In the Quaker understanding of Christianity, Simplicity is a response to both the Quaker understanding of God and the Quaker understanding of humanity. Friends believe that God still works in the world, and still touches the individual. Friends take the idea of vocation very seriously. Friends also believe that every human being is the express image of God. When we approach life, we need to see something of God in everybody that we meet. Seeing God’s image in others should affect the way we think, speak and live.
If we believe that God is active in the world, and that all people are subject to God’s calling, then people must live in a way that allows openness to God’s call in life. Simplicity is not only about living in obedience when God’s call is heard, but living in expectation so that obedience becomes possible. Simplicity takes away competing entanglements, allowing the freedom for obedience. Jesus told the crowds that one cannot serve two masters, and those who believe in vocation need to make room for God’s call. This issue explains a simplicity that changes a person’s way of thinking, and encourages some caution in filling up life. It explains the Quaker advice not to take on more business than one can handle.
The other Quaker understanding is that where Friends see God’s image in all others. Complexity is a luxury — the poor have no choice but to be simple. For the poorest, life is a daily struggle to receive daily bread. Much of life’s complexity is the desire to divide humanity into classes, and to be able to see oneself as greater than ‘everybody else.’ Our lives are complex, because we have to prove that we are more valuable to the world than our neighbor. Proving self-worth is its own entanglement.
We fight for relative worth, both by seeking to build ourselves up, but also through damaging our neighbor. I once heard that the majority of Americans would prefer all their neighbors to suffer a painful financial loss over the whole neighborhood (including the American) suddenly becoming wealthy. We are so concerned with being better than our neighbor that we would turn down a million dollars if the neighbor would get two million.
The desire not only to acquire, but to be better leads to degrading others in our mind. There is enough food to feed the world, yet hundreds of millions face starvation. Half the world’s household’s live with the same income, or less, than the poorest 10% of American households. The wealthiest have found ways to profit on the misery of the poor, from sweatshops to actual slavery.
When people think of simple living they often think of little steps like gardening, and other ways of increasing self-reliance. Simplicity becomes a lifestyle choice of shopping less. This actually fits with the Quaker history and views, because it is a way of stepping out of a corrupt economy.
In the last half of the 18th Century, John Woolman lived simply, so that he would not be tainted by the shared economic guilt. Woolman did not want to contribute to slavery economically, so he refused to buy or use goods produced by slaves. He wore undyed clothing, because even that part of the textile industry supported the economy of slavery.
In the first half of the 19th century, Levi Coffin ran a business that traded in goods that were not tainted by slavery. These free goods included maple sugar (which before was mostly produced for personal use), cotton imported from Egypt, and made into clothing by mills committed to making free goods. Coffin set up an alternative economy, standing as an alternative to the economy of slavery. It was not cheap, but it did not require people to step away from their principles to buy.
Quaker simplicity can be summarized as allowing faith to become a driving force in every life decision, including the chocolate bar. Whether it is making space for God’s work and obedience to vocation, or making lifestyle choices that honor the dignity of others, it is about living consistently.