What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Financial Care

April 1, 2014 § 5 Comments

Early Quakerism

The Quaker movement was born in a time of tremendous economic upheaval and hardship and one of the main reasons that meetings and membership rolls were formally established in the first place was to deal with the financial crises we faced. I have discussed this at length in early posts on Quakerism and Capitalism.

At the very beginning in the late 1640s and the 1650s, most Children of Truth were yeoman farmers or tradespeople in small towns and villages. Within a generation, most Friends had abandoned their land or been driven off and had entered commerce, as part of the great transition from a mostly agrarian economy toward capitalism. By 1700, this transition was virtually complete among Friends and already British commercial capitalism was beginning to evolve into an economy that combined trade with manufacture and industry, an evolution driven in considerable part by Quaker energy, innovation, and investment.

In the meantime, beginning in the early 1660s and lasting officially until the mid-1690s, the state, the church, and local authorities conducted a campaign of economic persecution against Quakers that took an enormous financial toll on the movement.

Quaker meetings were established in this period in great part to organize and manage the funds for sufferings that ministered to the financial hardships of their members. At the time, this was one of the more important answers to the question, What is the Religious Society of Friends for? : financial care of its members.

Early Christianity

The same was true for the earliest followers of Jesus. I have never seen evidence that early Friends deliberately based their faith and practices of financial care on the model found in Christian scripture, but I suspect that the reason is that I just am not well enough read yet. For the model is quite visible in its basic thrust. It’s a little less obvious how completely ministering to financial hardship permeates the teachings of Jesus, or how central it was to his prophetic mission.

I have gone into considerable detail about this in my first blog, biblemonster.com, in posts on the Beatitudes and others. But here’s the basic sketch:

In the fourth chapter of Luke, after having been baptized and tempted in the wilderness, Jesus returns to his home town of Nazareth and is invited to read from the prophets in the synagogue. He reads Isaiah 61:1-2:

    The spirit of Yahweh God is upon me,
       because Yahweh has anointed me (“Christed” me, “messiahed” me);
    he has sent me to bring good news (evangelion) to the poor/oppressed,
       to bind up the broken-hearted (those who have lost their family farm to bankruptcy),
    to proclaim liberty to the captives (possibly debt slaves),
      and release to the prisoners (ditto);
    to proclaim the year that Yahweh favors (the jubilee year).

After reading these words, Jesus declared that in his listener’s hearing, this prophecy was being fulfilled.

In this passage, Jesus declares himself the messiah and defines his role as the Christ as ministering to the sufferings of the poor, mainly by declaring a Jubilee. The Jubilee, from Leviticus 25, did four things:

  1. It cancelled all debts.
  2. It set free all debt slaves, people who were working off their debts as indentured servants.
  3. It returned all families to their ancestral farms, families that had lost their inheritances to foreclosure.
  4. It required a sabbath fallow, that all fields remain fallow for the year.

Once you learn to recognize the covenantal language for debt, poverty, the Jubilee release, inheritance, and other related “legal” “economic” terminology, you see it everywhere you look in the teachings and actions of Jesus: most of the most famous sayings, half of the parables, most of his curing miracles, many of his other miracles, and much what he actually did in the narratives relate his teachings about the poor and demonstrate his plan for relieving their burdens of debt. Read in this light, the (Synoptic) gospels and Acts lay out a faith and practice of financial care for the poor that was the obligation of the local congregation.

Thus both the primitive Christian church that early Friends sought to restore, and the measures that Friends themselves undertook served to make sure that no one in the community suffered from poverty.

Financial care today

I think most of our meetings do have a concern for the financial welfare of their members, but we do not hold this as one of our core missions, as Jesus’ followers and our own Quaker forebears did. Why?

For one thing, as I write in Quakerism and Capitalism, and as Doug Gwyn describes so well in The Covenant Crucified, Friends in England soon became fabulously wealthy in spite of the intense persecutions, and they abandoned the original covenant they had built on the foundations of their radical eschatological expectations. We became one of the wealthiest communities in Great Britain. This didn’t begin to change in Britain until the 20th century.

Quakers in America were always more diverse in all ways, including economically. Many Friends in the New World continued to be farmers, for instance. But the new nation so often delivered on its promise of opportunity in those days that poverty among American Friends was also rather rare, as far as I know.

In our own time, many of us are middle class, and we don’t really know poverty or even see much of it in our day-to-day lives.

Nevertheless, many of our meetings probably have members who live close to the edge. Some may be underwater in their mortgages or carrying a lot of credit card debt. Our culture encourages us to hide these things from others, so we often do not know how our fellow Quakers are doing financially. So here are my questions:

If someone in our meeting were suffering under a crushing burden of debt, would we know? And if we did know, what would we do about it? Is ministering to each other’s financial distress still a core mission of the Quaker meeting, as it was for early Friends and for the early followers of Jesus? Should it be?

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§ 5 Responses to What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Financial Care

  • treegestalt says:

    What Jesus was doing… might take a few books to deal with as fully as I’d like. The strongest parallel between the early Church and Early Friends (although both were concerned with the needs of poor people) is that in both cases we see people with a strong sense of mission, enabled to abandon the customary worship of Mammon and dedicate themselves and whatever they owned to getting the word out. Modern Friends may not be in a similar condition; normative middle-class ‘prudence’ would seem to work against that attitude.

    Likewise, our economic environment differs significantly. The niches available for establishing someone ‘in a trade’ are quite limited; the dominant institutions seemingly don’t need people except to scramble over each other in search of those few ‘jobs’ they want done, which they consequently can fill cheaply. As with housing, so with employment: a ‘musical chairs’ economy.

    How to add niches to our economic ecosystem — when our ‘real economy’ (actual production of goods & services) is in a coma? How to circulate money to the gangrenous regions of the body social? — without collecting a mob of ‘rice Quakers’?

    We’ll need some serious inspiration & surprising Leadings to cope with this… but thanks for raising some of the questions!

    • We really need a new economy, one that is not based on the mass production and mass consumption of goods, one in which most households are economically productive and in which all valuable labor is recognized and recompensed by the system. Some version of a massively-participant gift exchange economy, perhaps, that might use the technologies and strategies being developed by the mass-participation game community. Even science fiction writer Neal Stephenson’s novel Readme has some interesting ideas along these lines. Another way to put it is that we need new forms of money. And a system in which we have roles instead of jobs, and the needs of all are taken care of.

      Meanwhile, I believe that capitalism is actually an evil system, even though it has done more than any other human system in human history to improve the lot of humanity. By evil I mean that it willfully harms people systematically. Its own moral system forces people to harm others. It is carcinomic, depending on its very survival upon unlimited growth and making this disease an ultimate value. It evangelizes people to its regime and actively suppresses meaningful alternatives—it’s a form of demonic possession. It is inherently competitive, and competition inevitably sometimes leads to conflict, and conflict inevitably sometimes leads to violence; hence capitalism is inherently violent. It lies, in the form of advertising; it systematically lies about the two most important categories in its accounting—the real cost of consuming finite resources and the real cost of disposing of its waste; and it lies about the real character and role of shareholders as the ultimate stakeholders. The consumption society is inherently in violation of the testimony of simplicity . . . Well, I could go on.

      I will return eventually to my original interest with this blog—economics—with a righteous, prophetic Lamb’s War against capitalism. But it remains a much bigger concern to begin to figure out what the system should look like instead.

  • Howard Brod says:

    Thanks Steven for the gentle reminder that as a spiritual family our meetings should make some provision for helping financially those associating with us who are in dire situations. Also, thanks for the associated reminder that true compassion would also hopefully prompt our meetings to help all those in financial need.

    These are core social action topics that every meeting should discuss, discern, and then act upon as they are led.

    My meeting has maintained a Fund for Support of Friends since its beginnings some 30 years ago. When forming the meeting, our core members had only been Quakers for a year or so. However, from the example we witnessed from other meetings within Baltimore Yearly Meeting, we just assumed this was a core function of all Quaker meetings. Out of our meager budget we carved out a small amount each month to accumulate a fund for this purpose. Each year, the meeting publishes to Friends the existence of this fund. And indeed it has made a difference for a number of Friends over the years; keeping them from loosing their housing, transportation, heat, medical care, and education.

    Once the meeting had been established for a decade, we wanted to offer the same financial assistance to the general community that we were located in. Our Peace and Social Action Committee (PSAC) challenged us to reflect on how we might do this. Through a rather quick discernment process, we came up with the idea of establishing a thrift store called “The Thrifty Quaker”, where the goods donated would be given to those in dire need and sold in order to raise money for mostly local charities that were dedicated to helping people in need. Some 20 years later, this Quaker thrift store is going strong and is well known in the village we are a part of. It has given $2.5 million away in goods and money.

    Still, we felt we might be able to do more to directly help non-Quakers who were in financial crisis. So we began a way others could donate money to help non-Quakers. It was to be a version of our meeting’s Fund for Support, but specifically designed for people who were not part of any Quaker meeting. That’s how our second public charitable effort, called “Friend$hare”, was born. Eventually, we opened a second thrift store to raise funds for it. We also receive outright monetary donations from people in our meeting, United Way, other local Quaker meetings, and the general public. Friend$hare pays bills for people in financial emergencies so they don’t loose their housing, transportation, medical care, utilities, etc. We have partnered with local private and governmental Social Services agencies who refer to us people (strangers to us) who have genuine financial needs. Even though we often run out of money at times, we are still able to help dozens of people each year, making a real difference in their lives. Over the last 14 years we have been able to pay $80,000 of bills for non-Quakers who have been referred to us.

    Our meeting is small – even by Quaker standards; averaging less than 20 at worship each Sunday. A meeting doesn’t need to have lots of money or be large to develop strategies to fulfill Jesus’ vision. It just needs a desire and Friends among them who are willing to be a tool of the Spirit towards this end.

    If your readers want more information about either “The Thrifty Quaker” (www.thriftyquaker.org) or “Friend$hare”, they may write to our meeting’s email at Quaker_Town_Crier@msn.com.

    • This is really terrific stuff, Howard. Thanks so much for sharing your meeting’s economic ministry. This is exactly the kind of thing I was imagining with this post and its queries. It’s an inspiration to us all.

  • Jnana Hodson says:

    Well put, so quickly.
    To this I would add a concern for the future. Friends established some economic models that worked for nearly two centuries, not just a work ethic that differed from the Puritan work ethic, but also inheritance, farming, small industry, and so on … and that was strengthened by our used of elders (today I’d see them as high-powered consultants) and traveling ministers who probably did much to build an international framework for trustworthy trade and commerce, at least among Friends.
    I sense, though, that if we’re to survive as a religious society, we’ll need something similar … guidance, training, and advice for the next generations.
    I touched on some of these in my early chapters at my Chicken Farmer I Still Love You blog, and am very happy to see other Friends also engaging in this dialogue. All the best!

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