Sunday, October 16, 2005

John Woolman and the Plastic Bottle, or What Would John Woolman Do?

Keith Helmuth has written an excellent pamphlet more or less on the topic of the implications of John Woolman's witness in modern times. It is called "If John Woolman Were Among Us: The Ecology of Automobiles and the Flush Toilet." As far as I know, it is no longer available, but it may be tucked away in your meeting library somewhere. It is an excellent read.

Mainstream Christianity has made a slogan of the query What Would Jesus Do? The Evangelical Environmental Network came up with a brilliant variation: What Would Jesus Drive? For modern unprogrammed Friends, with our universalistic tendencies, the query "What Would John Woolman Do?" may be more fruitful. (Of course, John Woolman did what he did as his personal response to the query, What Would Jesus Do?)

The essential dilemma is the same, regardless. This is the question of right action, and what determines right action. To the relatively uncontroversial assumption that one person’s actions should not contribute to the oppression, exploitation or harm of other individuals, John Woolman establishes a precedent for extending our sphere of concern to the non-human world. He mentions the plight of ‘dumb beasts’ and also talks about farmers abusing land in an effort to pay heavy debts. His concern for fellow humans goes without saying. This is what is meant by "Love is the first motion." Love is nice. However, if love is the first motion, ethics is the second.

Mainstream Christianity famously falls short of Christ’s revolutionary message because it assumes that virtuous action is possible within the context of the dominant society. This is the tragedy of Christianity as a state religion, as happened under Constantine. A revolutionary doctrine cannot survive that level of assimilation. What John Woolman explored was how far outside the dominant society it was necessary to travel in order to live according to virtue. This is the legacy that we can explore with our query, WWJWD?

Woolman’s stance against slavery was such that from a mere uneasiness with writing a bill of sale for a slave, he progressed until on his death bed he was refusing medicines that were derived from slave labor. Now, medicines given for smallpox in the mid-1700’s weren’t necessarily any great shakes, but it would have been reasonable for Woolman to believe that these prescriptions might have the power to help him to recover his health, or at least ease his suffering. Nonetheless, he refused them. He was also largely vegetarian by this time, according to an account of his death written by the woman whose house he died in.

To me, what this says is that there was a level of "taking up the cross" in Woolman’s day that was as tough as anything we might be called to today, as far as living into gospel order. He stood in opposition to the nation at large, and many members of his religious community as well, with regard to his stance on slavery—not an easy thing to do. He also made numerous personal "sacrifices" in order to rightly order his personal life—"downshifting" to a less demanding way of getting his competency (what we call earning a living) was one. Woolman also travelled on foot at times, declined the products and services provided by slave labor, refrained from using postboys or coaches while in England, and even modified his dress from the conventional plain dress that other Friends wore. He certainly met the requirement in the book of Titus to be a "peculiar person." To me, the challenging thing is that these things created right order to a significant extent in Woolman’s life. Is this still possible today?

I’ll take up this query in the next blog...


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5:38 AM, October 19, 2005  
Anonymous Robin M. said...

Dear Carl,

I think there is something about how when life is lived with attention to the Divine Center, harmony breaks out all around. The pieces fall into place.

But we can't have this Harmony and worldly success and comfort too. There are sacrifices that will have to be made.

9:48 AM, October 19, 2005  
Blogger earthfreak said...

Robin -

I'm not sure I agree with you, though it depends how we define "worldly success" - I believe that John Woolman had enough resources to support himself and his family all of his life.

Excess wealth is another question, as is the ease of the path to worldly success.

I do not know what my relationship is to the "divine center" That phrase has meaning for me, but may not be the best way to articulate my experience thus far.

I have always tried to live my life according to my own understanding (both intellectual and spiritual) of "right livelihood" It strikes me as odd and somewhat unsettling how often these questions arise in terms of commerce - what will we or won't we buy? Perhaps our own ethical behavior is assumed, perhaps commerce is the most far-reaching interaction that we have with others (or the most ethically weighted?)

I myself have been a vegetarian for almost 19 years. I don't own a car (but do occasionally use them), I do use electricity, natural gas, and shop at chain stores, and have bought things that I do not feel confident of the ethical origins of (things made of plastic, and likely by exploited labor, for example - I just bought barrettes at Target, for my hair which is growing out)

From what I know of John Woolman, it seems that he always made the most ethical (and deeply spiritually grounded) choice, and what's more, that he always knew what that was. I sometimes wonder how much of that is the ease of idolizing those long dead, but I still believe that he was an amazing person.

I think that is is possible to live that way, though it is not easy, and it is easy to feel deprived.

I have often thought that JW faced more obvious issues - that he could always know what product involved slave labor and which didnt'. That he could see if the horse pulling the buggy he might hire was mistreated.

We are, indeed, faced with difficult choices, but we also often use that as a cop-out. it's my understanding that he travelled by foot rather than engage engage in an ethically questionable system. Not just to the corner store, but across England. That is a difficult choice, we are called to make similarly radical choices about our behavior, and they are not always easy.

(Some of mine are travel - I use, and much prefer the train to airplanes, but it takes a long time, and doesnt' work for international travel, for example)



11:36 AM, October 19, 2005  

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