That phrase, “tender mercies”, came to mind a couple of months ago, as I was looking at a blog entry written by a couple of Friends in Michigan.
I’ve been carrying the phrase with me ever since.
The Friends in question, Robert Hopper and Charles Rathmann, are — like me — people who’ve converted to Conservative Quakerism. Like so many converts (myself included!) they are earnest about the religion they have found.
To be honest, their version of Conservative Quakerism is a tad different from mine, as one might guess from the fact that they’ve chosen to identify with Ohio Yearly Meeting, a strongly Conservative body, whereas I am a member in Iowa (Conservative), an only mildly Conservative group. Friends Hopper and Rathmann condemn some things that I would not, and hold, I think, a narrower conception of the true path than I do.
But they and I are very close on the overall spectrum of world religions; I suspect a Hindu or Buddhist or even an Eastern Orthodox Christian or Southern Baptist would find us awfully hard to tell apart.
Anyway. In the blog entry to which I refer, Friend Hopper wrote of how he’d heard on National Public Radio about “the ecological disaster of commercial fishing.” He recited a statistic to show how drastically depleted the world’s fish population has become: over ninety per cent of the oceans’ large fish have been removed from the ocean in the course of the last thirty years.
(I was reminded of something Jacques Cousteau, the great pioneer of scuba diving, said not long before his death. He told about how, in regions all over the world where, when he’d first started scuba diving, the waters had simply teemed with fish, and he observed that the fish in all these regions were now, some decades later, few and far between. He remarked that all the seas he swam in were beginning to look like deserts.)
Hopper observed that the dwindling of supplies of fish for food hurts the poorer parts of the world far more than the richer parts: almost a third of the developing world depends on fish for its protein. And he then quoted from Hosea, one of my favorite biblical prophets: “…the Lord hath a controversy with the inhabitants of land, because there is no truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of God …. [but] swearing, and lying, and killing, and stealing, and committing adultery…. Therefore shall the land mourn…; yea, the fishes of the sea also shall be taken away.”
Well, I was cheering Hopper on. I too believe that the depletion of the planet’s fish population is due to the unrighteousness of the people overfishing them (overfishing is itself unrighteousness) — an unrighteousness that in turn has its roots in a sort of spiritual disconnection from God, from each other, from the helpless fish, and from simple truthfulness.
I’m chary of judging the people who simply work on the fishing boats, overfishing because the boat’s captain told them to and because they know no other way to make a living. They are painted into a corner, and I’m not sure it’s their fault.
But those who have a free choice, and yet facilitate overfishing anyway — owners of big commercial fishing fleets; investors in the commercial fishing industry; people in the First World who add to the problem by eating fish even though they don’t have to — yes, all these are doing wrong, and I’m glad to see Friend Robert Hopper speaking out about it.
But then Friend Charles Rathmann — the other Friend co-authoring the blog — chimed in: “Robert — I share your concerns on these and other matters. And I think it is an important distinction that we look for the solutions to these and other challenges in the Spirit rather than in government intervention and regulation. Governments made up of people full of self-interest and pride can not solve these problems. In order to affect the nature of the world, we must yield and allow ourselves to be made anew!”
Well, this declaration stopped me cold.
I think I know what Friend Rathmann was saying, and I agree with it to a degree. It’s wrong for anyone to assume that government can make us safe: that’s the sin of idolatry, with government as the idol. And the fallen character of our so-called public servants is definitely a big problem in the world.
But to leave it there, and not talk about the other half of the picture — which is the good that government can and does do — is (in my opinion) an oversimplification: simplistic to the point of serious potential harm.
Government does provide police forces that rein in violent wrongdoers in our midst, and public services that greatly help to limit the deaths caused by such things as urban fires and communicable disease. Government can intervene to address economic difficulties (such as depressions) and conservation challenges (such as the protection of topsoils) in ways that are much, much harder — perhaps even impossible — for private individuals.
To persuade ourselves that government cannot or should not be allowed to deal with such challenges is to make the destruction such problems can cause that much more likely.
The same phrase, “tender mercies”, came to my mind a second time a week or so later, when Friend Angela Manno, of New York Yearly Meeting (FGC / FUM), raised the issue of nuclear power here on this site, and Friend Karen Street, of Pacific Yearly Meeting (Independent / Beanite) responded by defending nuclear as an answer to global warming.
Friend Karen Street’s argument, presented in many places on her blog A Musing Environment, is that global warming cannot be brought under control soon enough to matter without switching humanity’s power generation from coal to nuclear soon and massively.
As Friend Street wrote in her essay “How Many Wedges Do We Need? — pt. 2/2”, “To be convincing, the anti-nuclear people should demonstrate that nuclear power is really bad, on the same level as climate change, or direct deaths from using coal or natural gas, and that solutions can exclude coal, natural gas, and nuclear with plenty of room for error.” Coming from Friend Street, who has studied the numbers as closely as any Friend in the U.S., that is a tough argument to ignore.
Friend Robert McGahey, of Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting (FGC), wrote in his blog essay “Nuclear Interlude” that “…I concluded [Karen Street] was right. The numbers for renewable, intermittent sources like wind and solar just aren’t there (2.3% of power). Not now, and not in a projected 20-30 years.”
In his follow-up essay “The Morality of Nuclear Power”, Friend McGahey added, “The overall moral issue is not nuclear power per se, but of how we care for the web of Creation. … If we are compassionate to both our species and to Gaia, we must embrace the necessity of nuclear power, at least for an interim period of a hundred years or more, along with other sources which emit less carbon than fossil fuels.”
Is this, too, an oversimplification, like Friend Charles Rathmann’s position on the overfishing issue?
Friends Street and McGahey’s shared position does not take into account — for example — the tremendous difficulty of ensuring that the radioactive wastes generated by nuclear power will not do significant harm as a result of accidents. Friend Street has spoken to this concern with a projection declaring that, “assuming current technology and current plans to monitor over 200 years, the number of people] expected to die over the next trillion years from US nuclear waste that will be generated this decade” is “0”. But what are such projections really worth? In 1936, assuming 1930s current technology (the Maginot Line) and plans to monitor over the following few decades, the number of Germans that the French expected to invade France over the next trillion years was also zero. France was overrun by Nazi Germany, doing an end run around the Maginot Line, just a few years later.
Really, all it takes is one major highway accident at a populated site on the way from the nuclear power plant to the waste disposal site — one major earthquake (or other incident) breaching a waste storage facility — one major rise in sea level flooding a low-lying low-level waste storage facility — or one major idiot in a future government, deciding to use handy nuclear wastes as a weapon in some conflict — and you have very ugly damages.
Accidents have already happened. One may read in the Wikipedia article on this subject about how the Soviet Union stored radioactive waste in Lake Karachay, only to have the lake dry out and the wind blow the waste all over the place; the article notes that “one still must not stop their car when driving through for any reason.” The same article also speaks of how scavengers in poorer countries have scavenged radiation-contaminated goods and scrap metal and sold it to others who did not know it was radioactive.
Considering the maybe fifty thousand years that nuclear wastes are likely to remain seriously dangerous (a very rough figure that does not allow for the many ways in which the danger changes over time), and considering, too, the number of nuclear plants that will be creating opportunities for such accidents, there’s plenty of room for such things to happen many, many times over.
Let’s assume that we were normally unlucky that an accident of the scale of Chernobyl happened within forty years of the beginning of commercial nuclear power, but that, now that utility owners and federal regulators have learned better, the chances of such a thing happening will be only one one-thousandth as great. (In another of her essays, Friend Street declares that new nuclear plants are expected to be ten to one hundred times safer than the current generation of U.S. power plants, whatever “safer” might prove to mean in a world where Murphy’s Law is eternally potent.)
But let’s also assume, side by side with this thousand-fold improvement, that humanity will also expand world-wide nuclear power generation twenty-fold to stem global warming while meeting humanity’s growing energy demands. Does anyone care to calculate how many Chernobyl-equivalents of accidental damage we can therefore expect, in the next fifty thousand years, as a result of two hundred years of nuclear power on twenty times the present scale? My back-of-the-envelope guesstimate is, ([20-fold increase] ÷ [1,000 times safer] × [50,000 years] ÷ [40 years]) equals maybe twenty-five Chernobyl-equivalents.
And let us then consider that every nuclear power plant generates a a stream of nuclear waste that is, collectively, counting shipping risks and storage risks, perhaps as dangerous as the plant itself, over a period of twenty-five years or so. If the twenty-fold increase is in place in twenty-five years, over the following century-and-three-quarters the risk is amplified eight-fold by the problem of the waste generated. So maybe not just twenty-five Chernobyl-equivalents; maybe two hundred?
I’m not saying that these concerns make nuclear power totally unacceptable. We’re still talking only one Chernobyl-equivalent every two hundred fifty years. (By way of gaining perspective, two hundred fifty years ago John Woolman was visiting with native American tribes in the forests of eastern Pennsylvania.) As Friend Street and others have pointed out, this must be weighed against the much larger, very real and known environmental costs of coal mining: huge greenhouse gas emissions, tremendous damage to the land mined, tremendous generation of sulfuric poisons and heavy metal poisons, thousands of coal miners dead every year.
But on the other hand, the creation of two hundred eventual Chernobyl-equivalents in two hundred years of operating those power plants, is the creation of one a year. Presuming my guesstimate is correct (and it may not be), we are looking at a world that says to future generations, “Our need, or maybe it’s just our desire, for just one year of power at the rate we consume power, outweighs the suffering you future folks will endure from yet another Chernobyl.” And how does that assertion look in the Light of Christ?
So what I see here is that the nuclear power alternative may be far, far better than coal, but it’s still far less palatable, far less acceptable, than Friend Street and the Friends Energy Project seem to me to be making it out to be.
Setting up a nuclear program on the scale that Friends Street and McGahey envision requires massive government intervention, for the simple reason that utilities can’t make nuclear profitable, in open competition with coal, without protection against the financial costs of any Chernobyl-sized accident.
The astronomical cost of insurance against major nuclear accidents would have stopped all U.S. nuclear plant construction dead in its tracks half a century ago, if it hadn’t been for the Price-Anderson Act of 1954 — an act that freed U.S. nuclear power plant operators from legal liability for any damages exceeding ten billion dollars in any accident.
— And there are many in the environmental community who would say that this fact is more significant than most people realize. If the risk is so great that even giant utilities cannot afford the insurance, then can humanity as a whole genuinely afford such a risk?
In any event, even with the Price-Anderson Act in place, the low cost of coal and the high cost of risk protection for nuclear plants still made new nuclear plant construction a very unattractive option — so unattractive, here in the U.S., that no new nuclear power plant was commissioned in the United States for more than a decade and a half after 1978, and United States utilities actually cancelled more than a hundred proposals for nuclear power plants between the mid-1970s and the mid-1980s.
A U.S. Department of Energy map of current nuclear waste storage sites in the United States. Note how many of these sites are close to major population centers and bodies of water.
U.S. advocates of nuclear power were profoundly upset about this situation. Marsha Freeman, a writer for Lyndon Larouche’s on-line Executive Intelligence Review, fulminated in 2005 that “Congress must act now, and reverse the policies of deregulation, financial manipulation, ‘environmentalist’ sabotage, and ‘free market’ government non-intervention that led to the take-down of the nation’s most productive technologies, and the halt to the construction of new nuclear power plants.”
But in 2005 the federal government passed the Energy Policy Act, providing delightfully priced federal insurance to any company that would agree to build more nuclear plants, along with tax credits (a form of subsidy) and other incentives. And since then, the utilities have been talking about filing at least thirty new license applications for nuclear plants.
Amazing how a little government intervention can make such a difference, isn’t it?
Friends Street and McGahey seem not to be bothered by this. And again, I think I understand where they are coming from. It’s rather the opposite of the place where Friend Rathmann is coming from. Rathmann is ready to rule out things that might help hundreds of millions of hungry people and a whole endangered planet if, like government intervention, they pose the risk of idolatry. Street and McGahey are willing to take their chances on alliances with things like nuclear energy (that some might equate with Belial) and government intervention, if it might help to save the endangered planet.
If Rathmann is right, then Street and McGahey’s nuclear power solution is not permissible to those who truly keep Christ’s faith. But if Street and McGahey are right, then Rathmann’s opposition to human dependence on human government must be summarily disregarded for the sake of the Christian imperative of charity.
Of course, the issue that Friends Hopper and Rathmann wrote about — the issue of overfishing — actually involves a different sort of reliance on the government from the issue that Friends Street and McGahey wrote about.
Nuclear power requires continual government involvement in order to make what would not happen otherwise (nuclear power plant construction) happen in a very big way. This includes government protection from accountability, construction incentives and hidden subsidies, probably some federal assistance in taking over private land and private water rights, and perhaps other sorts of tinkering with the marketplace as well.
Putting an end to overfishing, on the other hand, would require government involvement to make what is happening otherwise (the overfishing) stop. Thus, it would be a matter primarily of old-fashioned policing. It might also involve some tinkering with the marketplace to make overfishing unprofitable and discourage people from engaging in crime in the first place. But in any event it would quite certainly involve the direct apprehension of wrongdoers and their criminal prosecution and punishment.
Thus, nuclear power involves governmental tinkering with the marketplace to get something started — an absolute no-no to libertarians and free-marketeers — while overfishing requires govermental policing of malefactors to get something stopped — a no-no only to anarchists.
Interestingly enough, although Friend Rathmann specifically spoke against the type of government intervention needed to stop overfishing — and did so on religious grounds — that sort of government intervention, involving the arrest of malefactors, is a sort that the apostle Paul called right and ordained by God in his letter to the Romans, chapter 13:
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.
For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to [execute] wrath on him who practices evil.
Paul’s words, of course, presume that the “governing authorities” and “rulers” will be righteous themselves. But presuming that they can be taught, or compelled, to be righteous, and that Christ’s voice in conscience does not disagree with their laws, then Paul’s words seem very sensible to me.
The magistrate is there to use his sword — his power of enforcement — against all who do evil and thereby harm the rest of us. This rôle is “from God”, which is to say, it is grounded upon and justified by God’s own express wish that righteousness prevail. When people set up governing authorities and give them powers of enforcement to stop evil-doers, they are not engaging in idolatry, but simply acting in accordance with God’s own desire in the matter, which they can feel in their own hearts.
Do Paul’s words also justify “tinkering in the marketplace”, if the tinkering is done in accordance with righteousness? I think they do. Paul goes on, immediately after the passage I have quoted above, to say:
Therefore [you] must be subject, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’s sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes [are due], customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.
This passage says that the governing authorities, the rulers, are as justified in using the power financially (in this case, to tax whom they please, on what basis they please) as in using the power of enforcement. Presumably, this justification exists only because, and insofar as, the money that the authorities acquire is acquired in a way that promotes righteousness, and it is then spent on things that serve the cause of righteousness. But to the extent that it does stick to righteousness, this justification is quite real.
Taxing something like overfishing, then, in order to eliminate a temptation that would otherwise lead the weak-willed into evil, would be consistent with Paul’s principles. And so would spending tax money on something like a better form of power generation.
Of course, the big, debatable assumption behind the pro-nuclear position — or the pro-government-regulation-of-fisheries position, for that matter — is that government can be kept righteous, can be kept from the temptation to abuse the power it is given.
This, too, is probably more justifiable in terms of fisheries, where Friend Rathmann has his hesitations, than in terms of nuclear power.
In regard to fisheries, the only significant temptation is to make a quick buck on overfishing. Certainly that has been more than enough temptation to corrupt some governments, as the specific cases of Japan, Norway, Greenland, Russia, and various Caribbean island nations (vis-à-vis whaling), and the more general difficulty of regulating trawling have made clear.
But Friend Rathmann’s cynicism notwithstanding, it has proved possible to overcome the corrupting influences to a great extent. The populations of many whale species seem to have been stabilized, at least for the moment, by international regulation. And just two months ago, a majority of the nations involved in fishing in the high seas came to a landmark agreement to end bottom trawling there.
The corrupting temptations that nuclear power creates are a good deal more scary.
To begin with, there is the fact that huge amounts of money are involved, and the money must be spent in such huge lumps (the lump cost of a nuclear power station; the lump cost of uranium refining; the lump cost of radwaste disposal) that only very well-heeled entities can play. This means that building a world that relies heavily on nuclear power would mean setting up an industry with tremendous amounts of power concentrated in a relatively small number of hands and with a stranglehold on entire national economies — a rather scary situation to contemplate.
Such an industry could of course be relied on to do everything it could to corrupt whole national governments in order to line the pockets of its members, just as the oil industry does. Think Exxon Mobil, BP and their ilk, think the Saudi and bin Laden families, think Halliburton and Schlumberger, and think independent oil producers everywhere.
But in addition to the potent temptations of controlling national governments, there would also be temptations to pervert the resulting nuclear power industry: perhaps by diverting part of nuclear power plant fuel production to breeder reactors, where plutonium for weapons can be produced — or perhaps by skimping on safety, thus dramatically increasing the number of Chernobyl-equivalents that nuclear power will eventually lead to.
And since the risks of accident due, not to such skimping on safety, but to sabotage or terrorism, are fairly significant, there would also be the temptation to make governments still more repressive in a misguided effort to make the whole thing safer —
All of this suggests that, at least from the standpoint of wise use of government, there might be some wisdom in supporting government control of fisheries — despite Friend Rathmann’s objections — while simultaneously opposing those very government efforts to underwrite nuclear power that Friends Street and McGahey would have us support.
But then again, wise use of government is not the only concern in regard to either issue.
As I said at the outset, what has been going through my own head and heart, in regard to both these issues, is the phrase “tender mercies”. For it seems to me that the key to this part, at least, of both the fisheries issue, and the nuclear power issue, may be buried somewhere in the meaning of this phrase.
The phrase was one of our “Quaker saint” John Woolman’s favorites; he used it repeatedly in his writings — as for example here:
Our gracious Creator cares and provides for all his creatures. His tender mercies are over all his works; and so far as his love influences our minds, so far we become interested in his workmanship and feel a desire to take hold of every opportunity to lessen the distresses of the afflicted and increase the happiness of the creation. Here we have a prospect of one common interest from which our own is inseparable — that to turn all the treasures we possess into the channel of universal love becomes the business of our lives.
— Woolman, A Plea for the Poor (1763), Ch. 3
— and also here:
…He whose tender mercies are over all his works hath placed a principle in the human mind which incites to exercise goodness toward every living creature; and this being singly attended to, people become tender-hearted and sympathizing, but being frequently and totally rejected, the mind shuts itself up in a contrary disposition.
— Woolman, Journal (before 1742)
Both these passages express the same basic thought. Woolman calls our attention to a specific “principle” within us that “incites [us] to exercise goodness to every living creature”, and fills us with “a desire to take hold of every opportunity to lessen the distresses of the afflicted and increase the happiness of the creation”. (This “principle” is, so far as I can tell, the same thing that I myself am referring to when I speak of the “Inward Guide”.)
But the second passage goes a step further, talking about the importance of “single” — that is, undivided — attention to this principle. If we give it our undivided attention — which is to say, if we remain at least mildly conscious of it all through the day, and do not get distracted into alternate ways of setting priorities — we “become tender-hearted and sympathizing”. But if we choose alternate ways of setting priorities “frequently”, and act on those other ways instead (“totally rejecting” the Guide), then we become locked into a quite different way of being.
Now, I find myself strongly reminded at this point of Friend Rathmann’s words, quoted above — that “governments made up of people full of self-interest and pride can not solve these problems. In order to affect the nature of the world, we must yield and allow ourselves to be made anew!” Rathmann’s way of putting it is of course quite different from Woolman’s, but his underlying meaning does not seem to me to be very different at all. I am glad to see Rathmann making this point.
So let’s take a little closer look at the matter of “tender mercies” in Woolman’s way of thinking.
There is one other place in Woolman’s writings, that I know of, where the phrase appears; and that is in Woolman’s account of his childhood, where he tells us of how he threw stones at a young robin who was making a clamor in her efforts to care for her young in her nest, until finally,
…One [stone] striking her, she fell down dead. At first I was pleased with the exploit, but after a few minutes was seized with horror, as having in a sportive way killed an innocent creature while she was careful for her young. I beheld her lying dead and thought those young ones for which she was so careful must now perish for want of their dam to nourish them; and after some painful considerations on the subject, I climbed the tree, took all the young birds and killed them, supposing that better than to leave them to pine away and die miserably, and believed in this case that Scripture proverb was fulfilled, “The tender mercies of the wicked are cruel” [Proverbs 12:10]. I then went on my errand, but for some hours could think of little else but the cruelties I had committed, and was much troubled.
— Woolman, Journal, describing an event ca. 1730
Now we can see that Woolman took this phrase, “tender mercies”, from scripture. (Actually, the Biblically literate will have recognized that fact some time ago. Woolman’s statement, quoted above, that “his tender mercies are over all his works”, is a direct quotation of Psalm 145:9 in the Authorised [King James] Version.)
And looking at the passage from Proverbs that Woolman quotes, as Woolman himself must have looked at it in the aftermath of this childhood misdeed, we can also see a fairly complex, almost paradoxical moral understanding. For Woolman’s act of killing the baby birds was indeed a “tender mercy” in a most Christian sense — but because it was something he was impelled to do as a necessary follow-up to his act of wickedness, it was a “tender mercy” that was compelled to take the form of something cruel.
What comes through clearly in the proverb is the fact that those who are wicked have the same capacity for tender mercies as those who are just. The proverb admits this fact, and by doing so, makes it clear that the mere capacity for tender mercies is not what makes the world better. The wicked make the world worse even in their merciful acts. This is precisely what John Woolman realized as he showed tender mercies to the babies he had orphaned, by snuffing out their little lives one by one.
Woolman’s lifelong understanding seems to have been much like the author of this proverb’s. He saw that even the wicked amongst us may be moved to do things by a spirit of “tender mercy”, as indeed they often are. Indeed, Woolman often relied on this fact, as when he appealed to a slaveholder’s spirit of “tender mercy” in an effort to get the slaveholder to free his slaves.
But Woolman never seems to have forgotten the full complexity of the situation. Slaveholders may be moved to show “tender mercies” toward their slaves every day of their lives, without ending the evils of slavery. Their “tender mercies” may benefit the slaves, feeding and clothing and educating them and giving them various privileges, and yet still embody and perpetuate the essential cruelty of slaveholding. But such are “tender mercies” that are nevertheless cruel. Warmakers’ “tender mercies” will fulfill the cruel logic of their wars, as for example the cruelty that the United States’s warmakers are showing to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis they are wounding, killing, torturing, or bereaving, in the course of the “tender mercy” of “pacifying” Iraq.
It’s not enough, then, to have “tender mercy” without having righteousness as well. The tender mercy must be framed in a larger context of righteousness, or it will be cruel.
Significantly, too, the context of the passage from Proverbs that Woolman referred to is both animal-rights-oriented and environmentalist. It reads, “A righteous person regards the life of his animal; but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.”
This fact should alert us — as it evidently did John Woolman — that cruel “tender mercies” are particularly likely to crop up in situations where the beings involved are beings that the wicked are inclined to regard as unimportant: slaves, women, children, citizens of enemy states, animals. Woolman plainly saw the relevance not only to animals, like the birds he had orphaned, but also to slaves and the poor. We ourselves can see the relevance to slaves and Iraqis, but can we see the relevance to animals and future generations?
Are there cruelties in the “tender mercies” that Friend Rathmann and Friends Street and McGahey propose? Yes, there are.
Friend Rathmann would strip the world’s fish of the protection afforded by government regulation and policing. That is a cruelty.
Friends Street and McGahey would bequeath radioactive wastes, decommissioned nuclear plants, dispersed radioactives, the likelihood of unsafe nuclear reactors built by corrupt future administrations, and the chance of serious accidents or deliberate deployment of wastes in warfare, to hapless future generations of humans and animals. That too is a cruelty.
Rathmann might argue that what he proposes is necessitated by the idolatry of government. And Street and McGahey might say that the radwastes, etc., are necessitated by human demand for energy and by the failure of humanity to develop any other options. In other words, both Rathmann and Street and McGahey might argue that the cruelties involved are necessitated by the existing situation. This is a very good point.
I’m certainly not saying that Rathmann and Street and McGahey themselves are wicked.
But Proverbs 12:10b — “the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel” — clearly applies to their proposals, all the same. Humanity as a whole has backed itself into situations where Rathmann’s approach, and Street and McGahey’s approach, now seem reasonable to many, many people; and humanity as a whole has done this by its wickedness — a wickedness that has made government seem untrustworthy and idolatrous, and energy demand seem irresistible.
Pondering my own discomfort with all this, and with the phrase “tender mercies” still ringing in my mind, I felt drawn to take a still closer look at the passage in Proverbs, and consider its meaning in the Hebrew.
The Hebrew word translated as “tender mercies” here is rakhamîm, which is the plural of rakham. Rakham meant, concretely, a woman’s womb, and idiomatically, the sort of love that a mother has for her child. Rakhamîm meant, concretely, the more general area of the gut, where feelings of empathic sympathy express themselves, and idiomatically, the feelings of empathic sympathy that manifest in that general area.
Thus we have Genesis 43:30, where Joseph, now a prince of Egypt, sees his suffering brother Benjamin. This passage can be rendered either concretely — “his whole insides ached for his brother” — or idiomatically — “he was deeply moved with compassion for his brother”. (I personally would go for the concrete rendering.)
There are other contexts in the Bible where rakhamîm refers to the concrete acts or gifts (“tender mercies”) that issue out of such concrete aching-insides feelings of compassion. And that is the case with the proverb invoked by John Woolman. “The tender mercies of the wicked are cruel”: it’s not that the feeling is cruel, but that the way it finds concrete expression in the actions of those who have gone wrong is cruel.
Fish captured in trawl net. Photo by Robert A. Pawlowski, NOAA Corps.
In the past few weeks, I’ve been finding it helpful to my own spiritual growth to ponder this root Hebrew meaning of the phrase, “tender mercies”, in the light of a Biblical understanding of the Spirit.
In the Biblical way of thinking — as I’ve mentioned in other places in my writings — the capital-S Spirit (Ruakh) is something that enters us from God as a wind, making us breathe, giving us existence and life, and making us into little-s spirits (neshâmâh, a word literally meaning something like localized-breathings). (Genesis 2:7, Psalm 104:30, Isaiah 42:5) It, the capital-S Spirit, comes into our gut quite literally from above, from the mouth and lungs, illumining by its movement in the body the feelings that we are having there. (Proverbs 20:27, Hebrews 4:12; cf. Jeremiah 17:9-10)
The Spirit is not itself the feelings, such as rakhamîm, that it illumines; rather, when we let our conscious awareness rest in the Spirit as it moves within us, those feelings come more easily and clearly to our awareness, because the motion of the Spirit is making them palpable — and we can feel the motion of the Spirit mellowing and changing those feelings. (Romans 5:5b, 8:5-8,13-16; cf. I Corinthians 12:13, II Corinthians 3:17, Ephesians 5:18)
Thus rakhamîm, feelings of compassion, though not themselves divine, have the possibility of a continuing relationship of interaction, dialogue, with the divine — especially if we remain conscious dwellers in the Spirit.
The Spirit is, of course, also one with the Inward Guide, the Teacher, who instructs us in the ways we should go. We feel our sense of the rightness of a given course of action in the same place that we feel ourselves being breathed. A person “filled with the Spirit” is one who actively experiences the Spirit in motion within her (or him), and such a one is all the more likely to also feel the promptings of the Guide and to follow its leadings into righteousness. Thus the experience of dwelling in the Spirit tends to draw us into attentiveness and obedience to the Guide.
Let’s turn, then, to the part of this proverb that Woolman did not quote: “A righteous person regards the life of his animal….”
The key word here is actually “regards” — a verb which in Hebrew is yada, “to know”. This word yada refers not to intellectual knowledge but to experience; it means “to know” either in the direct-immediate-experience sense, or in the sense of observational-experience-followed-by-reasoning.
In the Garden of Eden story, the serpent promised Eve that by eating the apple, she and Adam would know, yada, good and evil (Genesis 3:5); when Adam and Eve then ate the apple, they experienced their own disobedience to God, which was of course an evil, and thus they came to know evil as well as good directly, in the immediate-experience sense, fulfilling the serpent’s promise.
In Genesis 8:11, as the floodwaters still lay spread over the earth, Noah observed the olive branch brought back by the dove that he had sent out, and thus knew, yada, by reasoning from that observational experience, that the waters were receding.
In the proverb Woolman cites, yada most probably means “to know” in both senses — a righteous person knows what will benefit his animal by reasoning from objective observation; he also experiences directly what his animal is going through, feeling its groans and sighs in his own belly, and for this reason does not choose to do things that lead to suffering or tragedy for the beast.
It’s the Guide, of course, that leads a righteous person to pay proper attention to the animal’s life, to come to know what benefits it, and to develop an empathic involvement with it. Had young Woolman been listening to that Guide, it would have led him to empathize with the life of the mother bird and to be conscious of its needs — to be so empathetic and so conscious that he’d never have reached for a stone to throw at it in the first place.
So this, I think, is the implicit Biblical understanding of the way in which the whole thing works: A person who is out of touch with the Inward Guide, acts without proper awareness or consideration of the lives and feelings and potential sufferings of the beings around him, thereby causing sufferings which can be allayed only by “tender mercies” that are cruel. This in fact is one of the great tragedies we experience in our lives as human beings. But awareness and consideration of the lives and feelings and potential sufferings of those other living beings is a genuine cure for this problem. And that awareness and consideration come through the promptings of the Inward Guide, which promptings are in turn better heard by the Spirit-filled —
And the tender mercies themselves, the rakhamîm, will approve the effects of this discipline — will approve the fact that through dwelling in the Spirit of Christ, and following Christ’s urgings as the Inward Guide in our hearts and consciences, we have been spared the necessity of doing things like killing baby birds. The rakhamîm will rejoice in the Spirit’s good guidance.
Let’s return, then, to the issues that Friends Rathmann, Street, and McGahey are concerned with.
To summarize: We’ve seen that the courses they advise are courses that would lead to suffering — suffering, in the former case, for the fish, and for the hundreds of millions of humans who would be deprive of essential protein when the fisheries collapse for lack of governmental protection; suffering, in the latter case, for much of the Earth, and for perhaps two thousand future generations of humans, as the poisons generated by nuclear power take their toll.
This suffering would result, not because these Friends desire to cause such suffering, but because the bulk of humanity has not followed (and still is not following) the Spirit’s command to “know” the beings involved, and instead has painted itself into a corner where the courses that these Friends are advising now seem to them like the best way forward.
Thus, these Friends’ positions are comparable to Woolman’s when he saw that killing the little baby birds was the best way forward — or to the position of the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier, when he started publicly supporting the anti-slavery side in the bloody fighting in pre-Civil War Kansas.
Our hearts, however, rightly protest against these sufferings. They protest in the same way Woolman’s heart did.
So what’s the solution?
First, and quite obviously, we do have to do what’s practical to minimize suffering now. The call to “tender mercies” is one that we cannot escape; and it means, I think, government intervention in the case of overfishing, whether Friend Rathmann finds it palatable or no, and nuclear power generation to some degree as well, whether Friend Angela Manno and myself find it palatable or no. We are stuck with such cruel “tender mercies” because humanity has been wicked.
But we also have to address the wickedness, so that the cruelty might be eliminated, or at least minimized, at its source. If we fail to do this, then government will be made something of an idol by those who do not know better, just as Friend Rathmann fears, and — far worse — nuclear power too will be made something of an idol, something people look to for salvation from their (imagined) power-less-ness, and in consequence, the world’s dependence on nuclear power will play out in irresponsible and ultimately disastrous ways.
How, then, do we address that wickedness?
A conventional answer would be that it requires, in the case of the overfishing, educating and confronting the fishing fleet owners and the fish-consumers who are the main sources of the problem — and in the case of nuclear power, educating power-consumers to consume far less, doing all we can to promote more benign power sources such as wind and solar, and holding those who are building the new nuclear power structure publicly accountable so that they won’t set up a new energy-industry tyranny in place of the one we have now.
But honestly, such a response — good as it is — still does not address what the author of the proverb, and John Woolman too, meant by “wickedness”.
A person might have all the environmental education in the world, and yet still be too unconcerned about the lives and sufferings of the creatures that her choices are affecting to make any major changes in her lifestyle or her business decisions. (I can personally name dozens of friends, who all know better intellectually, who nevertheless add far more than their share to the global greenhouse gas build-up, by taking long airplane flights on vacation and for avoidable business purposes.) Education, and even accountability, do not guarantee that a person will care enough about generations to come to choose to do things differently. And as students of history are all too aware, down through the centuries, whole populations have been betrayed into tragedy by leaders who had every opportunity to know exactly what they were doing.
Addressing such wickedness means doing our best, not just to educate others about environmental matters, but, far more basically, to infect them with the fundamental sensitivities of heart and conscience that will deter them from doing such wrong things. And we do that best, I think, by helping them fall in love with the Inward Guide.
Let me point out, dear readers, that there are many others besides us, besides Friends, who are advocating better regulation of the fisheries, advocating nuclear power as a replacement for coal, and engaging in environmental education. Our help is needed in all these areas, but it’s not as if we are the only ones who can do it.
But who, other than Friends, is genuinely interested in helping people to fall in love with the Inward Guide? I don’t know of anyone at all.
So although I hope with all my heart that every single one of us is doing something meaningful in the areas of advocacy and environmental education, just as Friends Hopper and McGahey and Street and Manno already are — nevertheless, when I listen unflinchingly, I find my heart telling me that Friend Rathmann’s arrows may actually hit closer to the mark.
We as Friends need above all to be working on drawing people into a love relationship with the Inward Guide, because that alone can make wrongs like overfishing, and like both coal and nuclear power, feel so profoundly wrong that no temptation can possibly draw them into sin.
Friend Rathmann, your language may be superficially very different from mine — but I guess we Conservative Friends aren’t really so different under the skin!