On Garbage

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Henry Ford, the father of mass production, is famously known for declaring, “History is bunk.” Thus, he relegated “History” to “the trash heap of history.” (The word “bunk” comes from the Dutch word for “rubbish,” bunkum.) Histories exist to make sense of people’s lives, to reveal the meanings of humanity. Assembly lines exist to maximize the output of people’s lives, to boost the means of production. Between history and industry, humanity and mass production, tensions are too often resolved by treating the sacred as garbage.

Eighteenth-century Quakers – with their eager insights, careful habits of recordkeeping, and internally cohesive communities – easily entered into the vanguard of the industrial revolution. They were among the earliest manufacturers of iron and steel, builders of steamships and locomotives, and producers of pharmaceuticals and mass consumer goods. Many of them became wealthy. As a result, part of our Quaker inheritance is a particular responsibility today to recognize and help resolve some of the foul consequences of industrialism and capitalism.

The near genocide of the original inhabitants of North America, the kidnapping and enslavement of African peoples, the ongoing exclusion of people of color from balanced participation in all sectors of the U.S. economy, their ongoing entrapment in systems of mass incarceration, the current sixth mass extinction of species on earth, “urban development” through displacement, “healing” of pain through narcotics, “safety” through handguns, peace through strength – all these are trashings of the sacred. All these proceed from the premise of “I-it” and ignore the sacred call of “I-Thou.”

Many love John Woolman (not only Quakers – his Journal is part of the Harvard Classics) because he saw clearly and mourned deeply the powers of cruelty and greed in his day. While traveling to “labor with” slaveholders, he wrote:

Though traveling on foot was wearisome to my body, yet this traveling was agreeable to the state of my mind. I went gently on, being weakly, and was covered with sorrow and heaviness on account of the spreading, prevailing spirit of the world, introducing customs grievous and oppressive on one hand, and cherishing pride and wantonness on the other. (1766)

Many people also love Woolman for his courage. A century before the U.S. Civil War, he pointedly visited individual slaveholders and shared with them the “sorrow and heaviness” he felt on their behalf and on behalf of the people enslaved. This was not a popular activity.

From one age to another the gloom grows thicker and darker, till error gets established by general opinion; that whoever attends to Perfect Goodness and remains under the melting influence of it finds a path unknown to many, and sees the necessity to lean upon the arm of divine strength and dwell alone, or with a few in the right, committing their cause to him who is a refuge for his people in all their troubles. (1761)

We don’t need to invent our salvation. John Woolman walked his weary road leaning on the arm of his God. The sacred is all around us. We have only to look at what we have overlooked previously and say, “Hello, you.” We have only to listen to the stories of people we have long discounted and say, “Tell me what you think I can do.” We also need to commit ourselves to the hard work of deciphering a common history that includes accounts from everyone involved. This will surely require us to learn to lean more trustingly on the arm of the God. For among the impossible volume of facts and dates in the record of time, only God knows which set gives the truest representation of human history.

Good people everywhere are trying to “attend to Perfect Goodness.” For example, the first “Benefit Corporation” was established in 2010 and since then, thirty-one states have passed legislation allowing for “B Corps,” reflecting a broad social movement toward sustainability and human equity. Quakers can look for what’s sacred in efforts like these; we can cherish what’s sacred within the profane. With divine help, we can do our part to revive the spirits of all who’ve been harmed by our history.