memorably in his Sermon on the Mount, when he suggested that everyone live “like the lilies of the field.” The lilies of the field, J.C. pointed out, don’t do any work or save for rainy days, and yet they’re gorgeous and happy. The lilies live in the spirit of the gift, accepting the nourishment of the sun and earth and giving forth radiant beauty. Then they gracefully die when it gets cold and they don’t whine about it. They don’t control or hoard anything.

The Nihilism of Usury and the Control Freaks of Wall Street

Usury, in essence, is an expression of fear and clinging to material existence. It’s a refusal to surrender control. Usury hears about the notion of living like the lilies of the field and says “screw that!”

Usury seeks to maintain control over the increase generated by a gift. It thus kills the spirit of the gift and creates disconnection.

When I give you that $1000 interest-free loan, I’m letting go of my say over that money. I’m letting you “use” it. In turn, in our little gift society, I trust that you will put your “use” of the gift (the increase you accrue from investing it) to benefit all of us. But I’m trusting. I’ve surrendered control of the “use” of the gift. Through my trust, I’m making space for the spirit of the gift to live and breathe.

When I give you a $1000 dollar loan with 20% interest, I’m not letting go of my say over that money. I’m not trusting that you will use the increase of the gift to ultimately benefit our community and thus me. I’m demanding that you put the increase that you generate through your “use” of the gift back in my pocket. Thus I am controlling the “use-stuff” or “use-ury” or of the gift. In my control, I don’t trust you and I certainly don’t love you.

Usury Equals Commerce Between Foreigners

Lewis Hyde explains:

– To ask for interest on loaned wealth is to reckon, articulate, and charge its increase. The idea of usury therefore appears when spiritual, moral, and economic life begins to be separated from one another, probably at the time when foreign trade, exchange with strangers, begins. As we saw in an earlier chapter, wherever property circulates as a gift, the increase that accompanies that circulation is simultaneously material, social, and spiritual; where wealth moves as a gift, any increase in material wealth is automatically accompanied by the increased conviviality of the group and the strengthening of the hau, the spirit of the gift. But when foreign trade begins, the tendency is to differentiate the material increase from the social and spiritual increase, and a commercial language appears to articulate the difference. When exchange no longer connects one person to another, when the spirit of the gift is absent, then increase does not appear between gift partners, usury appears between debtors and creditors. (144-145 The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World)

The key point that Hyde makes here is that usury begins when foreign trade begins. It’s an economic relationship forged between groups of people who have no necessary bonds to each other communally or spiritually and who do not trust each other. It’s a relationship of outsider to outsider.

Think about this: usury now colors every exchange in our financial institutions. The banks lend to us, the people, at interest– and in the case of the sub-prime mortgage crisis at insanely high, loan-sharking interest. They might call themselves things like “Bank of America” but to them, we, their debtors, are obviously foreigners.

The Occupy Movement as a Gift Society

Therefore, it makes perfect sense that the movement against the banks, against our financial institutions and corrupt government and corporations calls itself an “Occupation” and takes the form of physical encampments.

We are occupying Wall Street and occupying symbolic squares and parks in our hometowns because the banks have made themselves foreigners to us through their usury. We have no fellow-feeling and good-will for them because we have no trace of a gift relationship with them. They’ve destroyed the spirit of the gift through their rapacious lust to control and their absolute unwillingness to trust.

They’ve treated us, the people, their fellow citizens, like strangers.

To speak in biblical terms, our financial institutions have committed grave sins and the consequences of those sins are alienation and disunity.

It is absolutely no accident that the Occupy encampments in NYC and throughout the world are operating as communal gift economies with free healthcare (in the form of medic tents), free education (in the form of teach-ins, speakers, and lending libraries), free food, free shelter (in the form of donated tents, clothing, sleeping bags, etc.), and free entertainment (as people share their musical and artistic skills).

The Occupy encampments are modeling the living power of the spirit of the gift which the banks, corporations, and corrupt government of the United States had sought to destroy through usury, among other means.

Debts create suspicion, scarcity, distrust and death. Gifts create love, abundance, trust and life.”

The Second Axial Age: Beginning to recognize our roles as global beings.

(background: the first axial age occurred the 6th B.C. and gave birth to the major world religions and Greek philosophy, as identified by Karl Jaspers)

* Article: Another Turn on the Axis: Religious and Spiritual Evolution in the 21st Century. by Jim Kenney. Kosmos, Fall | Winter 2011

Excerpted from Jim Kenney, in Kosmos magazine:

“In Crosscurrent, I argued that we are living in an age of dramatically accelerated cultural evolution. Such transitions— I call them ‘sea changes’—are powerful and progressive unfoldings, marked by the movement of humankind’s dominant values toward a closer fit with reality. Sea changes affect almost every dimension of human experience and endeavor and they are extremely rare. I suggest that the religious and spiritual expression of the current cultural evolutionary sea change can best be understood as a Second Axial Age. The First was marked by the emergence of individual consciousness, making it possible for humans to step forth from purely tribal existence.

The Second is giving rise to a new global consciousness. Still acutely aware of our individual existence, we begin to recognize our roles as global beings.

The great theologian Ewert Cousins, one of the first to explore the idea of a Second Axial turning, emphasized its global character. Karen Armstrong, one of the most respected chroniclers of the great religions, also sees the signs and calls attention to the continuity of the Second Axial with the First.

The flowering of a Second Axial Age could mean the most remarkable evolutionary advance in the human search for meaning since the birth of the great religions in the first millennium BCE.

But how can we be certain that such a transformation is actually underway, that ours is indeed a time on the cusp? Is there a cogent response to the new ‘cultured despisers’ of religion — those who imagine that uncritical dogmatism, rabid intolerance, rejection of science, and fanatical violence represent the authentic character of human religiosity? What might the critics discover if they responded to Schleiermacher’s gentle prompting and entered into dialogue with those who have real insight into the human spiritual quest? Might they begin to suspect that religion and spirituality truly do evolve?

The following section briefly outlines a possible answer to these several questions in the form of four organizing themes and sixteen emerging evolutionary dynamics. These Axial markers are already beginning to guide a new generation of religious and spiritual inquiry, expression and action. As we reflect on them, each one opens a new window onto our radically changing cultural landscape.

* The Axial Markers

The old ‘nature or nurture?’ controversy points up one of the most ?e Axial Age was one of the most seminal periods of intellectual, psychological, philosophical and religious change in recorded history; there would be nothing comparable until the Great Western Transformation, which created our own scientific and technological modernity.

Today we are amid a second Axial Age and are undergoing a period of transition similar to that of the first Axial Age… All over the world, people are struggling with these new conditions and have been forced to reassess their religious traditions, which were designed for a very different type of society. ?ey are finding that the old forms of faith no longer work for them; they cannot provide the enlightenment and consolation that human beings seem to need. As a result, men and women are trying to find new ways of being religious.

Like the reformers and prophets of the first Axial Age, they are attempting to build upon the insights of the past in a way that will take human beings forward into the new world they have created for themselves.

• awareness of the world, the cosmos, as a reality entire • reflection on the transcendent and the nature of ultimate reality • attention to a unitary God or core principle of the cosmos • a new sense of the human individual as related to the overarching whole • exploration of the self and consciousness • engagement with human mortality and a new focus on salvation, liberation, or redemption • emerging concern with compassion, empathy, ethics, individual responsibility for the other, and social justice important synergies in human social existence: the tempering of biology by culture.

Biological evolution equips us for self-defense against the stranger, altruism toward the kin group and exploitation of resources. Culture, on the other hand, expands our horizons and deepens our insight and, in the process, alters our behavioral patterns by changing our working understandings of ‘stranger,’ ‘kin’ and ‘resource.’ Since some of humankind’s earliest religious questions addressed our relationships to the outsider, the group and the environment, it’s unsurprising that any cultural evolutionary advance would produce new insights and new behaviors with respect to these critical dimensions of existence.

The First Axial Age, for example, gave rise to human ethical concerns, notions of social justice and reverence for the Earth. Appropriately, the first three Second Axial themes address these essential relationships. The first category of 21st-century evolutionary development has to do with our broadening and deepening relationships with ‘the other.’ The second is an extension of the first, shaped by new understandings of peace and justice as critical religious concerns. The third addresses our deepening understanding of our responsibility to the Earth and the entire planetary community.

The fourth theme has to do with the recognition of the vast global landscape of spiritual practice and possibility. Perhaps the greatest of the First Axial breakthroughs was the discovery of the personal spiritual path and the rich variety of its tracings. The Second Axial finds its sacred signature in what the late interfaith pioneer Brother Wayne Teasdale described as ‘interspirituality …an attempt to make available to everyone all the forms the spiritual journey assumes.’ ?e Second Axial reawakening of the inner life, it would seem, has a distinctively intercultural flavor.

The following list of Axial themes and markers is neither definitive nor exhaustive. Each theme represents one of the most important domains of 21st-century religious and spiritual advance; each marker points up a particular evolutionary shitf that is already well underway. It’s perhaps most useful to think of this compilation as a guide for reflection, a map of critical action areas, and—above all—an invitation to further exploration. Life in a period of powerful evolutionary advance is never easy but always energizing. And riding the new wave in is always preferable to washing out with the old.”