I decided to start, once again, rereading John Woolman's Journal and was struck by the famous story of the young Woolman killing the baby birds after he had killed their mother. This is a story that is so familiar that the last few times I have read the journal, my eyes have slipped over it unreflectively.
I have read or heard that Quaker children, when they are distressed and ask why Woolman killed the baby birds, are told he was a farm boy, understood without sentimentality the death of animals, and was trying to by merciful, because he knew the baby birds would die without their mother. He was being kind.
Yet, in the text, Woolman himself describes his act as cruel. What comes to his mind about what he has done is a scripture verse: "The tender mercies of the wicked are cruel."
This story is crucial, not just because Woolman was a tender-hearted and empathetic child who felt badly about causing distress to innocent creatures. That is a fine morality tale as far as it goes. It's heart-warming to see someone have the goodness of heart to regret the cruel results of an impulsive act of killing. It shows that the young Woolman already had an advanced moral sense: He was able to put himself, even as child, in the shoes (or nest) of more vulnerable Others and see the world from their perspective. He cared about the birds even without fear of outward negative consequences to himself for his act. This is a beautiful, St. Francis of Assisi-like tale.
Yet, I think his purpose from the very beginning was more than to tell a confessional story. With this tale, he establishes from the outset a theme that runs throughout the entire journal and pertains to all creation: Once you or I start doing even one evil thing, we create a chain reaction. It's never just one thing, period. Killing the mother bird for "sport" meant bringing suffering to her babies, which led to a "cruel mercy," and then to an anguish that might have led to hardness of heart. What we do reverberates beyond itself. I think he wants, from the start, for his readers to dwell on the paradox of a world where societies become so messed up that even mercies are cruel.Taken to it's extreme, it's the "mercy" of the torturer we know from spy movies, who warns his victim: By the end, you will be begging me for death.
"The tender mercies of the wicked are cruel." This is an unsentimental statement, a quote from Proverbs 12:10 that begins with "a righteous man regards the life of his beasts..." (Obviously, there was a childlike literalism that led Woolman to think this after killing the birds.)
What worries me about this Proverb is the application to charity. If we move to a system a individual charity, and away from the government system, what about the mercies of the wicked? Will everyone treat the poor and vulnerable with justice and compassion? History tells us no.
However, I am reading Woolman for another purpose, two, in fact. One is for the benefits that always come with reading the words of a person of universal compassion. The second it in search of the literary influences on Woolman. Certainly, the Bible as an influence hits us from the beginning as an explosion. He starts off, like a good Quaker, with "the pure river of the water of life" in Revelation. He mentions reading "some religious books" as a youth. Do we know what they were? I strongly suspect George Fox's Journal, but what else? What, beside the Bible, structures the narrative of his life?