Wilberforce And A Truer Reality
“It had been a long and dark winter of the soul, but at last the spring had come. Newton writes to his friend Cowper about Wilberforce: ‘I judge he is now decidedly on the right track . . . I hope the Lord will make him a blessing both as a Christian and a statesman. How seldom do these characters coincide!! But they are not incompatible.’” (Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery by Eric Metaxas, pp. 60-61).
As the vision of healing through freedom took root in my own mind, the story of William Wilberforce and the cause of abolition played a central role. This week, as I’ve re-read parts of his story as told by Eric Metaxas, I’ve been drawn again to the greatness of the story he lived. My hope is that in our work in politics, we will all be drawn to living greater lives, and walk away from the shallow stories of personal power and ideals that drive us to exclude half the country from our visions of a perfected America. As we tire of the silliness of the usual political constructs, we can draw inspiration from William Wilberforce and see that we need an awakening, we need a long-term focus, and we need to establish inclusive debate.
When we honestly start seeing the reality of American political culture—the constant quest for recognition, power, validation, and personal significance; the manipulation and spin of most of our talking points to create a fake reality; and the contempt for people on the other side that drives us to burnout trying to overcome our neighbors—we can finally start working to restore it, awakening a broken system to abundant life.
We’ll have to see our own contributions to the current reality though, and when we do it will likely feel as if the world is falling out from under us. It’s almost funny to me that when I was working on the Hill, I felt I related to a guy who lived more than two hundred years ago more than many of my colleagues. As Wilberforce was awakening to what the gospel should mean for work in politics, and the “truths that were now to him self-evident and that had changed everything,” he wasn’t quite sure what the future would hold:
It was as if what he had learned had eaten the very ground from under him but had not yet replaced it, and so he was falling and falling, wondering when he would hit bottom, wondering whether there was a bottom at all. (p. 54).
Thankfully, as he shared his feelings with John Newton (writer of the song Amazing Grace), he advised Wilberforce to stay in politics and find a framework to govern wisely.
Wilberforce must have poured out his heart now to the one person who might understand his anguish and difficult choices. But as so often is the case, Wilberforce discovered that what he had so terribly feared was a chimera, nothing as bad as he had thought. Newton didn’t tell him what he had expected—that to follow God he would have to leave politics. On the contrary, Newton encouraged Wilberforce to stay where he was, saying that God could use him there. Most others in Newton’s place would likely have insisted that Wilberforce pull away from the very place where his salt and light were most needed. How good that Newton did not. Wilberforce writes afterward: "When I came away I found my mind in a calm, tranquil state, more humbled, and looking more devoutly up to God." (pp. 59-60).
A Long-Term Focus
Eventually, Wilberforce would focus his life’s work on his two great objects: ending the slave trade and reformation of manners. And Britain, at the time, much needed his perspective and voice. Britain needed to move beyond empty, lifeless claims to religion and instead find the abundant life promised in the gospel. Britain needed someone who would order his life’s story around work that was defined by restoration. The situation was dark:
Entirely surprising to most of us, life in eighteenth-century Britain was particularly brutal, decadent, violent, and vulgar. Slavery was only the worst of a host of societal evils that included epidemic alcoholism, child prostitution, child labor, frequent public executions for petty crimes, public dissections and burnings of executed criminals, and unspeakable public cruelty to animals. (p. 69).
If we truly focus on the problems of our day, how should we debate them? Wilberforce again is an example.
The slave traders of his day would argue that the slaves on their ships were treated well, were up on the deck playing games and dancing in the sun. Reality was much different: instead, slaves were disoriented, in chains below deck, fighting to live in the mess of each other’s blood and excrement. But notice how Metaxas describes Wilberforce’s presentation of the issue before Parliament:
On and on he went, detailing every aspect of the evil process whereby living men, women, and children were turned into chattel. What was perhaps most remarkable about Wilberforce’s speech was the general tone of it. He might so easily have launched a blistering philippic against the damnable scum who made this wicked trade in tender human flesh possible and who still wished to keep it alive and thriving for as long as their gaping pockets could be filled. But he didn’t. Wilberforce’s faith had given him first and foremost a painful but very real knowledge of his own sinfulness, and when he now spoke, he did so with remarkable generosity and graciousness: “I mean not to accuse anyone,” he said, “but to take the shame upon myself, in common indeed with the whole Parliament of Great Britain, for having suffered this horrid trade to be carried on under their authority. We are all guilty—we ought all to plead guilty, and not to exculpate ourselves by throwing the blame on others.” Certainly this was as much a political calculation as anything, but it was not disingenuous. Wilberforce believed to the bottom the truth of what he was saying. (p. 133).
Does this sound like the tone of a presidential campaign, a speech on the floor of the U.S. House, or a comment thread on Facebook?
We can change our ways: in place of our silly narratives, we can write a story that’s beautiful, that sets others free too. It’s time we wake up to a new reality: LIBERATUS—we are set free.
WEEKLY ACTION ITEM:
Pick up a copy of Amazing Grace, and take notes on how you can radically change political culture where you are based on the story of William Wilberforce.
LIBERATUS is a weekly journal creatively pursuing Truth and Beauty by empowering writers in American politics to tell the story of healing through freedom. You can join the pursuit by applying to write, subscribing to the journal, or funding our vision by donating monthly or making a purchase in our store.
Desert Photo Credits: Heather Gibbons