As Friends and as a people of faith, we walk a narrow tightrope between using wealth as a means to bring light and life into the world and allowing it to become a snare. The snare can draw us into a prison of world and wealth centeredness, or can trap us into such self-imposed poverty that we rely on the wealth of others to live. Friends at the beginning of the 21st century would do well to examine how we maintain a healthy relationship with wealth. Almost all of our national and international Quaker organizations are reducing their staffs due to lack of funds and, consequently, limiting their effectiveness. Many of our meetings are deferring maintenance of meetinghouses and finding it difficult to give financial support to members in need.
Perhaps some 21st century liberal Friends have fallen into the cultural norm of believing that wealth somehow belongs to us individually, that we earn it and need to guard it carefully. Other Friends have built up essentially no wealth at all, having chosen to live with very little money as a matter of principle, often to avoid paying federal taxes as a gesture of war tax resistance. Neither of these groups of Friends treat wealth as a gift from God, a gift from their neighbors, and a gift from the universe – a gift that is meant to be given away as freely as it is received.
Our Quaker ancestors faced these same challenges – the human impulse to hoard wealth and the moral person’s wish to avoid the dangers of wealth. To help them face these challenges, they sought guidance in the Bible.
From the earliest days, Friends have been concerned with the malicious effects of wealth, being acutely aware of this warning from Luke: You cannot serve both God and money. Here is George Fox in an epistle from 1656:
. . . take heed of setting your hearts upon [your riches], lest they become a curse and a plague to you. For when . . . [your customers] saw ye were faithful and just in things, and righteous and honest in your tradings and dealings, then they came to have commerce and trade with you the more, because they know ye will not cheat them. Then ye came to have greater trading, double than ye ever had, and more than the world. But there is the danger and temptation to you, of drawing your minds into your business, and clogging them with it; so that ye can hardly do any thing to the service of God but there will be crying “My business, my business;” and so therein ye do not come into the image of God.
John Woolman took this message to heart. Finding that he was a good businessman and prospering, he resolved to take up a simpler trade and practice it only to the extent that he could provide for his family and for his travels in the ministry. He chose to wear simple garments as a statement about more equitable distribution of wealth and against the exploitation of slaves and other laborers. Famously, when visiting slaveholders and served by slaves, he paid his hosts from his own pocket the estimate of the wages the slaves should have been paid for their service. Such actions were not statements about voluntary poverty. They were Woolman’s natural expression of a life dedicated to equality.
Perhaps from a misunderstanding of Woolman’s principles or from the history of war tax resistors and their lives of near-poverty, acquiring any kind of wealth seems to be considered shameful among many contemporary Friends. Those who do have funds at their disposal, which might be sufficient to support our various Quaker institutions generously, are reluctant to admit this, since such wealth has become a cause for shame.
Our Quaker ancestors viewed the dangers of wealth more subtly than Quakers do today. Turning again to Luke, our ancestors would find this advice:
Anyone who is trustworthy in little things is trustworthy in great; anyone who is dishonest in little things is dishonest in great. If then you are not trustworthy with money – that tainted thing – who will trust you with genuine riches? – Luke 16:10-11
Margaret Fell certainly was trustworthy with that tainted thing, using it to finance the early Quaker movement. Without her family money, we Friends would not exist today. George Fox welcomed William Penn and other wealthy Quakers into the movement and was happy to have some of their wealth available to support traveling ministries and publications, and to help relieve the suffering of incarcerated and impoverished Friends. In later centuries, wealthy Friends helped finance the abolitionist movement, the Underground Railroad, the women’s suffrage movement, and other important movements for social and political change. Had it not been for the financial support of moneyed Friends, we would not now still be basking in the fading afterglow of the Nobel Peace Prize given to Friends in Britain and the U.S. after World War II.
A few years ago, my wife Jane and I attended a Mennonite Church fundraiser for Christian Peace Teams. The event included a performance by a political comedy theater group and a pie auction. The sale of homemade pies raised $11,000! Pies were eagerly bid up to $300 each. Everybody went home happy. We did not notice fancier cars or dress among these Mennonites than we would see among a gathering of Quakers. Similarly, Evangelical Friends in Northwest Yearly Meeting raise large amounts of money each year among themselves for missionary and service work abroad. What is the difference? Perhaps it has something to do with the concept of “God’s money.” Angelina, our friend in Guatemala who is a Mayan spiritual guide tells us that one of the four pillars of her ancestral faith is that “everything is a gift.” As such it is to be accepted gratefully, and held lightly. Perhaps we liberal Friends view money too narrowly as “ours” and hold onto it too tightly.
We seem also to carry a great fear of being asked for money, and a greater fear of asking for it. Among liberal Friends, asking directly for money is almost as dirty a concept as proselytizing. About the most that we can tolerate is an occasional, vague, after-worship announcement, directed at no one in particular, that there is a donation box on the table.
These fears of ours are tragic. They not only stunt us practically, they stunt us spiritually. Asking and giving are both powerful, God-given ministries. These ministries involve skills that we can learn, develop, and practice, just as with other gifts of the Spirit, as we strive to become better and more faithful servants. Let us learn to live wisely and generously with money, that tainted thing, for the glory of the One who sends us forth. ~~~
Joe Snyder is a member of Multnomah Monthly Meeting (NPYM). He spent thirty years as an isolated Friend while practicing veterinary medicine in rural Oregon. Recently, he has been learning about fund-raising for Quaker Voluntary Service and the Quaker Guatemala Scholarship Program (PROGRESA). He is also engaged in a personal struggle and discernment about right relationship with wealth.