The Quaker Points Game

Most of us play it semi-consciously, in our heads and rarely out loud. We think to ourselves, She drives a Prius; that is good, and we give her some positive points in our head. He came to work day, and that is really good—give him two points. A wonderful, rich, homemade chocolate cake for potluck: extra good, and we give her five extra points for that because we really love that chocolate cake and hope she brings it every week! Here are some more examples of what will earn you points in what I call the Quaker Points Game:

  • You serve on more than one committee in your meeting.
  • You live simply and drive an old car (or a hybrid).
  • You have gone to one or more protests in the last year.
  • As a man, you wear a beard.
  • You compost and keep a garden.

Check, check, check! In this game, we give out and collect points for these things, keeping a mental tally in order to determine who is a “good Quaker.” Some believe that you are a really good Quaker if you satisfy any of the following:

  • You have solar panels on your roof.
  • You are a vegetarian.
  • You are a clerk or are willing to teach First-day school (huge points for either activity).
  • You keep chickens.

I’ve noticed among the Quakers I know that we generally agree on what behaviors or activities make someone a good Quaker or really good Quaker. These positive-point-earning items tend to be fairly easy to see and to check off on a list in our head.

There are good Quakers and there are . . . uh oh, what do we call the others besides “bad”? Maybe “not-good-yet”? How about “still-evolving” or “questionable” Quakers? If we’re awarding positive points, then we must be giving out negative points as well—ouch! But we don’t want to go there. We really do not like to look at our own dark sides or to acknowledge how making such general judgments may marginalize members of our faith community. But what if we did examine some of the stereotypes of what makes someone a “bad Quaker”?

  • You smoke cigarettes. It’s bad for your health, the environment, kids, and the world—negative five points.
  • You drive a fancy car. Definitely minus points for this; it’s not in following with the simplicity testimony. But is it negative four points for driving a BMW and negative six for a Cadillac or vice versa? We will need to have a meeting to find clearness on just how many for what kind of car.
  • You own or carry a handgun or feel support for the National Rifle Association and their lobby. Guns are dangerous and are used to kill people—negative ten points for handguns.
  • You own a business. Business is “them,” and capitalism is an evil machine controlling the world and our politicians. Off-the-scale minus points!

I’d like to investigate the last point more since I am a business owner and have felt the shame related to identifying myself as such within a Quaker context. A recent example of how poorly Quakers regard business people occurred at the 2014 Friends General Conference Gathering at California University of Pennsylvania this past summer. While attending the conference, I noticed a number of yard signs posted around campus that were part of a campaign called Karma Shave—modeled after the Burma-Shave (a brand of men’s shaving cream) roadside ad campaigns that became familiar in the 1950s and ’60s—a collection of “wisdom sayings” meant to inspire and provoke Friends. (This was not the first year the Karma Shave signs were present at Gathering.) However, some of the messages on the signs were bluntly critical of those in business. There was one series that made sweeping generalizations about greedy, evil bankers, and there was another displaying a poem that implies those who wear business suits are somehow not like Jesus: “Beware the TV Preacher / With Fame and Power to boot / ’Cause Jesus never wore / A fancy Business Suit.” This kind of exclusionary language goes against the Quaker belief of finding God in each person.

Friends also believe and recognize that diversity is important, even essential, for an open and healthy Friends community. Therefore, we should know that it doesn’t make us stronger to speak in terms that single out any group for ridicule or shaming. I and two others in the Quakers and Business Group (Lee Rada and Riley Robinson) have since written a letter to FGC’s Gathering Committee expressing our thoughts on the matter and asking the committee to consider the effect these sorts of derogatory messages have on members of the Religious Society of Friends and to consider excluding those signs from future Gatherings.

Responding to such put-downs of business is just one action we can do to change Quaker views and perceptions of the business community. I am currently following a leading to do just that. My goal is to shift our Society’s beliefs about having or earning money from viewing it as something evil to better understanding how money and business can be another tool with which to do God’s work. This is how I view my own work: as Spirit-led. There are amazing Quakers making changes inside of business—that is what Quaker business people do! We do it our own way, and we do good while we do business.

To accomplish this vision, Friends need to be able to talk about money and business freely and without judgment. Many business-owning Friends I know feel alienated by their meetings and so no longer attend. This is sad. I am unusual in that I do both: own a business and attend meeting. The four actions I’m working on as part of my leading are as follows:

  1. Respond to put-downs of business personally, individually, and directly. Speak up when one Friend unfairly judges another based on perceived negative assumptions about a profession.
  2. Share positive stories about Quaker businesses and point out how they are good and different from the norm—something I hope this new department in Friends Journal will encourage. (The success of the Occupy movement within our group illustrates how challenging it is to voice the positive attributes we have as ethical business people.)
  3. Educate our youth about what we do by teaching the history of Friends in business and sharing current examples of good businesses. (Quakers have such a bad opinion of business that we actively discourage our youth from exploring entrepreneurship. One young Friend I spoke with at the Gathering said he would “rather be a communist than a business owner because we should all be treated the same.”)
  4. Encourage and help one another who are in business. We must begin to be more accepting of different vocations so our Society can grow in numbers and diversity. (Historically a monthly meeting would oversee the business of its members by setting up committees to assist with finances, mentor young people, arrange apprenticeships, and help to overcome various setbacks. Today, most meetings offer emotional and spiritual support, but unfortunately no longer view business as the spiritual practice that it can be.)

Maybe the Quaker Points Game is pointless. Why judge a person—explicitly or implicitly—by the job he has or the car she drives? Sometimes we turn good people away with our generalized negative judgments of what we think is bad. The Light is found in even the strangest of places, and we need to be open to it in everyone, including those Friends in business.

Author chat with Richard:

Richard House

Richard House has rehabbed and rented properties in Cincinnati, Ohio, for the past 24 years. Past and present workers include Friends (both young and not-so-young), as well as ex-felons. He currently serves on Friends General Conference’s Development Committee in addition to committees at his local meeting, Community Meeting in Cincinnati.

18 thoughts on “The Quaker Points Game

  1. Historically, Quaker business owners were sought out by the community for their integrity and fairness and were very well respected and successful:

    During this time, other people began to recognize Quakers for their integrity in social and economic matters. Many Quakers went into manufacturing or commerce, because they were not allowed to earn academic degrees at that time. These Quaker businessmen were successful, in part, because people trusted them. The customers knew that Quakers felt a strong conviction to set a fair price for goods and not to haggle over prices. They also knew that Quakers were committed to quality work, and that what they produced would be worth the price.

  2. I think it is fundamentally wrong to judge what is a good or bad Quaker; this is a less invasive form of prejudice. People don’t always conform to your norms or expectations.You can’t always tell what is in a person’s heart by what they do (such as drive a fancy car) any more than you can say that because a person has dark skin they must be bad. One of the biggest lessons in a “World Host” workshop I took recently was to never pre-judge a customer- it could be that the neatly and expensively dressed man won’t touch your things for sale but the scruffy, dirty guy who looks like a drug dealer might be the one to be your best customer. Judgment is just another form of your Ego trying to make you look superior to everyone else.

  3. We support Mr. House’s leading “to change Quaker…perceptions of the business community,” but we are concerned about the “sharp stick in the eye” tone of his essay. The Quaker way to change is to assume a positive leadership stance with a clear sense of our shared values and a conscious striving to see the Light in each of us.
    Much has been said about the strong business ethics of past Quakers. Before anyone tries to rekindle those wonderful stories, current business Quakers (which also include my spouse and me) need to step up and show the strength and power of their living Light. Staying away from Meeting or avoiding taking on the constructive challenges of inappropriate comments is not showing the community your Light. We feel strongly that any real or perceived slights can be discussed within our communities and decisions can be made about how to move forward, as long as we do so by patiently listening together until we perceive the guidance reflected in the unanimity of the shared Light.
    Quakers, at least in recent history, seem to have turned more risk averse and less willing to confront concerns within our Meetings than have our predecessors. We believe Mr. House’s leading to change Quaker perceptions of the business people among us can be realized–and perhaps can serve as a foundation for also addressing other concerns that we have swept under the proverbial rug.

  4. I was pleased to see Richard House’s reflections and comments. I agree that we have a tendency to “keep score” on others, which can only be damaging. I am probably not the only Quaker who also keeps score on herself! Am I Quaker enough? The world would probably be better served if I focused my energy on living my faith rather than on monitoring how many check-marks I can give myself, or how many demerits I’m racking up.

    I, too, was at the FGC Gathering this summer, although I did not see the particular Karma Shave signs mentioned in House’s article. Business is a necessity. Somebody has to do it, or how would the rest of us have what we need to live and move in the world? It’s not a matter of whether someone is in business, but HOW they conduct their business. It’s all too easy to lose sight of this distinction and vilify the very existence of business. We need to be more careful with our thinking and with what we teach our children. Hopefully we could actually encourage some of them to pursue ethical careers in business, and spend some of their profits on our under-funded social causes.

    Just as we don’t throw out all business with money-grubbing business, let’s keep the Karma Shave signs but be more judicious with their messages. They are like queries as we walk from one venue to another. And for those of us “of a certain age,” they bring back fond memories.

  5. I am reminded of some graffiti I encountered years ago that has always stuck with me.
    First Writer: “People who make value judgements are sick.”
    Second Writer: “People who don’t make value judgements are dead.”

    We inevitably make value judgements simply as a condition of living, but the issue is what we do with those. In order to distinguish a good job from a bad job we must make a judgement. That should point towards fixing what is broken and working towards a better world.

    It seems to me that the problem is in applying judgements where they don’t belong. Referencing the Karma Shave example, have there been unscrupulous preachers who wore suits? Of course. Does that mean all preachers are bad or that all suits indicate unscrupulous preachers? Of course not. Similarly we might acknowledge that a certain member makes a very good chocolate cake without also assuming they must be a good First Day School teacher or a “good Quaker”.

    We ought to be mature enough, emotionally and spiritually to recognize and accept all the diversity within individuals and meetings so we can celebrate what is good and assist the not-so-good to be better. And the mix of all that incredible expression is part of what makes this divine creation so rich.

    By way of full disclosure, I’ve worked in business most of my life from repair work to management and now have a one-man business in semi-retirement.

  6. I think there is a huge difference between a small business and multinational conglomerate. From what I understand, we are psychologically capable of treating a group of ~200 people as practically-family or good-friends but beyond that it gets fuzzy. In a small business, that works out fine. When you run a company with tens of thousands of employees, you can’t avoid becoming distanced from the people on the factory floor. The company I work for recently went from a few hundred to tens of thousands (bought out), and the change is pretty obvious to everyone here.

    And I think that’s a point that maybe gets lost in talk of evil capitalists. Generally, when my socialist side comes out, I’m referring to Walmart and other megacorps that pay their CEOs millions while paying employees minimum wage. The potter I get mugs and plates from is an artisan, not an evil capitalist. The shepherds I buy yarn from? Farmers, getting by, not evil capitalists. There needs to be some evil (hoarding money at the top and underpaying workers, for example) to qualify as an evil capitalist. So, I, at least, probably don’t mean you.

    As someone who has attempted to start a business before (turns out, people won’t pay a decent wage for hand knit goods when sweatshop goods have distorted their idea of a fair price), I have thought a bunch about ethics on that front. And I’m trying another one again, with a different niche, still not a high profit area (hand made items rarely are). But I am pretty firmly in disagreement with the idea that, if my products were in high demand, I should charge “as much as the market will bear.” If charging X per hour will allow me to achieve median income, then I should charge X. Charging more would just make it yet another class marker to able to afford the product, and I think we need to be breaking down those class lines. Ideally, we should all be able to afford to buy ethically made goods from each other, but that can only happen if income inequality is destroyed and we are all truly earning what it takes to get by.

  7. I don’t know ANYONE who owns a hangun! As for the issue of business, do these ‘bad’ Quakers include members of the Quakers in Business group?

    As far as our local meeting goes, I think most of us make up for our shortcomings by serving on committees (not that some of them meet very often).

  8. in the last couple years, I’ve hear the following statements during committee meetings regarding what is necessary to be a member. (I.e., a good Quaker):
    1. A member must make financial contributions to the Meeting.
    2. A member must serve on committees.
    3. A member must attend Meeting.

    In my 34 years of membership, I have lived in rural areas with no Meetings, lived without time or financial resources to share with Meeting. I have also experienced the opposite, where I could attend Meeting regularly and share my time

  9. Please add this to my other, unfinished comment to finish the thought.
    “On committees as well as financial resources and attend Meeting regularly. Never did I feel less like a welcomed member than when I heard these comments, which ironically, came when I was an active participant in all three areas.

    How can we encourage one another to set aside these superficial habits of judging outlined in this article and comments? Our call is to ‘Walk cheerfully, answering that of God in each person’.

  10. I have worked in non-profits most of my working life. I am clerk of my meeting.

    I will say I think Big Business is usually wrong. Small business is usually right.

    I had a small business for 6 years. It took an incredible amount of time. I felt it robbed me of my time with God. Only because I let it. I then merged my business with a non-profit. I am at peace with God again.

    Valerie Walker Peery

  11. Hello to you all

    I’m one of the Co-Clerks of the Quakers and Business Group (UK), We have 150 members and a 440 member LinkedIn group. We’ve been going for nearly 20 years, in one form or another, and we are delighted to hear about the new Quakers and Business Group (US).
    My message to you is straightforward. KEEP TALKING. We have seen the attitude towards business within the UK Quaker community change bit by bit by bit over the years, and it’s because we’ve raised Friends awareness of what business really means, in all its forms, good and bad. To use an old phrase ‘it’s an education sell!’.
    We’re regularly mentioned in The Friend, the UK weekly Quaker magazine, as are wider business matters.
    Good luck and keep going!

    In Friendship, Liz.

  12. There is definitely a difference between highly capitalized multinational corporations and small local businesses, just as there is between highly centralized imperialistic governments and local towns and counties. One key reason so much of business and government is not humanscale is because fossil fuel energy is so cheap. In fact, it’s about 200 times cheaper (in the usa) than human work.

    I’m reminded of my experience when I took the permaculture design course at the regenerative design institute just north of san francisco. Penny Livingston got all several dozen of us in a big circle and had us make signs for the craft or trade we chose for our livelihood in an eco-village practice game, a thought experiment you might say. So I labeled myself a banker. (And I do know quite a bit about economics and how the systems is supposed to work.)

    It was a lot of fun – some participants looked at me sideways, but there were enough people who were older and had actually been in business, perhaps self-employed, to understand the uses of operating credit and so forth. And as I say, I understood how banking is supposed to work, so I was able to explain to the younger radicals how good banking was a good thing, about the importance of investing in the right things.

    Which brings to mind the topic of divestment from fossil fuels. While fossil fuel investments don’t have a very good longterm prospect, there is still the issue of what to invest in instead, and how to disinvest in actually buying gasoline and so forth in one’s daily life.

  13. My family’s business , the Capon Springs WV resort, was founded by my grandfather with the idea of being ethical and profitable. (it’s a quiet retreat; Friends would enjoy it!) I worked there as land, farm and history manager for 17 years, getting by on a low salary because I received perks such as housing and food.

    The place provides jobs in a beautiful but isolated rural area. Our guests are the nicest people in the world and we don’t want to let them down. Today’s business pressures (including government which over-regulates small and medium businesses and under-regulates huge ones), and the arrival of new generations, are forcing our family to re-examine our business plan.. My cousins who run the resort are trying to do the right things as they steer Capon belatedly into the 21st century. Please hold them in the light.

    For the past 15 years I’ve pursued my writing and music as a sole proprietor, pursuing my interest in blues music and living with low overhead. Now in my 60s, I started my own movie production LLC company in Chicago, ( I’m the recording clerk of our Chicago Friends monthly meeting). Our film “The Rhythm and the Blues” (see website above) tells the story of a family of Mississippi-born blues musicians trying to make it in Chicago. There’s a social justice issue we want to spotlight in the story; emerging African American blues musicians, believe it or not, are facing a music industry which fails to promote them and does promote white imitators.

    We are getting ready for casting sessions in Chicago next month. In order for us get the story out, properly distributed to theaters, broadcasting and internet outlets, I must take the business part seriously. My producing partner and I try to listen often for leadings from our Creator, as well as our own experience and expertise. Please hold us in the light too.

    From rural West Virginia to urban Chicago, small businesses face a tough challenge these days. One of the ways Friends can be more constructive in regard to business, which is one of life’s necessities, is to support those of us who are trying succeed ethically. How can you support us? Just ask your nearest Friendly business person.

  14. Hello,

    I want to respond to your article. While I share what I hear as a value of seeing to the core of people and valuing their humanity (or seeing that of God in them as is said in the Quaker community), I fear that the idea of “not judging people” will get translated into a watering down of the tradition’s emphasis on living with integrity.

    If you are asking me to not judge someone for driving a fancy car, does that mean not feeling anger and grief about that choice? That is a decision that has real impacts on the planet, our fellow living beings, including those most vulnerable to climate change such as people who live on island nations being drowned by climate disruption. Maybe I can let go of my “judgments” of the person and see whatever their needs are: transportation, comfort, beauty and aesthetics, etc.

    But there are ways to meet these needs that have a much lesser painful impact on the world such as bicycles, buses (campaign to make them morecozy!), fuel efficient vehicles, etc. So, I hope that in being asked not to judge folks for choosing to drive a certain car, aren’t being asked to condone it, or to forget why we would judge these things in the first place–legitimate concerns for their impact on the planet.

    Capitalism also has real impacts on the planet. I won’t go into great detail here, but I want to voice that while I think business owners can strive for integrity and sometimes do quite a good job, ultimately I don’t think the capitalist model can support a life-enhancing culture, and making money within it I see as a hold-over measure while working to create something different.

    Thank you for reading.

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