Wednesday, February 2, 2011

"The tender mercies of the wicked are cruel."

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?


Hystery said...

The question of what texts and contexts affect the development of a thinker's thoughts has got to be one of my very favorite questions. I'd love to know what texts Woolman was reading and in what order and combination.

Diane said...

Hi Hystery,

This is fascinating. I just read that Bonhoeffer, who connected strongly with the Harlem community in 1930 when he was at union theological seminary, read Uncle Tom's Cabin as a child, translated into German.

Tom Smith said...

I am trying to remember where I read it, but there is a record of the "libraries" that Woolman had access to and lists of the books that he read. It is an interesting list of fairly influential works. Woolman was very well read.

I'll try to find the reference and share it. I suspect it was "The Beautiful Soul Of John Woolman, Apostle Of Abolition"


Diane said...

Thanks Tom,

Anonymous said...

Regarding charity, I see your perespective. But I see the contrary perspective with equal clarity; if we do our acts of charity by proxy, through a vote, we may have a new nursing home full of employees who don't care much about the people they're supposed to be caring for; tender mercies from the wicked. Love your neighbor face to face, not just through a vote.

Diane said...

Yes, Anonymous, I do see that too, but as Woolman worried that slavery rested too much on the assumption of individual willingness to be good to slaves, I worry about a system that relies on individual charity and not an institutionalized baseline. In terms of slavery, I'd rather have a government decision to do away with it, then to rely on individual slaveholders to be compassionate. I would like a system where a nursing home is staffed by well-trained, competent people who are carefully chosen, paid enough and given enough vacation and down time not to burn out.

Anonymous said...

Interesting comment about slavery, especially in light of my recent rereading of Huckleberry Finn! In that book, the slave Jim runs away because he learns that his owner, the kindly but forbidding Miss Watson, is planning to sell him down the river even though she had assured him that she would never do such a thing. In the end, Jim is saved from the slave catchers because Miss Watson frees him after her death largely due to a bad conscience. The denouement of the novel might strike some as a bit abrupt, but Jim's unexpected salvation serves to underline the precariousness of his position as a slave. I agree with you, Diane. I can't help but think that anyone who, like Jim, depends on the voluntary benevolence or charity of others (individuals or organizations), might eventually find themselves "sold down the river" too.

Hystery said...

A recent example of this is when my husband worked in a non-union establishment. The boss was apparently a kind and friendly man who had an "open door policy". One day, an older gentleman came to express his concern about how he had been treated by one of the administrators. The boss and the worker had known each other for years, the employee had a well-known record as being a long-time, loyal worker, and the understanding was that they were "friends" who could trust each other. But that day, the boss didn't like to be criticized and fired the man on the spot. Just like that. So much for friendship. My husband, who had had the good fortune of working in places with unions before that point came home very shaken and saddened by that incident. Every place he has worked has had decent people and rotten people. In all the unionized places, the abuses of the rotten people were thwarted or minimized. In the places without unions, your well-being relied entirely on the whims of whoever was in charge that day so you prayed they were in a good mood.

Anonymous said...

Are you inferring that Unions and Union Bosses are cruel, but the union rules keep their cruelty in check as well as the inherent cruelty of the establishment!