Quakers, Politics, and Economics (Quakers and the Disciplines, Volume 5)

Edited by David R. Ross and Michael T. Snarr. Friends Association for Higher Education, 2018. 398 pages. $19.95/paperback; $9.95/eBook.

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Friends Association for Higher Education has taken on a big challenge with their fifth volume in the series Quakers and the Disciplines, which is titled Quakers, Politics, and Economics. The topic is vast to start with (the historical range is from the mid-1600s to the present), and the format is 16 essays from about as many viewpoints. It’s not surprising that such a collection struggles to hang together, and has its high and low points.

The first two sections provide a delightful, if scattered, opportunity to learn answers to questions I had never thought to ask. How did early Quakers’ strong values and exclusion from politics, education, and the professions set them up to create a business network and ethic that helped fuel the Industrial Revolution? And how did laws that shifted business ownership from partnerships to jointly held corporations, starting in the mid-1800s, contribute to their decline?

More broadly, what are the implications for society as a whole when an economy is centered around capital rather than the people who do the work (viewed through a comparison of U.S. and Nordic economies)? How might our Quaker faith and practice of hearing many voices to discern a right way forward become a resource for our economies?

The section on contributions and challenges of Quaker organizations offers a sobering view of valiant efforts by Friends organizations over the past century to address economic injustice. First is an essay on bringing American Friends Service Committee’s (AFSC) experience of feeding the desperately poor in Europe after World War I into the coalfields of West Virginia. Their experience and competence attracted federal attention and economic development resources, but the challenges of maintaining Quaker values while running government programs were great, and their biggest successes seemed extremely local.

The story of the tenacious attention given by Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) to address poverty and economic injustice since 1949 details enormous effort over many decades. The overall result (helping to stem some of the tide of conservative attacks on antipoverty measures) leads to the author’s disquieting question of whether Congress should be our focal point in this struggle. The efforts of the Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO) on the issue of small arms trading, as well as on the issue of financing for development, paint a picture of Quaker work in the ponderous process of UN consensus building over several decades. Here is more work that seems totally worth doing, yet with impact that is barely noticeable from the outside.

The essay on Right Sharing of World Resources (RSWR) traces the development of a newly crystalized inspiration among Friends in the late 1960s to address global wealth inequality. The original goal of mobilizing throughout the reach of Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC) to challenge governments and individuals in the developed world to share resources more generously and systematically has been steadily scaled back. Now a small independent Quaker nonprofit, RSWR provides a wonderful vehicle for right sharing for the individuals and Friends meetings and churches it reaches, but the big picture goals seem ever farther out of reach.

This whole section illustrates both the faithful and unflagging commitment on the part of many Friends, working from a wide variety of angles to address the stubborn challenge of making an impact in the face of powerful and intransigent forces that perpetuate injustice.

The section on historical engagement by Friends seems wildly random at first glance. What could a conflict among Hicksite Friends in the 1830s around engaging with economic issues have in common with the tension between South African Friends and AFSC in the more recent struggle to end apartheid? Yet there is a shared theme: how can work to create a more just world be a natural and necessary extension of our faith, and when does this work pull us too far from our religious roots? It was interesting to find myself in sympathy with the activists in one case and the protectors of faith values in the other.

I found the final section on contributions from prominent Quakers a less successful mix. In the essays on Lucretia Mott and Kenneth and Elise Boulding, I would have valued less generalized biographies and more attention to their economic and political contributions. Kenneth Boulding, in particular, was a seminal thinker in our understanding of the economic system as totally contained within a finite biosphere. His clear statement in the 1960s on the need to make a seismic shift from a “cowboy” mentality, with its assumption of limitless frontiers, to a “spaceship” mentality, where an appreciation of limits is central, provided a compelling perspective that is critical for finding our way into the future. How could all this be missing from such a volume?

Heading back in time, I appreciated the attention given to John Woolman, particularly the essay on economics and “A Feeling Knowledge” of “the Connection of Things.” I see Woolman’s willingness to examine the world around him, listen for the Spirit in all things, look for connections, follow chains of oppression, and steadfastly promote unpopular but ethically rooted conclusions, as a model for all of us for all time. (I found less compelling the attempt in the second essay to show that his analysis was incomplete by twenty-first-century standards.)

The editors would have chosen well to conclude with Keith Helmuth’s probing and far-reaching essay on John Bellers, whose seminal work was published back in 1695. Helmuth opens his piece with Kenneth Boulding’s discussion of the evolutionary potential of Quakerism. He frames the perfectionism and experimentalism that Boulding found so compelling in Quakerism as “an ongoing quest for right relationship” and suggests that Bellers was engaged in just such a quest.

Bellers’s analysis of power and wealth and his proposals for reform—including social investment on behalf of the poor, national healthcare, and solutions for a cooperative unification of Europe—were prescient. As the inspiration for the whole cooperative movement, his contribution has been enormous. Helmuth notes that wealth and privilege are clamping down on resources again in the present, bringing challenges not only to human communities but this time to Earth’s whole commonwealth of life. He concludes, “There is clarity and staying power in the Quaker heritage that we can bring to this task.”

Knowingly or unknowingly, we all play a role in the economic and political life of our times. Those early Quakers who were just doing their best to make an honorable living may have had as significant an impact as those who have striven mightily for change since. Perhaps the moral is that the attempt to live in right relationship to politics and economy is one that we will not finish, but is not ours to lay down.

This volume provides the opportunity to look at these issues through many eyes, over the course of Quaker history. I hope it informs many students of economic and political history and thought.

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