The Right Use of Money

Money has always caused Christians—and modern Quakers—a host of problems. We all know some version of the injunction from Paul: "For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith" (1 Tim. 6:10). One of our key testimonies, Simplicity, seems to guide us toward a life that minimizes the use of money or other worldly concerns.

Our meetinghouses don’t have fancy steeples, we don’t take up collections, and we don’t support a professional clergy. Or do we? American Friends Service Committee, Friends Committee on National Legislation, and Friends World Committee for Consultation are all part of the Quaker religious bureaucracy where legions of functionaries do Quakerly deeds throughout the world. And they all run on money. A lot of it.

In fact, we live in a world where money is ubiquitous. Everything we do involves money. The goods and services that make our homes function are purchased with money. The income from our labors is in the form of an electronic paycheck—denominated in money. And we all save money for crises, to purchase a home, to send children to school, and to support ourselves in old age.

It is not clear whether we love it or hate it, but, without money, modern life is impossible. This is a huge change since the beginning of Quakerism and an even larger change since the origins of the Christian faith. Just a couple of hundred years ago, most people lived in a world where goods and services were still distributed by custom, habit, or consensual agreement. Most goods and services were still made inside the household, produced according to a strict gender- and age-specified division of labor. Wage or salaried labor was unusual, not the norm. Money existed, of course, but it was used largely for goods that were traded across long distances, for purchasing luxuries, and for investments in large business enterprises. If you used a lot of money back then, you were clearly not living simply.

Thus it was easy to view money as an interference with a day-to-day spiritual life. In the circumstances of early Friends, concern for money seemed to be a clear indicator that a life was focused on worldly issues rather than on right behavior and the Inner light. The tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, although not written by a Quaker, is still a powerful reminder of the social and spiritual perils of the love of money.

But the world was moving in a direction that would exalt the role of money, and today these old cautions and suspicions about money make little or no sense. It was not just modern technology and modern markets that gave us our money-centered world; we actually have Quakers to thank for the change. Quaker businesses helped invent modern retailing, the finance industry, and many early forms of factory production. Each of these enterprises replaced handmade goods made in the household with manufactured goods exchanged for money. Surprisingly, some of the most important economic philosophers who shaped the creation of a money-structured world, particularly David Ricardo in the 19th century and Kenneth Boulding in the 20th century, were Quakers.

Let’s stop for a minute and think about what money really is. What we call money is not a thing at all, but three different activities. Of course, there is actual money: the coins, greenbacks, checks, and debit cards that we use for daily exchanges in the marketplace. There is also money income: the flow from productive activities that allows us to purchase the consumption goods necessary for ordinary life. Finally, there is money wealth: productive property in terms of stocks and bonds and pensions and annuities that sustain us through emergencies and into old age.

So what does money do for us? It makes life more impersonal and more equal. That is, it is very liberating. No longer are goods delivered at the goodwill of the family patriarch. They are for sale. No longer are you indentured for five years to learn a trade. You pay for a college education. And a money-based market will sell to anybody, regardless of social standing, as long as you have the money. You don’t have to know or like the person who is selling to you and they don’t have to know or like you. The exchange will still take place.

Equality is important to us. The easy part of equality is recognizing that people are equal in spite of gender, racial, and ethnic differences. We spend a lot of time as Quakers reminding ourselves of the gifts of different people from different backgrounds. But when we get to equality and economics, new prejudices rise to the surface. We actually say what we are thinking:

  • If only Jacob had applied himself in school, he would be better off today.
  • If Rebecca were harder working, then she’d get ahead.
  • James needs to find himself before things will get better.

And what is it we think they are lacking? Is it a spiritual foundation, a path toward right living? Rarely. We are usually talking about an inability to earn an appropriate amount of money. And so now we come to the love of money.

Well, as it turns out, in one important sense the Bible was just plain wrong. Money is what makes the world possible in an industrial or service economy. Money buys growth and money buys the ecological repairs when that growth destroys parts of the world. But most importantly and very surprisingly, money makes equality and simplicity possible.

When we see inequalities between people, we know the solution is to tax away the excesses from the rich and/or to invest in schooling, healthcare, and nutrition for the poor. In order that the elderly will no longer live lives of despair, we transfer wealth from producers (either in terms of Social Security or interest from investments) to the non-producers (as rewards for productivity earlier in life). Money makes these transfers possible. Money allows society to take from the rich without engaging in Robin Hood-like activities (distinctly unquakerly behaviors). Money allows both public and private transfers to those in need without the burdensome oversight of some authorities who think they know what and how you should get the necessities of life.

We all know Quakers who live a simple life through voluntary poverty. But we also know what real, involuntary poverty is like. That kind of poverty forces one to live with criminality, with lack of medical care, with substandard housing, and with low-quality food. Simplicity, the ability to lead an intentional and directed life, is very different from that. It requires that these components of real poverty are mostly absent. Money turns out to be the lubricant for simplicity, just as it is for equality, because it allows its possessor to make good, spiritual choices.

Money-based societies have destroyed old-fashioned, self-sustaining communities; that’s true. Quakers cherish the Testimony of Community, but where is that community if the worth of people is measured by their incomes, and if the worth of goods and services is measured by their prices? How alienating a money-based society seems to be at times! We feel that people who are successful in business, sports, or entertainment must be wiser than the rest of us. Why? They make more money. And money is seen to measure merit. We both mourn and take evil delight when the mighty, like Kenneth Lay of Enron or Bernard Ebbers of MCI/WorldCom, fall from grace. They weren’t so great after all, we think to ourselves. But deep down inside, we still feel that they were great, because they had more money than the rest of us. Clearly, that represents the dark side of money-based society.

So it is clear that love of money can easily turn to idolatry. If your worth is tied up in the amounts of money you can accumulate and spend, you tend to forget that money, like the land, is something that we should care for, or nurture, not something that we own. If you use money to exercise power over others, to demean others, or to force them to follow your will, you are using a valuable resource to break the spirit of another being. And in today’s world, these activities are all too frequently the stories of business and government in our daily press.

What we really need is a temperance movement for money. How do we use it responsibly? After all, unlike liquor, you cannot ban the use of money. And for Quakers in this instant, as in so many others, wisdom tends to come from listening to that still, quiet voice. A leading for the use of money is what it takes to not use it foolishly. The rules are neither new nor onerous:

  • Earn a money income responsibly. Find a work activity that is distant from war or environmental destruction. Try to make the work environment fair and democratic for all who work with you.
  • Spend money on the basics. The idea is not to deny the manufacturer and the retailer a generous living, but to shape their delivery of goods or services to the market with goods that enhance life.
  • Invest money not only for your future but for the planet’s future. Most of us plan to live in old age on accumulated wealth. The productivity of that investment needs to bring a peaceful and ecologically improved world.

Money in biblical times was something unusual. Camels, sheep, and the tools used in vineyards and fields were productive. Ownership of these things meant survival. Today, that role is represented by money. Today it is the hording of things that money buys that causes us problems, especially spiritually. Using money, income, or wealth to make the economy work is not the problem. People used to horde money (gold or silver) to show their richness; today we horde our possessions—the clothes, electronic gimmicks, houses. They are meant to make us feel secure. But they place us in a noisy world, cluttered with goods and closed off from nature. How do we get away from such spiritually negative aspects of the material world? It takes the right use of money—like everything else in the modern world, you have to buy your way out.

Vaudeville singer Sophie Tucker was right when she said: "I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor; rich is better." It doesn’t sound very Quakerly, but it is probably closer to the way we have acted over the past 300 years. Money is the invention of the modern world that makes the dreams of the past possible. It is a powerful motivator. Of course it is not the point of life; it is a mere lubricant. But without that lubricant, the testimonies of Quakers—like our industrial machinery—would grind to a halt.

David H. Ciscel

David H. Ciscel, a member of Memphis (Tenn.) Meeting, is a professor of Economics at University of Memphis.

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