Thursday, September 4, 2008

Quakers and the market

As a religious body, Quakers have a long heritage of viewing the outward manifestation of inward faith as a crucial component of Christianity rightly understood. “Quakerism is not just a set of beliefs or a statement of faith; it is a practical, ethical, and functional religious approach to life,” says Wilmer Cooper, for instance, in A Living Faith: An Historical and Comparative Study of Quaker Beliefs. “That is to say, it is a religious faith to be lived out and not just professed and talked about.” If we can begin to see economics as the study of human action, then given this Quaker perspective it seems clear that the practical application of Quaker faith can benefit from greater exploration of such a discipline.

Early Friends certainly viewed themselves as active economic agents within the larger society. “The early Friends were a people of great integrity, courage and independence of mind and in the second and third generations were among those people who would have gone into the universities and from there into law, the Church and the higher professions,” writes Arthur Raistrick in Quakers in Science and Industry. Business, though, proved a better fit. “Their Quaker beliefs, their refusal of the oath, their plainness of speech and dress and their whole attitude to life prevented this, and they were left with little but the ‘innocent’ domestic trades.” Indeed, as he points out, the Quaker ‘Advices on Trade’ were unique among religious groups of the time.

This economic activity and outlook had a profound impact upon the Society of Friends. First, as Cooper suggests, their “concern for honesty and truth-telling in their public life and in their business dealings” led to success in business. Second, the interaction of their faith upon their business dealings impelled them toward the promotion of the welfare of their employees and the population at large, as Raistrick notes. Finally, their acumen in business affairs had ripple effects on their social concerns. In The Quakers: Money and Morals, James Walvin argues that the successful drive toward abolition among Friends arose from an “insistence that the organisation be conducted on business lines: methodically, systematically, with careful recording of their transactions and finances.”

Many Quakers today, however, are arguably far less inclined to see the value of studying the economy, the marketplace, and our interactions in those arenas. Mark Cary’s research suggests that unprogrammed Friends, for example, view business activity in almost entirely negative terms. Jack Powelson sees these views arising from a focus on greed and consumerism as inherent byproducts of capitalism rather than as personal characteristics meriting personal attention.

John Punshon takes the further step of suggesting that such attitudes likely arise from modern Quakers too often operate as a “sustained class and not a sustaining class.” He worries that “The link between the production of wealth which the community can use for socially productive purposes, and the good ideas about what those purposes are, has been severed.”

If Punshon, Powelson, and the historical activity of early Friends have anything to say to Quakers today about the connection between economic understanding and the living out if Christian faith, it is that to ignore or reject the reality in which we find ourselves is to unnaturally isolate ourselves from the practical, ethical, and functional aspects of the religious tradition to which we claim to adhere.

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