My college recently received a large grant to teach courses about capitalism. It was somewhat controversial, as one of the stipulations of the grant was that the writings of Ayn Rand were to be included. There were no strings attached, however, as to how Rand’s writings were to be utilized. Given the college’s Quaker values, faculty teaching the courses have chosen to incorporate writings about the capitalists and “captains of industry” who were informed by philosophies slightly different, shall I say, from Rand’s.
One such source is Deborah Cadbury’s recent book Chocolate Wars, in which this descendant of the Quaker Cadbury cocoa magnates of England makes the case for a very different capitalism than that described so devastatingly by Karl Marx in his critique of the 19th century Industrial Revolution. Informed by the Hebrew prophets, Christian teachings, and Quaker testimonies, chocolateers such as the Cadburys, Frys, Rowntrees, and Terrys amassed wealth through hard work, integrity, quality, and focus but did so not so much for personal gain as for the good of the community. Workers were provided health care, education, worship opportunities, planned communities in which to live, and safe working environments. This pattern was typical of other “non-conformist” religious entrepreneurs such as Sir Titus Salt and Andrew Carnegie.
As these “enlightened entrepreneurs” read their Bible, they recognized that the prophets railed against those who “ground the poor under their heels” and “lay on beds of ivory while others suffered.” They recognized that Jesus spoke a great deal about money and wealth (”Mammon, how I love ya; how I love ya,” as one of my seminary professors once described it!), and that he was not all that keen on the accumulation of wealth at the expense of the good of the whole or of the state of ones soul!
The Quaker default setting on issues such as economics is often the 18th century Quaker John Woolman, whose essay A Plea for the Poor is a stinging critique of the misapplication of power and wealth in oppressing others for ones own personal gain. His opposition to slavery included such an analysis, and he is famous for making the connection between our economics and war, noting in his essay that we ought to examine our own lifestyles and holdings to see whether the “seeds of war” lie in our possessions.
Economics certainly are a religious concern. Just tune into any “Gospel of wealth” TV preacher these days - or any of their telethons; and, by the way, give some attention to whom they support politically! But somehow I don’t think that when Jesus spoke of how difficult it is for camels to struggle through a needle’s eye, and compared it with the impact of wealth on people’s spiritual lives, he meant “Send me your life’s savings, and my guess is that you’ll win the Lottery!” Rather, he seemed more interested in “seeking first the reign of G-d,” described vividly in the Sermon on the Mount, and not being “anxious” about amassing wealth. But if one did, by hard work or luck, they should share it with “the least of these” and “give when someone asks.”
Max Carter | Sep 28, 2011 8:53 PM