Heard the one about a rabbi, an imam and a priest, who walk into a bank?
A rare alliance of faith leaders today will deliver an overdue message to the City, reviving an idea as old as money itself
Have you heard the one about the rabbi, the imam and the priest – and the trip they took together to the bank? If you're waiting for the punchline, that will come this morning, when an unlikely platoon of religious leaders will march on the City headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland armed not with bricks but books. Three to be precise: the Torah, the Qur'an and the New Testament. They'll be delivering them to the RBS chairman, Sir Philip Hampton – but not in a friendly way. They're meant as a warning to the titans of finance that a campaign is coming, one that starts today in both Britain and the United States, aimed at changing the way banks do business by reviving a law as old as money itself.
The law in question is the prohibition on usury. You're forgiven for stumbling on the word: the notion has fallen into such disuse, the word itself seems to come from an alien, if not dead, language. Yet it contains a powerful and simple idea: that there should be limits on the amount a lender can charge a borrower and that to charge too much interest is immoral.
It's a word that also carries some awkward baggage. For centuries, Jews' lives were made miserable by the accusation that they were usurers, an insult often hurled by the very Christian authorities who had forced Jews into moneylending by denying them access to any other livelihood. So it has extra poignance that today's march on RBS will begin at Bevis Marks, Europe's oldest functioning synagogue, and that its rabbi, Natan Asmoucha, is one of the cause's most impassioned advocates. "Any anti-usury campaign that does not involve Jews risks becoming an antisemitic campaign," says Maurice Glasman, a leading activist with London Citizens, the alliance of trade unionists, voluntary organisations and religious groups that is spearheading the UK effort.
Even before they've started, there's something to applaud here. It's refreshing for Jews and Muslims, in particular, to be working together – "exciting", says Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari of the Muslim Council of Britain – and for these communities to be engaged in interfaith action rather than another round of earnest tea-sipping in the name of "dialogue".
Organisers say it's already striking a chord. In the US, the Industrial Areas Foundation – the Chicago-based movement that trained a young Barack Obama to be a community organiser – has convened 10,000 meetings on usury. The ambition is to do for personal debt what Jubilee 2000 did for international debt, to bring the issue of extortionate, exploitative borrowing back home.
Those suffering first hand need no such reminder. Take Dan Pitt, a publican on the Bow Road in east London. He took out a Virgin Money credit card at what seemed, initially, to be a reasonable rate. But then envelopes started arriving, unsolicited, each one containing multiple Virgin cheques worth thousands of pounds. He called Virgin, telling them he didn't want to borrow any more money. But the cheques kept coming. Eventually, short of cash, having fixed up the pub garden, he succumbed. He cashed a £4,000 cheque.
The rate on that was higher than he expected. Then Virgin told him that, if he wanted to carry on using his card, interest would jump to more than 22%. He said no, but now he's enduring the "endless torment" of Virgin calling him several times each day as he tries to clear his debt. Just yesterday he had the gas company threatening to cut him off.
Stories like his are heartbreakingly familiar. Many Britons got an insight last week, thanks to the compelling BBC drama Freefall, with its tale of a minimum-wage security guard enticed to borrow for a house he couldn't afford and eventually evicted by predatory interest rates. In the US last year, 1.2 million people filed for bankruptcy, hardly a surprise in a society where consumer debt has increased by 733% since 1980.
That year is significant. Until then, anti-usury laws were still on the US statute book, as they had been since 1776, capping the amount lenders could charge. And those laws were in a long, long tradition. The Code of Hammurabi, written in Babylon 17 centuries before Jesus, barred excessive interest. The Book of Exodus is no less stringent: "If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, do not act to them as a creditor, extract no interest from them." Luke's gospel insists we "lend without expecting any return", while the Qur'an instructs believers to "fear Allah, and give up what remains of your demand for usury". Of course, these strictures were not always honoured; people can always find ways to comply with the letter of religious law while breaking its spirit. But the guiding sentiment is unambiguous.
And that ideal has never been the exclusive preserve of religious types. Plato and Aristotle denounced usury; ancient Rome capped interest at 8.33% (a shade above the 8% limit sought by London Citizens), a rule that endured for more than a thousand years.
Only Britain was in a hurry to scrap usury laws, ditching them in the 17th century under pressure from – surprise, surprise – the burghers of the City of London, who claimed that they could barely pay for the orphans in their care. For the sake of the poor little waifs, the bankers needed to rack up interest rates. And so began the City's transformation into a commercial universe free from all but the most feeble moral constraints.
Now, nearly 300 years later, it's surely time to put the cap back on. It can't be too much to ask that banks which currently borrow from the Bank of England at a rate of 0.5% lend it out at no more than 8%: they'd still be charging customers 16 times more for money than they had paid for it. (And sometimes, thanks to the joys of quantitative easing, the banks are in effect paying nothing at all for the cash that lands in their accounts and which they then lend on.)
The trouble is, it has been too much to ask. The banks have proven that they cannot be trusted to restrain their own greed: when even a respected, high street bank demands 22% in interest on money it all but shoved in a customer's hand, you know that any appeals to the bankers' better angels will be futile. The better angels packed up their bags and gave up long ago.
Some will say that we should save all this talk for the pulpit, that it's all very well in the realm of moral exhortation but it has no place in the real world of hard-headed economics. But London Citizens's Glasman has a good retort: "What the crash has revealed is that it's the bankers who've been living in a fantasy world of virtual money, where money has no relation to assets and no connection to the real economy." Besides, this is not some abstract moral issue, relevant only to the theology seminars soon to be attended by the City minister Paul Myners. It is all too real: just ask Dan Pitt.
It is telling that the lead voices in this new effort are from mosques, inner-city churches and synagogues. The politicians have been left looking flummoxed by the financial crisis, apparently desperate for normal business to resume as soon as possible. It has been left to the Pope to offer the most comprehensive critique of our devastated economic landscape, in his latest encyclical. But those facing crippling debts will not be too bothered by that. When people are desperate, they will take leadership from wherever they can get it.