The annual commemoration of Palm Sunday by Christians provides an important opportunity to reconnect with the economic justice roots of the ministry of Jesus. Each of the Christian gospels record the rather provocative act of Jesus cleansing the Jerusalem temple by overturning the tables of the moneychangers who had set up shop in the temple precinct to facilitate the buying of sacred animals necessary that were required for worship. Most commentators give a pietistic interpretation of this act, and assume that Jesus is outraged by the presence of commerce in the Temple. Since the temple is a place of prayer, so the traditional pietistic interpretation goes, the commercial activity should be reserved for another location. This view obscures our understanding of Jesus’s concern and prevents us from relating that concern to the economic justice issues we face today. It implies that Jesus would have been fine with the commercial activity of the moneychangers had it taken place in another quarter of the city, just not in the house of prayer. The traditional interpretation fails to critically examine what Jesus means when he says the moneychangers have turned the Temple into a “den of robbers,” a description that belies a concern about the location of the activity, and is more a judgment about the nature of the commercial enterprise. How might we better understand the substance of Jesus’s critique of the moneychangers, and is it possible to use that understanding as a means towards addressing similar economic practices today?
By way of background, Jews celebrating Passover in Jerusalem were required to offer animals for sacrifice in the Temple. Since the religion of the Jews forbade the usage of pagan images on coins, Jews from Rome, Greece, or other cities could not use their local currencies to purchase animals in the temple. Instead, devotees had to convert their local coins into what the Hebrew Bible calls the “the sanctuary shekel” of the Temple. The moneychangers were given an exclusive monopoly by the religious elite to convert the foreign currencies possessed by the worshippers into the required “sanctuary shekel.”
By Jesus’s day, moneychangers seized their monopoly on the supply of the temple coin and began to charge a fee for their exchange services. They along with the priests profited tremendously from this exclusive monopoly on the control and issuance of the temple coin. The sanctuary shekel was the required medium of exchange for participating in the sacred rituals of the temple, but it was also the medium of social and economic power. Since there is no indication anywhere in the Hebrew bible that a fee or interest was to be charged in order to obtain the sanctuary shekel, it appears that the priests and the moneychangers were taking advantage of their ability to control the temple’s money system. As merely a medium of exchange, there was no need for the sanctuary shekel to be exchanged for profit, but the priests and the moneychangers abused this power to exploit the people leaving worshippers in more debt and economically burdened after they left the temple to celebrate Passover. The unjust manipulation of money is what the Hebrew Bible and all the major religions and philosophies of the world call usury. It is more than the charging of excessive interest. It is rooted in the idea that money, a simple inanimate medium of exchange, should not be able to make more money. With hundreds of thousands of worshippers in Jerusalem for the religious observance of Passover, the moneychangers and priests stood to profit handsomely from their monopoly of the temple’s money. Without performing any productive labor for the community, without investing in any commercial activity, the sanctuary shekel came into existence as a debt to make more money. The temple’s money system was especially burdensome for the poor as the Gospels tell us that some worshippers had to purchase doves, the animal of choice for the poor who were not able to purchase more expensive lambs and cattle that were offered for sacrifice.
Jesus’s biting critique that the priests and the moneychangers have made the temple “a den of robbers” is about the nature of this commercial activity, not about the location of it. The unjust manipulation of money enabled those who issued the money to receive an unearned economic benefit from the mere issuance of the temple’s money. The profited not from building, working, or creating anything of communal value, but merely from issuing the money that people were forced to use in order to participate in the economy of the temple. Standing within the tradition of the Hebrew Bible’s opposition to usury, Jesus’s overturns the tables of the moneychangers as a prophetic challenge to the immoral manipulation of money that leads to the economic exploitation of the masses as a means of enriching those who control the issuance of money.
This understanding challenges us to think of the ways in which such certain monetary practices today unfairly enrich those who control the issuance of money. In his first apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis addressed the laws of competition that have created “an economy of exclusion and inequality.” His analysis of the way in which “the idolatry of money” has affected the ability of nations to care for the most vulnerable among us challenges us to return to an ethical approach to economics that favors humanity rather than prioritizes the profitmaking goals of the market. “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life,” he says, “today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills…Money must serve, not rule.”
There are many similarities between the debt-based monetary systems of the world today and the kind of monetary profiteering Jesus challenged during his day. An understanding of the modern mechanics of money creation makes is abundantly evident that the creation of money as a debt is the underlying systemic mechanism that causes and creates the very economy of exclusion and inequality about which the Pope Francis speaks. Pope Francis writes, “Debt and the accumulation of interest also make it difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies and keep citizens from enjoying their real purchasing power.” For those concerned about economic injustice in the world today, it is important to develop conceptual clarity around why the major religions and philosophies of world found debt-based money so troubling for the maintenance of social peace and economic stability.
The primary reason is that debt-based money creates what some economists call, “money scarcity.” When money is created and issued as a debt, banks issue the principal amount of money in circulation, but not the interest. To illustrate this, assume 10 people in a hypothetical community were each issued $1,000 that they had to pay back at some arbitrary interest rate. Let’s use 10% for this example. The economic problem here is that there is $10,000 in circulation among the 10 people (i.e. 10 X $1,000), but they owe the banker $11,000 (i.e. $10,000 at 10% interest). The ten individuals in this example are forced into an economically violent context of having to compete for nonexistent or insufficient economic resources because the required interest amount of money (i.e. $1,000) was not placed into circulation by the banker. There is no amount of taxation, legislation, education, hard work, charity, or prayer that can account for this mathematical problem. Such an economic system can only be sustained by the infusion of more “debt” or “stimulus,” which does not really solve the underlying problem. It just kicks the proverbial can down the road until an infusion of more debt is needed to keep the system going. Debt-based money systems are therefore economically unsustainable. They burden society under the yoke of debt and taxation, and economically structures society in such a way that some people in society will not be able to meet their economic obligations; a reality that creates the conditions that produce poverty, income inequality, crime, poor schools, unemployment, underemployment, etc. While the economies of modern nation-states are obviously must larger and more complex than this simplified example, the problem of debt-based money is still the same. There just simply is not enough money to go around. It’s almost like musical chairs; there just simply aren’t enough chairs for the number of people playing the game. Someone is going to be left out. It is a fun game, until you are the one left without a chair. An economy such as ours based upon money being created as a debt is a lot like musical chairs; there’s not enough money for the number of people in the society, therefore structurally necessitating that some people will be left out. When the music stops in musical chairs, people begin to push and shove in an attempt to secure a chair for themselves. This pushing and shoving gets played out in our society through resorting to discourses of difference such as racism, sexism, classism and xenophobia to determine which groups will get a seat in the economy and which will not in a debt-based money system?
What makes debt-based money so immoral is that those who issue money receive an unearned economic benefit for merely creating the medium of exchange, a function the government could do itself without requiring interest. Those who merely issue money, the medium of exchange, are being enriched for work they have not performed, and the wealth of the public is siphoned under the yoke of taxes and perpetual interest payments. The trillions of dollars a year paid annually in interest payments by businesses, citizens, and federal, state, and local governments to the banks who control the money supply deprive society of the necessary resources to invest in health care, public education, social security, defense, roads, the environment, and job creation.
Equally troubling is the fact that banks create the money they lend in society out of nothing. While most people assume that the central bank purchases treasuries or commercial banks extend loans from existing money, the fact is they do not. They literally create reserves, credit, and what is used as money ex nihilo, “out of nothing” through making digital accounting entries into a computer. Debt-based money and not simply the need for more financial regulations create the conditions for the moral hazard and speculative activity of Wall Street. Their power over the money supply, and the power to create what is used as money out of nothing gives them almost divine power to control society. Is there any reason that the same financial institutions that created the global financial crisis are now three to four times larger than they were at the height of the crisis 10 years ago? It is reported that in 1937 Henry Ford paraphrased Nebraska Congressman Charles Binderup, saying “It is well enough that the people of the nation do not understand our banking and monetary system, for if they did, I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning.” The priests of today’s money system rely on the ignorance of the public and of politicians to continue their system of economic exploitation.
That all four New Testament Gospel report Jesus overturning the tables of the moneychangers suggests that money reform is the essential human and civil rights issue of our day. It is the initial step necessary to solve the underlying structural mechanism of our monetary system that causes poverty, inequality, wealth concentration, and deprives society of the resources necessary to invest in the public sector rather than enriching the financial sector. Dr. King said, “If a soul lives in darkness sins will be committed. But the guilty one is not the one who commits the sin, but the one who causes the darkness.” The nation’s debt-based money system is the cause of the darkness, and it is not until we have the prophetic courage to envision an alternative world that we will create a monetary system that benefits the many rather than the few. It has been done before. It will take knowledge and courage to do it again, but we must be willing to be like Jesus and overturn the tables of today’s moneychangers. Their debt-based money economically enslaves the public to debt and perpetual interest payments, and causes the most destructive collateral consequences in our society. What is desperately needed is “an economic abolitionist movement” that frees the public from the bondage to debt so that we can create a society where economic prosperity is democratized and peace is ensured.
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