We Are Not John Woolman

Colin Kaepernick. © Brook Ward, flickr.com, CC BY-NC 2.0

Most people are aware of Nike doing an advertisement featuring Colin Kaepernick, the National Football League (NFL) player who “took a knee” during the U.S. national anthem to protest police violence against Black people. The ad states, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” Nike decided to take a chance in the present moment to land on the right side of history.

Many conservatives and “support the troops” types of people are upset about the ad (and the protest). Some have asked for a boycott of Nike, and others are burning their Nike shoes and gear. The current president of the U.S. of A. has called Kaepernick and other NFL players “sons of bitches” and stated that they should be fired for their kneeling in protest.

Kaepernick has been blackballed from the NFL: no team has hired him since he became a free agent after the 2016 season, and he has filed a grievance against the owners for colluding to not hire him. But many people see him as a hero, a modern-day Martin Luther King Jr. The same thing happened to Mohammed Ali in the late 1960s: he was stripped of his World Boxing Association title when he refused to go to Vietnam because he considered it an immoral war. The media at the time ate him alive.

How Kaepernick has been depicted by the media reminds me of three of our Quaker heroes: John Woolman, Lucretia Mott, and Benjamin Lay. In Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PYM), where they were members, we are told that Quakers should strive to be like these three Friends: they followed the Inward Light to do what was right, if not popular. Their ministries changed hearts and minds, the future of PYM, and thus all Quakers in America. We hold them up as proof of God showing us the way, through continuing revelation and discernment.

A young man had a vision that changed his life. He refused to have anything to do with slavery or to profit from the misery of enslaved people. He refused to use things made by them, or to have a more comfortable life because their lives were so bad. He traveled around speaking to people about slavery and land theft (colonization). Many people did not want to be around him, hear what he had to say, or give up their comfort for what was right. And we are not John Woolman.

A thoughtful and devout seeker wanted Friends to feel for a minute, an hour, a day what it felt like for the enslaved when their children were sold down the river. He would not wear anything, nor eat anything, made from the loss of animal life or provided in any degree by slave labor. Friends disliked him so much that they read him out of his meeting (this has recently happened to another Friend from the same quarter). And we are not Benjamin Lay.

An original feminist understood that these people who did not look like her were people to be respected nonetheless. Contemporary Quakers did not want to be around her. At one point, PYM refused to renew her minute of religious service, hoping it would shut her up. She put her life and her reputation on the line to really be an ally. And we are not Lucretia Mott.

So now Quakers love to talk about Lucretia Mott, John Woolman, and Benjamin Lay, but we don’t want to do what they did. We don’t want to be uncomfortable in our meetings; we don’t want to be “divisive”; and we don’t want our spirituality to be disrupted by worldly concerns.

What does being that kind of ally look like today in the face of Immigration and Customs Enforcement actions, police brutality, and failing schools? What would it look like for a Quaker to put on the cloak of Lucretia Mott and actually work to create the Beloved Community today?

Quakers came here, like all the other European settlers, and stole land. Quakers enslaved and used free labor and built up the land they had stolen. How did they miss the meaning of our testimonies about equality and simplicity? Very few Quakers realized this was wrong and worked against it. Even after emancipation, we still had the back bench in our meetings reserved for Black visitors and our Quaker schools were racially segregated.

So now Quakers love to talk about Lucretia Mott, John Woolman, and Benjamin Lay, but we don’t want to do what they did. We don’t want to be uncomfortable in our meetings; we don’t want to be “divisive”; and we don’t want our spirituality to be disrupted by worldly concerns.

Because he believed in that of God in everyone, Lay—were he a Friend today—would have the situation in Palestine paramount in his mind, along with Black Lives Matter, police brutality, sanctuary, and mass incarceration. He would support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. He would be concerned for people living with malaria and AIDS and for children held prey to child-sex rings. Hunger and the other effects of poverty and global climate change would occupy our Quaker heroes every day. What would we wear if we did not have slave labor to clothe us today?

Mott was willing to form relationships that grew from her understanding of “the other.” The average U.S. Quaker lives in a white neighborhood, works at a white job, and sends their kids to white schools. To what extent are Quakers today willing to live in different neighborhoods, send our kids to different schools, and support different causes?

It seems that Friends see pieces of ourselves in Woolman, Mott, and Lay. Yet, there is little that we do that matters to anyone who is not a Quaker.

Quakers love to tell the story of how we got the name Quaker. According to George Fox’s autobiography, Justice Gervase Bennet “was the first that called us Quakers, because [Fox] bade them tremble at the word of the Lord” during a 1650 blasphemy trial. I cannot even imagine a modern-day Friend who would tremble at the truth of the white supremacy our culture is so caught up in. Are we really pioneers or mavericks?

It seems that Friends see pieces of ourselves in Woolman, Mott, and Lay. Yet, there is little that we do that matters to anyone who is not a Quaker.

We want to hold Lay, Woolman, and Mott up as examples, but those Friends were always looking at the larger picture and they faced serious consequences for their actions. Look at how Lay died: alone, in a cave, and with few possessions. Kaepernick has lost millions of dollars by remaining unsigned for the 2017 and current 2018 seasons (he also has received death threats). Mott was almost burned alive while organizing. “Any great change must expect opposition because it shakes the very foundation of privilege,” she wrote. By contrast, what Friend is willing to give up anything that they have?

What would the United States look like if we had a current-day Woolman, Lay, and Mott? Are we willing to step up our game to find out?

The prophetic agitator is remembered and spoken of years later. The people that wanted them gone are forgotten today.

Where do you fall? Are we on the right side of history today, Friends? Who are the Quakers today that will be remembered in 200 years? What would the United States look like if we had a current-day Woolman, Lay, and Mott? Are we willing to step up our game to find out? Or are we content to be forgotten? To crush the prophet for what we see as dishonoring our equivalent of a flag?

Gabbreell James

Gabbreell James is a lifelong Friend of color, active in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting's Undoing Racism Group and at her monthly meeting, Green Street Meeting in Philadelphia. She wants to help Friends be truly welcoming to all people.

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