Belling the Cat, or Both Sides of the Quaker Legacy.

Lately my mind returns to an old fable.

The mice on a farm gathered together to discuss their long-standing feud with the farmer’s cat. Again and again the creature would burst into their midst, wreaking havoc and slaughtering those who could not flee quick enough. Something had to be done. But what? At long last, one mouse struck upon an idea. “One of us must creep up to the cat while she is sleeping, and place a bell around her neck! Then we will be alerted to her approach, and shall be afforded time to scurry away!” The others greeted this suggestion with unanimous enthusiasm. “Brilliant!” “Of course!” “Just the ticket!” At length, the chairmouse, noting no dissension, declared the motion passed. “Now,” he called. “Who will volunteer for this mission? Who will bell the cat?” Silence fell over the assembly; mice looked uncomfortably at their fellows or inspected the ground. They might have remained that way indefinitely, but at that exact moment, the cat leapt from out of the tall grass and fell upon them.

Over the summer, I’ve been reading an anthology of Quaker writings from all periods of Friends’ history. At the same time, I’ve watched our national situation go from abysmal to shitty, and noted the rising unrest across the country (angry Tea Partiers, the more recent Occupy Wall Street protests) as people are pushed to the limit by a government indifferent to the needs of all but a sliver of the US population. I recall the number of times I’ve heard Friends–usually well-educated, upper-middle class Friends–struggling with their own levels of privilege and comfort and asking themselves, “What am I doing about the injustices around me?” And how often, months later, I’ve heard those same Friends wrestle with the same questions, having recognized their dissatisfaction with their role in the world without taking steps to change that role.

At the meeting I’ve attended for most of the summer, I often ended up in debates with the other attenders over recent renewable energy projects here in Vermont. Seemingly without exception, members of this particular meeting are opposed to large-scale wind and solar projects. Arguments against “the wind towers” have ranged from ecological (usually complaints that wind farms alter the migration routes of wildlife, never mind that migration routes are always shifting as the environment changes) to the aesthetic (a lot of people think wind turbines are ugly). Returning from Quarterly Meeting a month ago, I noted a cluster of solar voltaic arrays in a field. The lady with whom I was riding sniffed the air. “It’s too bad they have to have them out where people will see them,” she said. The message I’ve been receiving from these Friends is clear: we’re all for renewable energy arrangements, as long as they don’t alter our landscape in the slightest, and don’t ask us to make sacrifices. What we need is a significant change that will not change things significantly. Thanks very much.

I don’t believe the majority of Friends are of this mindset. If they were, I don’t think I’d waste my time in their Meetings. Yet undeniably many Quakers do resist giving up comforts in the name of principle. This is not a new tension within the Society, either. Friends in the first Quaker century emphasized living out the teachings of Christ, putting everything on the line for Truth as perceived through that of God in each–think of the many souls tortured, imprisoned, executed for persisting in their “dangerous” worship; think of John Woolman selling his businesses when they became too time-consuming for him to follow the Voice of the Lord.

But their descendents, grown successful in business and worldly in their concerns, left behind memoirs and writings that are all but interchangeable with the autobiographies of their non-Quaker contemporaries. The Society in 1860 was far different than it had been in 1680. In America, many Monthly and Yearly Meetings could reach no unity on the moral wrong of slave ownership. Indeed, as the 19th century wore on, Quakers withdrew more and more from the world’s sufferings and injustices. Being Quaker had become a badge of sorts, a means of self-congratulation, not an inspiration to bring about the Kingdom.

We recall with pleasure the tradition  of early Friends toward social action. Yet often we ignore the other side of our Quaker legacy, those Friends who would not relinquish their comforts for the glorification of principle. These two threads often intertwine in the modern Friend. The result: a Quaker who believes passionately in change, in the Testimonies, but fears to make waves or stick his neck out. Let someone else bell the damn cat.

And yet…in 1659, Mary Dyer and five other Friends from Rhode Island were arrested in Massachusetts on grounds that they had been spreading their dangerous gospel. They were banished from the colony and warned that if they returned they would be executed. Undaunted, Mary returned later that year with a number of companions. They were arrested, and all but Mary were executed–the magistrates spared her life at the last instant. Again she was banished, and again she returned. This time, the magistrates showed no mercy. On June 1, 1660, the record relates that “Mary Dyer did hang as a flag for others to take example by.”

Mary Dyer, like so many other early Friends, lived and died for her convictions. This is our history, that proud heritage of action and sacrifice which we like to remind ourselves of when we gather together. Yet we ought not to rest on the laurels of our ancestors. George Fox himself spoke to his followers, exhorting them not to simply rely upon the words of Christ and the Apostles–“What canst thou say?” he asked. Likewise, let us see these stories of brave Friends not as badges to adorn ourselves. Let us pull inspiration from them, draw upon them for the strength to act upon our convictions, to combat the injustices of this world. Let us remember that to venture nothing is to gain nothing. Let us remember that to risk our worldly comforts is the only real way to uphold our principles.

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