What Makes a Quaker Hero?

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Powering Up the Next Generation

In comic books, heroes have gripping, adventurous origin stories: exposure to some radical experiment; strange rays from outer space; the loss of a loved one, spurring our would-be hero into action. A nom de guerre is assumed; a costume is donned; and a hero is born.

Quakers don’t like the term. It smacks of hubris, of pulp fiction, of self-righteousness. Popular culture is full of clichés about heroes. Heroes are born, not made. When the time is right, a hero will emerge. Everyone is the hero in their own story. Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch said that courage is shown when someone gets up when he’s knocked down and fights for what’s right, even if he knows he’s licked before he ever starts.

But we, as Quakers, know heroism in a particular way. We know that heroes are not heroic because they wield enchanted blades or cast spells that petrify their enemies. Quakers understand from experience that heroes derive their real power from knowing that their cause is just and that they are among a legion of others who believe as they do. If they are pioneers in a cause, they know that they are only the vanguard of a wave of fellows whose numbers will not cease until the cause is won. The first documented protest against chattel slavery in North America was by Quakers in 1688. One punch to an enemy’s jaw didn’t change the course of history then. No, a trickle of incessant, unwavering protest built up over generations into a pillar, providing all who came later somewhere to stand and be heard all the easier. That is much of what Quakers know to be heroism.

Think about our superpowered, spandex-clad pop culture heroes. The Hulk is exposed to a radical experiment and gains nearly infinite strength. How much more radical an experiment has there been in Christianity than Quakerism? Perhaps thinking of the Light as the strange rays that empower the Fantastic Four might embolden more Quakers. If Spider-Man’s loss of his Uncle Ben could prod him into a life of heroism, how much more emboldened should we be when we see so many lives lost to the cruelties of poverty, war, and indifference?

The distinction between those fictional heroes and the heroes we see in our very real world is merely a matter of choice. Heroes in the mainstream are Chosen Ones. Quaker heroes have chosen themselves.

Quaker heroes are not discovered; they discern. And discernment is not the overnight change wrought by a radioactive spider bite. Though the resulting awakening can seem to come in a flash, as when a young man climbed Pendle Hill in England nearly four centuries ago, it more frequently comes after years, or decades. George Fox himself climbed that lonely hill after an enormous and long internal struggle in his crisis of faith. It can come in the form of losing a loved one, as was my case after my father’s death, or in gaining loved ones, as when Jan de Hartog and his wife adopted a pair of Korean War orphans.

We are moved by the world, and so we seek to move the world in turn. And movements, any good car mechanic will tell you, take time to build up momentum. Cruising speed comes only after we’ve started in first gear.

Although Quakers are defined more by what they do than what they believe, a deep sense of personal awareness is a river that runs through our several centuries as a religious society. It is no accident, I believe, that the primary literary form for Quaker thought has been the journal.

Individual reflections on one’s own life, from the seventeenth century to now, outline the history of Quaker beliefs and, more importantly for this discussion, Quaker action. It’s the slow and steady path from the inner world to the outer one that so many spiritual journals trace. John Woolman could see, looking back on his life, the many moments that taught him the precious nature of the unifying Spirit in every living being. It was that precious nature that then inspired Woolman to write his now-famous ministries for social justice and emancipation; his aim was to help others recognize it in themselves and in those around them. 

Societal understanding implies that there is also a lack of understanding of society, which we must unlearn. We don’t need to look very far for examples of faith groups who, instead of seeing the world as it is and trying to mend it, decide how the world ought to be and simply rail away at the parts of it that don’t have the decency to conform. Throughout our history as a religious society, as we have understood better, we have always strived to do better. There used to be White Quakers who held people in the bonds of slavery. Then, when they understood better, they stopped. Not easily, not without struggle, but the Religious Society of Friends stopped—because we came to see clearly. Understanding society as it is, with all of its faults and foibles, is absolutely necessary in order to imagine society as it might be.

Direct, nonviolent action is a tricky combination to achieve. Our faith has often been criticized for the actions its devout followers have taken. Sometimes, we are criticized for how direct our actions are.

Sometimes, we are criticized for not taking action that is direct enough. Sometimes, we are criticized for being nonviolent in the face of violence. Sometimes members of our society listen to those critiques. History is full of Friends who have stepped into the mainstream in order to act in accordance with their sense of righteousness, even though it clashed with the values their particular meetings held. In the end, though, Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us that “hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

It seems possible to sift through the activist heroes of our Quaker past and find a few, clear examples that we can use to weigh against ourselves as we search for heroism today. I would offer these three qualities, in particular: personal awareness, societal understanding, nonviolent direct action.

Quaker activists, famous and obscure, seem to share these three qualities. In fact, it seems that the first quality leads to the second, which leads, almost invariably, to the third. Mary and Russ Jorgensen certainly lived this pattern out. They found small, still truths within themselves, then got educated about the nature of a world where the atomic bomb and vast inequities ruled, then got busy standing up and doing what they could to rectify those wrongs. They were arrested in Mississippi as Freedom Riders in 1961 and then countless times in the decades following: protesting the war in Vietnam and nuclear testing in Nevada, among other causes. They stood up; they resisted; they protested; they advocated; they got jailed; they rallied others to their causes. The Jorgensens got into what the late John Lewis called “the right kind of trouble.” They were, and remain in the memories of those who knew them, true heroes. 

Out in California’s Sierra Nevadas, on the site of the modestly famous Quaker experiment called the Woolman School, new efforts are underway to develop a program where people just might rise up and take their place in the long parade of activists, of change agents—of heroes. Now in the beginnings of its development, the Jorgensen School for Nonviolence poses the question: what if we can create heroes out of people living today?

But We, as Quakers, know heroismin a particular way. Quakers understand from experience that heroes derive their real power from knowing that their cause is just and that they are among a
legion of others who believe as they do.

Is there a “secret sauce” we can apply to the food served at the rise of meeting to generate legions of Quaker heroes worthy of Stan Lee’s wildest imaginings?

Probably not. There might be, though, a very fine basis in our meeting for organizing how we work together and within our communities to create opportunities for the kind of heroism we have engaged in from our beginning.

A curriculum for nonviolence for effecting real change in the world should be based on the stout pillars that our Quaker heroes of the past used. It is possible to teach personal awareness. It is very possible to teach people to understand how society really is, stripped clean of the washes and waves of cultural paint and stain that get brushed onto all of us in one form or another from our earliest days. It is even possible to use our plentiful resources for peace—like the Swarthmore Peace Collection, which we’ve been using to develop the Jorgensen School—to teach those who are willing to learn which particular nonviolent direct actions work to bring about change.

For me, waiting in expectant silence at the beginning of a meeting with my fellow Friends developing the Jorgensen School for Nonviolence, might be enough. If so, our discernment and work certainly come not a moment too soon. For we are most in need of heroes, it seems. And we’re fresh out of radioactive spiders.

Stuart E.W. Smith

Stuart E.W. Smith consults with the Woolman School in Nevada City, Calif., on its new Jorgensen School for Nonviolence. He is a member of Nevada City’s Grass Valley Meeting, where he has served on many committees and has clerked. Contact: smithsandlegends.com.

2 thoughts on “What Makes a Quaker Hero?

  1. Heroism relies on moral courage, it is an active decision we can all take.

    Courage is about the choices we make in everyday life. It is the choice of a firefighter going into a burning house to search for a child. It is the choice of a member of the Coast Guard who says they have to go out, but they don’t have to come back. It is the choice of a mother who works three jobs so that her children will be able to go to college. Standing up for what is right takes moral courage.

    Moral courage is the most important courage of all. It is the courage to make the right choices, choices that don’t help yourself, but others. Courage is a choice!

  2. For clarification, Quakers, as a whole, did not stand against slavery in 1688. George Keith and a small number of Meetings did. George Fox, himself, was unable to speak firmly against it. William Penn was a slave owner. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting was hesitant to speak against it.

    Today, we as Quakers are finding ourselves once again on the horns of a dilemma: Abortion. And once again, we find it difficult to stand united against it.

    We have embraced a sectarian spirit that makes us appear to be pleased to be known as Quakers, and not so much as Christians, and it is hard to understand how the inner light could have been so dim during the days of slavery, still persisting today with regard to abortion.

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