What is the trouble with coercive power?

It only strengthens resistance, Robert Greenleaf writes in The Servant as Leader.  “And, if successful, its controlling effect lasts only as long as the force is strong.”

There is a better way.


Robert shares the story of John Woolman, an American Quaker, who was alive at the time of the American Revolution.  Not many know the story of John Woolman. But we should as he almost singlehandedly rid the Society of Friends (Quakers) of slaves. 

“It is difficult now to imagine the Quakers as slaveholders, as indeed it is difficult now to imagine anyone being a slaveholder,” Robert writes.  “But many of the eighteenth century American Quakers were affluent, conservative slaveholders and John Woolman, as a young man, set his goal to rid his beloved Society of this terrible practice.”

John spent thirty years largely devoted to persuading his fellow Quakers to free their slaves.    

By 1770, nearly 100 years before the Civil War, no Quakers held slaves. 

“His method was unique. He didn’t raise a big storm about it or start a protest movement.  His method was one of gentle but clear and persistent persuasion,” writes Robert.  

John journeyed up and down the East Coast by foot or horseback visiting slaveholders—over a period of many years. 

“His approach was not to censure the slaveholders in a way that drew their animosity,” Robert continues.  “Rather the burden of his approach was to raise questions:  What does the owning of slaves do to you as a moral person? What kind of an institution are you binding over to your children?”

By asking questions, John led the slaveholders to realize and confront the gap between their espoused values and their actions and behaviors.   

Person by person, conversation by conversation, “by persistently returning and revisiting and pressing his gentle argument over a period of thirty years, the scourge of slavery was eliminated from this Society, the first religious group in America formally to denounce and forbid slavery among its members.” 

Previously, we explored why lack of foresight is an ethical failure.  Robert wonders: “What would have been the result if there had been fifty John Woolmans, or even five, traveling the length and breadth of the Colonies in the eighteenth century persuading people one by one with gentle nonjudgmental argument that a wrong should be righted by individual voluntary action. 

“Perhaps we would not have had the war with its 600,000 casualties and the impoverishment of the South, and with the resultant vexing social problem that is at fever heat 100 years later with no end in sight.”

Persuasion creates opportunity and alternatives so that the individual is able to make choices.  Coercion forces someone down a predetermined path.  Persuasion builds autonomy.  Coercion crushes it. 


Reflection: Consider a time in the past where my actions did not match my espoused values?  How did this feel?  What resulted?

Action:  Are there parts of my life where my actions don’t match my values?  Take action.

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