I believe that a culture of economic materialism damages the soul and damages the fabric of society. It sets up a false god, squanders our resources, threatens our earth, distracts our attention from real issues and needs, and separates us from each other and from our higher selves. Pamela Haines
The economy, as we usually encounter it, has nothing to do with values or faith. The market caters to no religious belief, nor does the “invisible hand.” It is all a matter of science, we are assured: economists have mastered the mathematical formulas for growth and prosperity. Our role as individuals is simply to work, consume and save, each adding our bit to the sum totals of economic activity that will keep the system humming along; the experts will take care of everything else.
This breezy values-free story, however, has never been a good fit with the religion I was raised in. Economic issues seem to crop up in Quaker faith and practice at every turn. A search for answers to questions around faith and economics has been central to my journey, and I have tasted the power of applying faith values to our economic story.
The testimony on equality is a precious one to Quakers. Early Friends refused to take their hats off to their “betters.” Men and women were always assumed to be equally able to preach. Slavery was condemned as an abominable affront. Though many Quakers fell far short in living out these values over the years, they could be called out on the inconsistency of their practice.
Reflecting on my childhood, I particularly value how we girls were treated equally. Competence was prized over femininity, and we were proud to drive tractors and do construction. My parents’ decision to live in an interracial and interreligious community—a rarity in that early post-war era—was an expression of their commitment to equality as well. On the other hand, their personal relationship was mired in male dominance and traditional gender role expectations, and their understanding of social equality did not extend to class. Yet my training was strong enough that I came of age with a deep desire to overcome the barriers that separated me from any other human being.
Stewardship, in its most common form in Quaker practice, relates to care of possessions, and I picture old men making conservative decisions about management of property and investments. At home the testimony had a little more life. We valued what we had, learned the skills of mending and repairing, enjoyed the fruits of thrifty living. It was part of simplicity, something that I loved.
My experience of these testimonies shaped my life profoundly. To the extent that they rang true in practice, they laid a solid foundation. Where the practice was uneven, the dissonance raised up dilemma questions the search for whose answers provided a framework for my journey as an adult.
But what does this experience of the Quaker testimonies have to do with economics? Well, everything, as it turns out.
Economic issues pervade the testimonies. Quakers value equality, yet we see economic inequality increasing dramatically. We value integrity, yet our economic system has no place for conscience. We value simplicity, yet our growth economy requires ever-increasing consumption. We value community, yet our society throws out those on the margins. We value stewardship, yet are running through finite resources at an alarming rate. We value peace, yet the violence and devastation caused by our economic system’s exploitation of people and the planet is tragic. Thus this walk through the Quaker testimonies with particular attention to our economic system
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