One of the reasons I am proud of being a Quaker – indeed, an important reason why I became a Quaker – is our history of asserting the equality of all persons, our work to attain peace, prison reform, compassionate care of people with mental illness and disabilities, ending slavery, and gaining voting rights for all adults.

I have a poor memory for Quaker history – my interest as a Quaker has always been care of the soul and how our faith community helps or hinders care for the soul – so I talk about our history with some trepidation, and I welcome corrections and clarifications when I delve into the past for insights into how we live out our faith, as I intend to do now.

Although the dignity of each person as the bearer of the Divine Spark was always the foundation for Quaker engagement, I learned from John Punshon that the spiritual core (as opposed to the practical desire to avoid being confused with the treasonous 5th Monarchymen) of the Peace testimony was as follows: concern for the soul of the person who committed violence. Fox and Margaret Fell (who wrote an earlier version of the testimony) believed it is wrong to use violence, and that a person who does so will harm his or her relationship with God. They thought of our actions in this world as having an impact on the battle between Light and Darkness in the spiritual realm, and the use of violence would strengthen the forces that oppose the Light. In this Lamb’s War way of thinking, the potential death or injury of the victim of violence were not the main concern. In the 1650s, of course, illness, maiming, and premature death were not uncommon occurrences, and many Quakers voluntarily undertook faith-based actions that resulted in severe physical suffering. Fox’s chosen method was to try to talk people out of using violence, out of concern for their soul, and I’m not aware that he spent much time ministering to victims of violence or demanding restitution for them.

When John Woolman set off to end slavery, his chosen method was to visit with slave owners and try to persuade them that their immortal souls were endangered by denying slaves their full humanity and dignity. He didn’t accept food, drink, or a bed in the homes of slave-owning Quakers, because he was worried for his soul if he were to derive any physical comfort from the “fruits” of slave labor. To the best of my knowledge, Woolman did not spend much time being with slaves or encouraging them to rise up against their owners to end the injustices under which they were suffering.

There is also a long tradition of Quakers being present with and ministering to those in prison (Elizabeth Fry) or mental health institutions, and as a chaplain and spiritual director, I identify strongly with that strain of Quaker activism. But in the case of working for peace and ending slavery, being present and ministering to the victims of injustice don’t seem to have been the chosen mode. As someone who walks alongside people who are suffering in a variety of ways, I confess to feeling a bit uncomfortable with the seeming lack of attention given to those who suffered under the injustices Fox and Woolman were seeking to abolish.

I wonder, would a slave working in a field, watching John Woolman walk past on his way into the big house, have any reason to trust Woolman or believe that he was sincere? Perhaps he or she might have thought something along the lines of “Woolman, if you really cared and wanted to ease my burden, you’d come and take my hoe and do some of my work”. And that seems like a perfectly natural thought to me. If it had been safe for the slave to do so, I can even picture him or her angrily denouncing Woolman’s approach.

At the same time, I see the success of Woolman’s method, and I have been deeply moved when I read the accounts of Quakers defusing potentially violent situations by expressing concern for the person about to commit violence against them. Fox and Woolman are among our heroes, the ones many of us try to model our lives after and aspire to be like.

Query for prayerful consideration:

Does God call me to be present with and minister among victims of injustice? Or to be with those who are doing wrong, gently and firmly calling them to be in right relationship with God? Am I sometimes called to do one, sometimes another? How do I support the leadings of those who are called to respond to injustice in a different fashion than I am?

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