Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Underground Railroad: Pacifist or Warlike?

Yesterday was Memorial Day. Pacifist religious groups like my own are more inclined to celebrate the acts of those who sought to circumvent war and warlike behavior, instead of their bravery in armed conflict. Ironically enough, I am a descendant of many brave men whose valor in combat would appear to be a perfect example of everything the holiday purports to be. My last name, Camp, means soldier. Around ten centuries ago, blood relatives were part of the Norman French invaders who in 1066 conquered England at the Battle of Hastings.

With a rich history of fearless fighters in my family tree, it is curious that I have cast aside everythingk that they held dear. Not entirely, of course. I became a member of the Religious Society of Friends, having lost my taste for blood. That fighting spirit lives on in ways we do not always acknowledge. After all, Quakers took a fundamental role in maintaining the Underground Railroad and turning their Meetinghouses into smuggling points.

For a pacifist sect devoted to non-violence, I have long wondered if smuggling slaves through the North into Canada was not an act of war. It may have been a less direct method of aggression, but under laws in force at the time, those who opposed the peculiar institution were deliberately stealing property. Friends were risking a considerable amount, putting their necks on the line to support that which they saw was an inhumane system. Quakers are justifiably proud of their role in this elaborate system of civil rights, but it stretches our definition of lawful and unlawful.

The most eloquent black voice of the time was Frederick Douglass. Having escaped from slavery himself, he became a prized speaker and activist. He was, however, skeptical of the Underground Railroad. Douglass spoke out against it in his well-received autobiography.

"I have never approved of the very public manner in which some of our western friends have conducted what they call the Underground Railroad, but which I think, by their open declarations, has been made most emphatically the upperground railroad."
Douglass went on to say that, although he honors the movement, he felt that the efforts serve more to enlighten the slave-owners than the slaves, making them more watchful and making it more difficult for future slaves to escape.

As a Quaker, I take the same pride in the bold acts of those who came before me. Though I certainly believe that slavery was a blight in the face of fairness and justice, something doesn’t quite sit right with me. Many Quaker Meetinghouses hollowed out their floors, making space for compartments to hide runaway slaves. Ingenious strategies like these were a testament to the marriage of creativity and social justice.

The Underground Railroad was a triumph of grassroots activism, highly coordinated and heavily reliant on cooperation between whites and freed blacks. Without freed blacks and the cover they produced for their runaway brethren, the Underground Railroad would have never functioned. It was audacious and risky, motivated by those whose had been persecuted themselves within the past couple of centuries. If anyone understood what it was like to be denied basic freedoms, Friends did.

We return to the troublesome matter of whether the Underground Railroad was unforgivably illegal or an example of justified Civil Disobedience. Desperate times call for desperate measures, as the old saying goes. Many modern-day Friends may go their whole life never holding a firearm and might even discourage their children from that experience. The famous Quaker paper trail has kept many young Friends from serving in active military service, serving instead as a conscientious objector.

One might think that Quakers are pushovers, deluded believers in a standard of conduct that is out of touch with reality. And yet, we channel our aggression in very different forms. Pacifism might not be for everyone, but those willing to make it work have displayed astonishing resourcefulness. Roughly 100,000 slaves successfully escaped, only a fraction of those held in bondage, but this should hardly be considered a disappointment.

I wish that the Religious Society of Friends would undertake an ambitious project like this again. In fairness, slavery had been a controversial issue for nearly a century. The nation had been moving towards Civil War for decades, and passions and tempers flared well before men on both sides lined up across battle lines from each other. It was a single issue that was easy to understand, not easily beholden to nuance and complication. Blacks were either human beings on equal standing with whites or inferior and fully subordinate to whites.

Did we wage war or wage peace? I suppose it’s all in how one looks at it. The Underground Railroad might be seen as a humanitarian mission. True pacifism, as expressed by Jesus, can be tricky to nail down. In the Sermon on the Mount, we are told to turn the other cheek and to pray for those who persecute us. But we’re also told that those who tempt new believers ought to have a large stone tied around his or her neck and be thrown into the sea to drown to death.

Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address uses the passage that follows to great effect. Here, he speaks of the issue, slavery, which divided the country into factions and caused a great war.

Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! 

The Quakers and other religious peoples who threw their efforts into conducting the Underground Railroad might have believed the same. Lincoln believed that slavery was such an evil that only a war could wipe away the stain of it. Quakers believed the slavery was indeed evil, but most did not pick up arms in defense of the Union or the bondsman. Those who did often found themselves read out (disowned), no longer welcome even in the places where they had grown up.

We may not have been ready to live in peace, in defiance of our warlike impulses. It remains to be seen how we have progressed in 150 years. Should we undertake another crusade, what form would it take? I am not certain if any pressing societal ill would capture anyone's attention the way slavery did. Before war broke out, even many slave owners confessed that the practice was morally wrong, yet they did little besides setting their slaves free upon their death. Drawing parallels across time is not always a useful exercise, but it may do us well to examine the decisions we once made.

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