James 2:1–9 or Friends and the rich

Let us consider the 11th Query — I will read these questions, and then keep silence as we consider the answers.

11. Social Conscience-Are you concerned that our economic system shall so function as to sustain and enrich the life of all? Are you giving positive service to society in the promotion of peaceful methods of adjustment in all cases of social and industrial conflict? Do you support efforts which promote a humane criminal justice system and oppose the death penalty? Do you as workers, employers, producers, consumers, and investors endeavor to cultivate good will and mutual understanding in your economic relationship? Do you intelligently exercise all of your constitutional privileges and thus seek to promote Christian influence locally, nationally, and internationally?

(Keep silence for sometime)

These are all nice words, and to me invite the question of not yes or no, but “How?” All of these issues are about wider society, and while there are consumer choices such as “fair trade”, for the most part it is not completely clear what an individual, or even a small group can do to change the world around him. It is good that we consider these nice words, and try to examine ourselves and our conscience. Though I am not sure how to proceed, it is good that I know that we must pray and consider our role in creating a just society.

I think, as we consider the cause of economic justice and injustice, it is very good for us to look at ourselves. As a society, I must say, no we often are not a change for righteousness. If we look at our past history we must admit that as a group we cannot take pride that we followed the nice sayings we wrote.

As you know, back in the 19th century the issue of the day was slavery. Indiana Yearly meeting had this to say about slavery: “As a religious society, we have found it to be our indispensable duty to declare to the world our belief of the repugnancy of slavery to the Christian religion.” The testimony against slavery was tested with their eighth query:

Are Friends careful to bear a testimony against slavery? Do they provide, in a suitable manner, for those under their direction who had their freedom secured, and are they instructed in useful learning?

One would think, with such a clear testimony, which dated back to the 18th century, and was written with these very words in the first decade if the 19th century that Friends would actually cry out that slavery was repugnant. One would think that they, with Woolman would find ways of living outside of the slave economy. History teaches us that in 1838, Friends who honored this testimony were ordered to stop their activities. The Yearly Meeting silenced people who sold non-slave trade goods in free produce stores. In 1843, those Friends who continued to speak about, or work to the end of slavery were removed from Indiana Yearly meeting. This decision was encouraged by other free state Yearly Meetings such as Philadelphia and New England Yearly meeting. Why did Friends set aside their testimony? What good our our words if we do not follow them?

I suggest that we consider scripture when we consider a plan to make good on good words — let me read James 2:1–9

My brothers and sisters, do not show prejudice if you possess faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. 2 For if someone comes into your assembly wearing a gold ring and fine clothing, and a poor person enters in filthy clothes, 3 do you pay attention to the one who is finely dressed and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and to the poor person, “You stand over there,” or “Sit on the floor”? 4 If so, have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil motives? 5 Listen, my dear brothers and sisters! Did not God choose the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor! Are not the rich oppressing you and dragging you into the courts? 7 Do they not blaspheme the good name of the one you belong to? 8 But if you fulfill the royal law as expressed in this scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show prejudice, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as violators. (NET)

Those of us who have spent some time among white middle class Friends have learned that there is a group of Friends known as weighty Friends. These Friends are those who’s views and opinions sway a business meeting, officially because people respect their judgment. Unofficially, very often a wealthy Friend is a weighty Friend. We are a group of humans, with human flaws, human greed and human selfishness. Like the meeting who received Jame’s letter, we are tempted to give the wealthy the seat of honor, while reducing the poor to a second class citizen. These days, with a respectable middle class Christianity — we are tempted to bar the door against the poor and not let them in in the first place.

This is what happened back in the 1830’s. The big Northern industry of the day was the textile industry. Many of the wealthy industrialists were Quakers, and their cotton suppliers were slave owners. As their wealth was earned by the work of the slaves — they did not much like the message of the abolitionists. They did not like the condemnation that the free produce store implied. Friends were given a choice: Do we give the wealthy the seat of honor, or do we practice our principles. Friends chose to follow the values of the world — holding the standard of money above moral integrity. In the 1840’s and 1850’s there was a parallel anti-slavery Yearly meeting that held principle over wealth, however they were the minority. This split shows a cooperate moral failure.

Our words then were good, our words now are also good. Now, no one complains if we encourage buying fair-trade chocolate (slavery is an issue in the chocolate producing industry.). Historic Quaker industry is largely historic (Cadbury is currently owned by Kraft, which is owned by the tobacco company which used to be called Phillip Morris.) , while the old Quaker families are still rich, they do not control whole industries as they once have. Does this change in society mean that we are no longer bowing to the rich? does it mean that there is no longer this problem?

How many of our weighty Friends are faithful followers of Jesus Christ, but economically disadvantaged? Do we form meetings that are largely one socio-economic group, or do we embrace the poor? A look at most Meetings tells us that Friends in the United States, Europe, and Canada are solidly White and middle class, with some wealthy members.

If we want to have a testimony for economic justice, we must practice it in our own religious lives. Let us consider James. As long as we honor wealth instead of Christian integrity. As long as we compromise with the values of the world in our Faith and our faith communities — words about economic justice will be only words. We must open our eyes and see God’s image — and Judge not with the eyes of the world, but with the eyes of Jesus.


Initial Query is from Western Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice

Quotations from the early 19th century Indiana discipline can be found in Quaker Heritage Press’s Old Discipline, which is a critical collection of 19th century American books of Discipline.

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4 comments on “James 2:1–9 or Friends and the rich

  1. LAR_Northman says:

    This is a hard teaching, I will have to think on it.

  2. Jesus said: “The poor will always be with you” If they are not among us, perhaps we have abandoned Christ’s mission.

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