Message from the Pastoral Care and Eldership Team (PaCET) for Sunday Meeting 28th May 2023
Dear Friends, John Woolman was an 18th century American Quaker, well known for his opposition to slavery. His journal is a Quaker classic. During a period of sickness, … Message from the Pastoral Care and Eldership Team (PaCET) for Sunday Meeting 28th May 2023
John Woolman was an 18th century American Quaker, well known for his opposition to slavery. His journal is a Quaker classic.
During a period of sickness, he had a visionary experience, part of which he describes as follows (see Quaker Faith & Practice 21.64):
“I was then carried in spirit to the mines where poor oppressed people were digging rich treasures for those called Christians, and heard them blaspheme the name of Christ, at which I was grieved for His Name to me was precious. Then I was informed that these heathens were told that those who oppressed them were the followers of Christ, and they said amongst themselves, ‘If Christ directed them to use us in this sort, then Christ is a cruel tyrant’.”
I’ve been thinking of this passage a great deal recently. I’ve been reading “Cobalt Red”, a book by an investigative journalist called Siddharth Kara, about cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Cobalt is an essential component of the rechargeable lithium batteries that charge our mobile phones, laptops, and electric vehicles. The DRC produces about 70% of the world’s supply. Much of the mining is carried out by the informal (or “artisanal”) sector; self-employed individuals using hand tools, working in conditions that are toxic at best, and in many places (especially where tunnelling is used) appallingly dangerous. Child labour is common – likewise debt bondage, and other practices akin to slavery. Kara makes a convincing case that the efforts made by major Western companies to audit their cobalt supply chain have, so far, been totally ineffectual.
John Woolman refused to eat off silver plates and abstained from sugar, because both silver and sugar were produced using slave labour. I suspect that today he would have refused to own a smartphone, or a laptop – at any rate, if he had read Kara’s book.
What can I do? I can’t see my way to doing without these things – my working life (and my Quaker life also) would be impossible.
When we get a glimpse of the human reality that lies behind abstractions like “hyper-globalisation”, it can be hard for us to know what to do next.
But awareness is surely better than ignorance, even when it leaves us unsure of how to act. Woolman’s fierce certainties grew and developed over time, as he reflected on what it meant to live in a slave-owning society. The fundamental thing was that, when faced with injustice, he refused to look the other way. If we can do likewise, then at any rate it’s a good place to start.
On behalf of Pastoral Care & Eldership Team (PaCET)