One of the advantages of being a rather eclectic reader is that every once in a while two unrelated texts collide and bring forth a new idea. Here are two sentences I've been pondering today:
"Quiet" and "Quaker" are words that line up together in my mind, and from that alignment the question arose: what was it about the Quakers in particular that they grasped the moral evil of slavery and resolved to stand against it, even though they apparently owned enslaved people in the early days of the Germantown settlement? Their economic interests were not materially different than the Anglican leaders of Virginia, who a couple of decades earlier had legislated that baptism into the Christian church would not alter the condition of slavery of the baptized. The Virginians opted to put their investment in human chattel ahead of any theological commitment to the Body of Christ - or at least to twist that theology beyond recognition into a "spiritual" acceptance of African believers that bore no relationship to the way those men and women would be treated as physically embodied persons.
"A life without a quiet center easily becomes delusional." (Henri Nouwen, Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit)
"Just four years after the Quakers had brought enslaved people to settle the frontier, they argued that it was immoral to treat human beings as if they were cargo." (Laurence Ralph, "The Code Noir" in Four Hundred Souls, ed. Kendi and Blain)
What happened in the extended silences of the Quaker meeting that gave rise to this conviction that their African slaves shared basic human dignity and should be treated as such? The picture may be more complex than the one sentence I quoted suggests - the authors of the petition or protest were German rather than English, and less accustomed to the institution of slavery. In any case, Quakers as a whole did not commit firmly to the cause of abolition for nearly another century. But the picture is intriguing, isn't it -- the settled moral sense that human beings should not be "handled like cattle" growing in the silent moments as the congregation waits together for the Spirit to speak.
If Nouwen is right, and a lack of quiet leads to delusions, 21st century Americans are probably the most deluded people ever. Noise and distractions assault us endlessly; many of us have doubled down on streaming entertainment and internet news alerts even in the midst of a pandemic that cut us off from many of our normal interactions with others. The quality of a good deal of public discourse backs up the idea that some or all of us are not trafficking in reality, with our "fake news" and "alternate facts."
As I imagine that Quaker meeting in 1688, I picture the kind of clarity that comes when the surface of pond becomes still and you can see all the way to the bottom. I imagine the still small voice that reminds people that basic human dignity and value comes from a place deeper than the color of one's skin or one's place in society. The implications of a truth like the Golden Rule become clear - the authors of the petition can picture being torn away from their wives and children and sold to some far off oppressors, and they clearly would not want to be treated that way. No matter how theology or anthropology had been twisted by some, the four men who signed the petition understood that slavery was wrong.
What clear understanding might arise in the quiet of 2021? What distortion of reality might come untangled if we pause to listen to the Spirit? What truth whispered deep in the soul might guide our living into the post-pandemic era? What delusion of self interest will we be asked to let go of in the interest of our common humanity?
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