Friday, January 27, 2012

Wrath and Patience

We struggle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers.


This is where it gets personal for activists/slacktivists and others like me filled with, say, righteous indignation. It's right and good to be angry about certain things. But to be overcome by it is to lose grasp of the fact that we are in a long-range run.

The arc of history is long but it bends toward justice.

That means, for me, I must not grow weary in doing good. But I must not also stoop to the level of demonizing those I disagree with. And trust me, that's freaking easy. Someone accuses Black and Latinos pointing out institutional racism as being, itself, racist, and I'm ready to send them a verbal hell-storm.

But maybe being incredibly radical isn't about forcefulness of the mean as much as direction of the end. Maybe radicalness isn't so much about treating one group of persons as a protective class as it is about treating the (oftentimes ignorant, sometimes ignoble) oppressors as fully human persons and demonstrating that shared humanity in front of them.

I, for one, can learn much from the patience - and radicalness - of the Quaker John Woolman.

John Woolman believed slavery was unjust— that it was cruel for those in bondage and corrosive for the bondsman. So he wrote an essay explaining why (“Some considerations on the keeping of Negroes: Recommended to the professors of Christianity of every denomination”). And then, since he was sure that his condemnation of slavery was true, and that the truth of it was compelling, he set out to talk to those who disagreed.
One by one, meetinghouse by meetinghouse, home by home. He would speak to gatherings of Friends, or would arrive for dinner at the home of Quaker slaveowners, and he would talk to them about his “considerations” and concerns with this practice. After the meal, he would pay wages to those slaves who had attended him. And he would invite the slaveowners to liberate their slaves, paying them back wages for their years of service.
Crazy. But even crazier: This worked. Conversation, liberation, transformation. That was Woolman’s method and he continued it, unchanged, throughout his life.
Well, almost unchanged. He eventually switched to traveling on foot out of consideration that the stagecoaches he had been riding in were cruel to the horses.
If you live somewhere on the East Coast of the United States, anywhere in between New York City and Richmond, Va., then you’re probably not far from some old historic Friends Meeting House. John Woolman spoke there. He arrived there on foot and spoke about slavery until he had convinced the Friends who gathered there to condemn the practice and cease participating in it by emancipating their slaves and paying them for their service. And then he left on foot, heading for the next such meeting house or home to have that same conversation again, and again and again.
And that is how John Woolman changed the Friends, and how it came to be that the Friends would help to change America. 
That really happened. That is really how it happened.

A re-education. Others talk about violence being the only way out of slave conditions. Still others maintain (out of a belief that property rights trump all else) that the slave owners need to be paid for the loss of their "property." But I see that as a false equivalence. The best process is to demonstrate that there are better ways, while protecting the oppressed.

Homosexuals, bisexuals, transgendered, African-descendents, mixed-raced, Anglo, Latino, poor, rich, management, cops, protesters, the 99%, the 1%, indigenous, English Language Learners, gringos, straights, queers, agents, hip-hop heads, scholars, Africans, South-East Asians, long-distance drivers, manufacturers, union members, prostitutes, slave-wage earners,sweat shop workers, bureaucrats, Parisians, Kenyans, Afrikaans, day laborers, servers, activists, civil servants, farmers, pharmacists

Among this list are scattered oppressors and oppressees, with many carrying both titles. But all are human, even when they/we don't seem to be. The greatest danger, IMO, is forgetting that we, in our fight against the violence of oppression, do not pick up the tools of the oppressor and so become the oppressor - only changing the face of the game, but not the game itself. Compare Woolman's approach to Soviet Russia's.

Although sometimes the new masters are better and more benevolent than the old ones, it seems to me that history has taught us that we need a different approach, a different way of seeing reality than through our relation to our money and our leaders. These are abstract ways of viewing life and they serve the function of denying us the pleasure and reward of our own work, world, and relationships.

It is not righteous wrath that will deliver us out of the systems of oppression, but revolutionary patience.


  1. Good stuff! I do think there's a place for righteous anger at injustice, but we need to temper it with the fact that we know that "the victory's already been won!" -- it's just a matter of waiting for everyone to come 'round to realizing it. : )

  2. Yes, yes and yes.

    I, too, try very hard not to sink to the level of the "haters," whomever they may be. It's difficult, especially when you witness the injustices around you. However, Jesus said, "Love your neighbor" and that is what I try to keep in the forefront on my life no matter whom that neighbor is.


Be kind. Rewind.