Among the Abrahamic traditions there are many commonalities. One thing that is shared among them is the practice of giving a portion of one’s income to the needy. For Jews this is laid out in the Torah, or the Hebrew Bible. It’s called the ma'aser kesafim, or tithing. This means giving away 10 percent of one’s income to charity.
In Christianity there’s the custom of supporting the church with financial contributions on an annual basis and/or on a weekly basis in the context of church-going and the passing of the plate, which is a literal and a symbolic offering of support.
In Islam the Qur’an and the Sunnah, which is the model of the prophet Muhammad’s life and includes his sayings and practices, are believed to express the will of Allah. One of the pillars of Islam is the zakat. It states that one must give away a portion of one’s income.
Throughout history the value of equality has been recognized but maybe not realized. Within Christianity in the Middle Ages in Europe, there was an inherited climate that forbade and even detested the idea of charging excessive and unfair interest on loans, a practice called usury. This is the idea of the suggestion of implications of personal gain in a material sense, which was believed to work directly against God’s will.
The restrictions on lending money with or without interest can be traced back to the sacred texts of Islam and Christianity. Even further back are the sacred texts of the East, such as in Hinduism, that have such restrictions.
In Judaism, as expressed in the Torah, there is no prohibition against charging interest on loans to non-Jews. However, one mustn’t charge interest to one’s fellow Jews. For this reason the money changers who helped keep the economy moving during the Middle Ages were predominantly Jewish.
It was mentioned earlier that usury had been prohibited during the Middle Ages, and that its roots stretch back into the Eastern religions as well. In the ancient Vedic texts of Hinduism, for example, a usurer, or a kusidin, is described as someone who charges interest beyond the legal rate. This is an unethical use of power or control. It is an unfair exchange. So from approximately 2000 Before the Common Era, the meaning of usury has remained essentially unchanged.
Nevertheless, aside from the issue of unjust interest rates, some Hindus do believe that any lending of money at all tends to bring about bad karma, and it is therefore prohibited or to be avoided.
The Buddha, on the other hand, had no problem with lending money as long as certain principles and doctrines were recognized and adhered to. In relation to Buddhism, there is an official term called Buddhist Economics. It’s a way of engaging with economics from a holistic, all-inclusive perspective. No part or detail is left out of the equation. The processes of intention, production, sale, consumption, waste, et cetera are all considered.
From this the notion of anata, or “no-self,” emerges. When considering economics, which is based on the idea of exchange, one has to ask, what is the nature, the structure, and the identities involved in this exchange? Buddhist Economics is an approach to this form of exchange that emphasizes spiritual principles, which come down to the level of psychology.
The first two noble truths of Buddhism state that life is suffering and that suffering is caused by desires and cravings of an unclear and ignorant mind. The idea is that economic activity, like other things in life, is motivated by the psychological mechanisms of anxiety, fear, and desire—all the emotions that grab hold of us, causing us to respond in one way or another.
The hope with Buddhist Economics is to come to some understanding of balance, a middle way, between harm on the one hand and excess on the other. Along this path, one might see what “beneficial” really means in terms of an economic exchange.
While Buddhist Economics might seem to be a unique perspective, perhaps it isn’t so different from the others. What links them is the hope of a fruitful, fair, and just exchange. An exchange with the higher principles of devotion, respect, honesty, charity, justice, and equality. Certain material expressions of these principles might be seen as a binding influence that maybe even draws the religions together at times.
All of these religions have economic practices ingrained in them. For example, purchasing and exchanging of gifts during the holidays of Christmas and Hanukkah. The festival of Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim breaking of the Ramadan fast and paying the zakat. All of this economic activity might function to bring communities together in a positive recognition of what it could really mean to exchange.
Source: This work is adapted from Sophia author Ted Fairchild.