Three memories from the time when I was about ten are swirling together in the same container. In the first, my father, who was a professor of Economics, would get my help in creating his multiple choice tests. He would ask me a test question, I would say whatever seemed logical to me, and that would be one of the choices. I was proud to be of use, and proud that my ideas, whether "correct" or not, were treated with respect. Then there was the time when my mother and I noticed the "do not incinerate" warning on an aerosol can and, faced with the disposal choices of incinerator or compost pile, wrote a note explaining our dilemma and sent the can back to the company. I had the right to think, to question the standard way of doing things, and to act. And I’ll never forget that winter Sunday morning when, looking out the window during meeting for worship, I grew vividly aware of the great range of color in what I had previously thought of as uniform brown—and then an older Friend rose to give a message including that same insight. I was jolted out of my private and separate existence, caught up in a larger reality that included us all.
Fast forward about 50 years, and I’m sweating it out at the 2009 FGC Gathering. I’d thought I’d found my rhythm there, found my place. For years now, I’d spent the week working with Junior Gathering, helping a group of 9- to 11-year-olds experience the joys of living lightly on the planet. They exercised their creativity in an environment full of natural materials, trash, and hand tools; they played using their bodies and what they could make; they worship- shared on what we love, what we need, what costs money, and what separates us; and they considered their relationship to equally creative and playful children around the world. This, I had discovered, I could do. I also knew that I could think confidently and critically about economic issues, locate inconsistencies in the system, and ask the big questions. But how to engage grownups, in an interest group at the Gathering on faith and economics?
As callings go, this was a clear one. When a friend, on a quest to get adults to go through the same process of discernment that we ask of our young conscientious objectors, challenged me to write my own statement of conscience, I tried to think about war but what kept bubbling to the top was economics. I conscientiously opposed the systemization of greed. I conscientiously opposed corporate plundering of our common resources for profit. I conscientiously opposed the idolatry of materialism. I had been quietly passionate about economics and ecology since my childhood, but realized that spring that I needed to come out more publicly, and bring this concern to other Friends as widely as I knew how. One step was going to the FGC website, and there I discovered that the next day was the deadline for proposing interest groups. I signed up.
But what would I say? What would we do? As I reflected on everything that had brought me to this point, I saw that my experience with the statement of conscience would be a good opener. Then the rest of my introduction started to flow:
Generals, along with politicians, claim to be the experts about what will bring peace and security—and they advise us to leave the matter in their experienced and knowledgeable hands. Boldly, we say "No!" We say that their expertise is based in flawed assumptions, and can never get us to peace. Even though we’ve never known a world without war, we hold fast to our deepest beliefs, and say that killing people is wrong. We are confident, outspoken, tenacious, passionate and engaged.
In the same way, economists, along with politicians, claim to be the experts about what will bring prosperity, and advise us to leave the matter in their experienced and knowledgeable hands. Meekly, we have said, "Okay. It all seems really complicated and you sound as if you know what you’re talking about, so we cede that whole territory to you." We can do better. We can say "No!" We can say that their expertise is based on flawed assumptions that can never get the world to prosperity. Even though we’ve never known an economic system that works for everybody, we hold to our deepest beliefs—that greed is not the source of well-being, and that unbridled growth comes at the expense of the planet’s integrity. We are confident, outspoken, tenacious, passionate, and engaged.
I thought of a few more things to say. There’s that telling quote at the beginning of Right Relationship; Toward a Whole Earth Economy: "It is easier to imagine the destruction of life as we know it than a different economic system. This is a lethal failure of the imagination, and an indication of how much the system has us in thrall."
There are also models among early Friends—who may have been helped by the fact that they had no competition from professional economists back then. John Woolman contends, in his Plea for the Poor, that it isn’t right for poor people (and animals) to work long hours and tire themselves out so that others might have luxuries that only separate them from God. Earlier than that, William Penn, not known particularly for his writings on economics, had this to say: "That the sweat and tedious labour of the farmer, early and late, cold and hot, wet and dry, should be converted into the pleasure of a small number of men . . . is so far from the will of the great Governor of the world, . . . [it] is wretched and blasphemous." While we are dealing with economics, we are also dealing with simplicity, equality, integrity, community, idolatry, blasphemy, and separation from God.
I had my introduction. I had some queries and values questions. I was as ready as I was going to be. Now the question was whether, in the richness of offerings at that time slot in the Gathering, anybody would show up.
When the first four people arrived, I was satisfied. It was enough. Then more and more people kept coming, filling up the convenient chairs, then the inconvenient ones, then the spaces in between. We were 40 by the end.
After my introduction, we spent most of our time in small groups. I tried to design the queries to get at what makes it hard to claim the relationship between faith and economics: What do you see as that relationship? Where do our beliefs and values engage with the production and distribution of goods and services and the management of wealth? What questions and confusions do we have that make it hard to see these connections and act faithfully in relation to economics? What would encourage us to live and act in the full power of our faith in relationship to our economic system?
With the values questions, I tried to nudge us toward applying our thinking and beliefs to big economic questions: Who or what is the economy for? How big is too big? What’s fair? Who should decide? What constitutes wealth? What do we measure? Who gets to own what? What about the future?
As I circulated among the small groups, I was struck by how deeply engaged everyone was. People were hungry for these conversations. The final sharing when we all crammed back together was the same. There were deeply felt convictions, big questions, strong beliefs about what is right, and a need to learn more. We felt called to act. I had a similar experience with an interest group using a similar format at Philadelphia Yearly Meeting sessions later in the summer. It was a great honor both times to create the container for such passionate sharing, and to realize that such a container was exactly what was needed.
I have a sense, from this experience and just keeping my ear to the ground, that we are poised on the brink of something new. It may be time, and we may be ready, to join Woolman and Penn as economists by virtue of our faith, to wade into the public arena armed with our understandings of Gospel order and our experience of living our testimonies. Our economic system needs all the thoughtful critique and intervention it can get, and this includes the wisdom of the ten-year-olds, the innocents and the faithful, who are good at identifying truth in the midst of data, and reminding us of what really matters.