Monday, March 05, 2007

1 Chron 12:32 report, 31: The Wilberforce model for cultural reform

On the weekend just past, I heard one of our pan Africanist activists on the local radio station complaining -- anger audible in his voice -- about celebrations on the ending of the slave trade some 200 years ago. In summary, his view is that there is nothing positive in the celebration of how the British public turned from an "obvious" and self-serving wrong, and the self-praise implied in such a celebration is at best naive, or even hypocritically self-congratulatory.

Such an attitude is easy enough to understand, but I believe it is profoundly wrong, and wrong in a way that is highly instructive for us as we consider the unfinished business of godly reformation in the Caribbean.

My rationale starts with the alleged "obviousness" of the wrongfulness of slavery. For, the world [and only in part, sadly] has had to learn to see slavery etc as "obviously wrong." Indeed, as S. T. Karnick remarks in an interesting comment on an early scene in the Amazing Grace movie:

Young William Wilberforce . . . confronts a man who is beating an exhausted horse as it lies inert in the mud, in an impossible and heartless attempt to get it to do its appointed work. But it is not simply Wilberforce’s compassion that is at work here — that would be an insufferable cliché. The man reacts threateningly to Wilberforce’s intervention, but instead of responding with anger, accusations, or pleas for sympathy for the exhausted animal, Wilberforce confronts him with straight facts, pure reason, and an appeal to the man’s self-interest. He tells the man that if he lets the horse rest for a half hour or so, it will be ready to carry on.

The man grudgingly realizes the sense in this, and drops his whip into the mud.

This is precisely what Wilberforce would go on to do as a member of Parliament and the man who led the empire to abolish slavery. His great cause was to bring to light the facts of slavery and persuade his countrymen to do the right thing. [NB: He also was involved in no less than sixty seven other reformation initiatives . . .]

Karnick then remarks that "Amazing Grace is certainly suffused with religion, but it is not a “religious film” . . . Most of the film deals directly not with religion but with politics." I would adjust that: the politics of scoio-cultural and public policy reformation. Thus, it is of a piece with the well-springs of such God-honouring reform, i.e. Gospel-driven repentance, renewal and revival as they impact a critical mass of a given community.

The reviewer then tellingly amplifies on the dynamics of such reformation:

The film shows the transition of Britain from a society in which a small aristocracy ruled without much influence from the general public, to one in which the public’s opinion mattered immensely. This is in great part a manifestation of the world-changing effects of Protestantism, and Amazing Grace shows that relationship by depicting the central place of Wilberforce’s evangelical zeal in motivating his entirely quixotic ambition to end the slave trade throughout the British Empire.

His aspiration is quixotic because slavery is so ingrained into the British economy that almost everyone has an interest in keeping it going. Hence, at first there is overwhelming opposition to Wilberforce’s ambitious proposal. He has to struggle for years [from the 1780's to 1807] before he can even get close to victory.

In short, true reformation is rooted in the slow but sure, conscience-awakening, truth-seeking effects of spiritual renewal -- a process that, as a rule cuts across entrenched interests, who fight back, hard and dirty, using the rhetoric of dismissal and atmosphere poisoning. (A major tactic was to portray Wilberforce and those who stood with him as hypocrites . . .) Thus, reformation is an inevitably slow process, but the real alternative: rage-driven rebellion and revolution, has a far worse track record - predictably and repeatedly triggering bloodbaths, reigns of terror and tyrannies that are often worse than what was overthrown. [The French, Nazi, Russian and Chinese revolutions are only four leading examples. Closer to home, as we learn to take the rosy tinted spectacles off, the Cuban revolution is not going to look as good in retrospect as we often imagine it to be today.]

That brings us to what may sound jarring to our secularised ears: the spiritually-driven politics of peaceful, godly, liberalising democratic reformation:

Adding further interest is the film’s intelligent and comprehensible depiction of the politics of the time — and its implications for other eras. The conservatives of the time, of course, are those who will not even consider any alteration to the institution of slavery. Their concern (one that seemed valid then but was proven entirely illusory immediately after abolition) is that such a basic change will bring vast social disorder, poverty, and catastrophic defeat in an imminent war with the French.

The radicals, represented by Clarkson, are too impatient to accept gradual change. They want an immediate transformation of English society such that the entire aristocracy will be thrown out immediately, as is happening in France.

The liberals, Wilberforce, and his allies, want change but recognize that they must find a way to do it such that both liberty and order will be maximized. A more perfect illustration of the essence of classical liberalism would be difficult to imagine. In an important and impassioned scene, Clarkson argues with Wilberforce about the need for immediate, radical change on the order of the French Revolution. Wilberforce points out that prudence and justice require that things be done in an orderly way. Ultimately, both the radicals and the conservatives come to see things Wilberforce’s way — or at least give in to it.

Thus, Wilberforce also provides a model for re-thinking evangelical engagement of the socio-cultural sphere, towards God-blessed transformation of society. In short, repentance, renewal and revival have major and positive social consequences.

That means, as we move on to the issue of mobilising for the onward mission of the church in and from the Caribbean, there is a serious question to consider: Are we willing to pay the price of walking in the light? END

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