A Living Economic Testimony: Debt

October 13, 2011 § 9 Comments

I woke up yesterday morning thinking about debt, the linchpin of our current economic crisis, about the systematic assaults on the compassionate and indeed rational management of debt that began with the Reagan administration, and about what Jesus’ teachings and our other Quaker testimonies have to offer as places to start in articulating a living testimony on debt.

Amongst ourselves: contemporary and historical practice

Friends historically have urged each other to avoid debt when possible and, since credit is essential to business, to be very careful not to become overextended with the debt you must incur. They saw this as a breach of what we call today the testimony of integrity; then, they said it broke Jesus’ injunction to let your yea be yea and your nay be nay—that is, when you defaulted on your debts you were breaking your word. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Friends kept a close watch on each other’s finances and disciplined those who defaulted on their debts. For a while, some meetings read people out of meeting for going bankrupt, especially in the 19th century. Nevertheless, meetings sometimes also arranged bailouts, covering the outstanding debts of bankrupted members, especially when the creditors were not Friends, in order to do right by the creditors and to protect the Society’s reputation. It also was not too uncommon for meetings to refinance such a Friend, especially if their business had failed through no fault of their own.

Through the twentieth century, Friends assumed many of ‘the world’s’ practices, including attitudes toward debt, while banks extended more and more credit to the individual consuming household. Today, if the Quaker community reflects trends in the wider society, as it almost certainly does, then presumably, quite a few Friends are underwater with their mortgages and in trouble with their credit card debt. But how would we know? And what would we do about it if we did know? We no longer monitor each other’s finances and we do not step in with help when members get into financial trouble. Should we? I think so.

In fact, ideally, perhaps Quaker meetings could function like the Church of the Savior in Washington DC (and the early Christian church; see the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5) when it comes to finances: ask for a financial statement as part of the membership process and for a covenantal relationship with the meeting regarding money. This would go a long way toward solving our meetings’ problems with their own insolvency, though it would drive out some members and thus reduce income, as well. For its part, meetings could also establish relief funds, the way the Mormons do, and perhaps even ‘mandatory’ periodic social service to each other, also along the lines of Mormon practice, as a way to protect and to reboot a struggling household’s fortunes.

Of course this will never happen. It will never even come up. Despite the many sociological studies that show that demanding more of your believers actually grows a congregation, Friends will almost certainly see such a practice as invasive and coercive, never mind that we did it for almost 200 years. Nevertheless, I think we should do everything we can to encourage our members to tell us when they’re in trouble and to help to the degree that we can. As niggardly as Friends are towards contributions to our meetings and institutions, we often respond quite generously to direct appeals for specific and personalized causes. Perhaps the best way to build up a fund that could help struggling members is to run something akin to a capital drive to raise funds for a new meetinghouse or for major repairs to an existing one. Without such a fund and without a clear willingness on the part of the meeting to help, deeply indebted members are not likely to come forward.

During the persecutions, Friends managed to help each other out against terrible, sustained and concerted financial assault. Likewise, the early apostolic church was organized around care for the poor, vividly dramatized in Acts 2 and 4. Do we share such a fellowship today?

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§ 9 Responses to A Living Economic Testimony: Debt

  • Emily says:

    Let’s not forget the other–or maybe THE–major sources of debt in America:
    In 2007, 62% of all bankruptcies resulted from medical problems.
    In 2011, student loan debt outpaced credit card debt (and that’s where most of the protestors with Occupy Wall Street were coming from, at least originally).

  • mkivel says:

    I’d offer the thought that a meeting might appoint a clearance committee to work with folks who ask for financial assistance, lift them up to the Light, and minister with them as they attain their new financial normal…

    I’d also suggest the idea that the meeting might offer workshops using the free study materials offered online by Utah State University at http://ocw.usu.edu/Family__Consumer____Human_Development/Family_Finance/ to assist F/friends better manage their money so as to minimize the need for assistance and make it more available when there is true need….thoughts?

  • Very good points, Diane. Also, what form would the disclosure take and how often would it be made? Something like a quarterly estimated tax return? I can’t imagine it would include things like going out to dinner, though such details might be known by some people. Which raises another question: who would be privy to this information? A committee? The whole meeting?

    In Jesus’ time, everybody knew everybody else’s economic status because every year you owed a tithe to the temple and this was done in the court at the town gate, which was the winnowing ground and served as the court of justice as well. As each family threshed out its grain and brought up its herds to be counted, everyone could see what you had. Not to mention that people in small towns and villages know each other’s business anyway. In a labor market economy in which taxes are given to the state, household economics are not general knowledge. Our tax returns ARE public information, however, so I suppose that would be a place to start, since we’ve already tacitly agreed to release our tax information to the public domain.

  • Jim Schultz says:

    All of the above speak my mind.

  • mkivel says:

    I’d like to offer a thought for consideration drawn from the Jewish faith but with relevance to the matter at hand.

    It is the practice of gemilut chesidim: deeds of loving kindness. More specifically, assisting folks who are in need in a dignified manner by extending confidential no interest loans repayable in light of individual circumstances. This is handled though Free Loan Societies whose members voluntarily contribute and whose officers review loans applications and disburse the funds on behalf of the society. You can find examples here http://www.hfls.org/ and http://www.jfla.org/ – note that the second society listed extends loans to folks irrespective of faith community.

    I’d also offer the thought that meetings might consider offering members simple living workshops to strengthen the classic Quaker testimony of simplicity. I’d recommend two books as the basis for such a class – The Complete Idiot’s Guides to Simple Living and Self-Sustainability…the books compliment one another and the former has a section on meditation and silence that might be of particular value to Friends…

  • Bill Samuel says:

    Some meetings do have “relief funds” as you term them. I don’t know how common the practice is, but I don’t think it is rare. I was for a long time a member of one that funded its by a yearly budget line item. If the fund was depleted and there were needs, then funds would be solicited through normal meeting channels. There was a 3-person committee responsible for the assistance fund. These were not appointed separately, but were people in specified positions in the meeting. I think this is still the case, although I am no longer a member there and don’t know for sure.

  • William F Rushby says:

    In the Mennonite church (and conference) where we currently find fellowship (as nonmembers), the deacons are responsible for dealing with congregants who have financial problems. In at least one case I am aware of, they actually assumed management of a failing dairy farm–to assist the family in time of crisis.

    Instead of avoiding church members who are having problems, personal, health, financial, etc., church members work hard to support those in crisis. This is how a church should function, but it works best where the church is a *community*!

    Being a church community is what Friends need to work at, and it is a costly project in terms of time, energy and resources.

    As a case in point, a “friend of Friends” from a community about two hours away called the other morning to tell us that a family member died under tragic circumstances. I assured her that we would visit very soon. We have our own problems, but…we need to “be there” for others in our faith community when they are in crisis. So, we have a trip and a visit on the drawing board.

    If we want to experience community and support, we need to “put our money where our mouths are”!

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