The Christian tradition speaks of four peccata clamantia, or sins that cry out to heaven for vengeance: murder, sodomy, oppression of the poor, and defrauding workers of their wages. The list derives from Scripture passages. The blood of Abel cries to God from the soil after Cain murders his brother. Before God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah, he sends angels to investigate the clamor that has reached heaven from the cities of the plain. When the Egyptians oppress the Hebrews, God responds to the cry of his people. Passages throughout Scripture reinforce the Psalm that “God hears the cry of the poor.”
This is not an arbitrary collection of sins. Though Scripture reveals that all four peccata clamantia “cry out to heaven,” Aristotelian philosophy also explains what links them: They are all sins against nature. Aristotle identifies man as a social animal that naturally forms a number of communities, including the family and political society. Murder is extreme anti-social behavior, a negation of man’s natural tendency to collaborate with others for the sake of achieving common goods. Sodomy, or perverse sexual activity more broadly, is a violation of the natural order of procreation, for it makes barren humanity’s natural fruitfulness.
Aristotle rejected usury, or the making of profit from a loan of money. Money, as a means of exchange, is inherently sterile. It is therefore unnatural, Aristotle held, to make it multiply and become “fruitful” without any productive work. While sources as old as Roman Law recognize the justice of charging interest, defined as a compensation for loss on reasonable expenses—paying bank employees, legal fees, and rent, for example—making profit on a loan violates the idea of a just exchange. To give one hundred drachmas and receive back one hundred and twenty-five without a just reason violates proportionality in commutative justice, the justice between individuals. Rates of interest in ancient Athens rose as high as 9,000 percent; it is no surprise that Aristotle saw usury as a violation of natural and just rates of exchange. Since it is usually the poor who require loans, usury makes profit from those who already do not have enough.
Defrauding workers of their wages also violates the idea of a just exchange. A worker has a right to the fruits of his labor. When he works the soil to produce a harvest, the use of the grain is his natural due as a result of his work. Therefore, to defraud workers of their wages, or to pay less than what their work merits, is also a violation of the nature of commutative justice.
Murder, sodomy, oppression of the poor, and defrauding workers of their wages are sins against nature and against the fraternal justice required for a human society to function harmoniously. These four injustices are at the heart of the challenges facing contemporary American society. Abortion claims millions of innocent lives annually, and is all the more grave because it is carried out within the natural family. Perverse sexual activity and deliberate sterility are promoted by the rich and powerful, from the media to the nonprofit sector and the corporate world. As family life evaporates, politics becomes more extreme and violent.
We also have a particularly advanced usury regime in the United States. In the past, most societies left the minting of coin in the hands of governmental authorities. But today, we allow banks to create money by fiat for the sake of making loans. Through this system, banks increase debt, cause inflation, and sap value from the economy as they collect interest from millions of Americans on money that bankers created out of thin air.
A well-compensated workforce keeps the economy moving, for money circulates between those with the capacity to spend and those with services and goods to provide. In contrast, today’s conventional economic wisdom tells us to find the cheapest labor we can. We defraud workers of their wages and gradually choke the spending power of what should be a vibrant market economy. A lifetime of usurious interest on mortgages, credit cards, and student debt adds insult to the injury of low wages.
To solve our national challenges, we must recognize that these four problems go together. While Christian conservatives have attempted various forms of legal theorizing based on the natural law, their efforts have largely failed—in part because they generally ignored the wider demands of nature. It is in red states like Utah, after all, that laws against usury have most thoroughly disappeared. The politician that can recognize this and form a consensus that is “for nature,” and against the four sins that cry out to heaven for vengeance, holds the key to a just future and an American common good.
Eduardo Andino is director of development for the Institute on Religion and Public Life.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.