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?