The Quaker Testimony on Simplicity has been gnawing at me for a while now, and I didn’t know why. After all, I love this testimony. I love the idea of paring away everything but what’s important to make space for God. The testimonies of simplicity and integrity probably affect my day to day life more than any other explicitly Quaker practice. And yet, there’s been this gnawing sense of something very wrong with our modern understanding of simplicity.
Let’s talk about the Quaker “patron saint” of simplicity, John Woolman, for a moment. John Woolman is best known for speaking out against slavery in a time where very, very few others were doing so. But he’s also known for making the decision to cut back on his business, which was becoming so profitable that he felt it was preventing him from having adequate time for God. This is the model of Quaker simplicity I’ve heard the most about. This is the ideal that’s been explicitly or indirectly implied: that Quaker simplicity is about cutting back so you can make space for God.
I don’t have anything against John Woolman. I think he was awesome for the things he did. He’s one of my all-time favorite Quakers.
But you know what else John Woolman was? A man of means. And the overwhelming sense of Simplicity that I seem to get from a lot of modern Quakers is from this assumption: that you have the means to make economic decisions that will allow you to better follow God.
It’s simple to choose a career that benefits the world and doesn’t exploit others. It’s simple to buy a Prius or a hybrid instead of a sports car. It’s simple to buy fair trade instead of supporting exploitative labor practices. It’s simple to buy organic whenever possible, and the more local, the better.
Isn’t our testimony on simplicity more than just another liberal yuppie shopping practice? Can’t you practice simplicity without having an upper-middle class budget?
I’ll be blunt. Not everyone has a choice what job they work at. (Not everyone has a career, either.) Priuses are expensive cars. I’m going to be needing to replace my 2001 Corolla sometime soon, and I’ve ruled out Priuses because they are way over my budget. Fair trade clothes? Also expensive. Organic food? Expensive.
No one needs to have money to follow God. Period.
There’s another “patron saint” of simplicity, Thomas R. Kelly. With him, it was more about choosing how to spend your free time wisely. One of his most famous quotes is probably, “We cannot die on every cross. Nor are we expected to.” In other words, as worthy as a cause may be, it’s okay to say no and leave that burden to another if it’s not what we are called to do.
Disclaimer: I have the utmost respect for Thomas Kelly. He’s probably my favorite Quaker writer. Still, the assumption is that you have free time to spend and the freedom to choose how to spend it. That’s a luxury and freedom that not everyone has.
So, what do I think our testimony of simplicity is really about, if not about choosing how to spend time or money in better service to God? It’s about knowing what’s important and acting in accord with that. It’s not about how you spend your extra time or extra money, but about what matters to you most day to day—how you spend all your time and money, not just the “extra”. And when you’re clear on what is most important to you and live your life in accordance to that, then you’re living a life of integrity.