Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Matt 24 watch, 36: of live donkeys, dead lions (and lurking hyenas)

A few days ago, I received an invitation to a public lecture in "celebration" of the 200th anniversary of the ending of the British Empire slave trade; which I declined.

The reason for that declining, sadly, is both sufficiently general and sufficiently relevant to the issues-linked challenges Bible believing educated Christians now increasingly routinely face in our region, for me to share the following troubled thoughts excerpted and adapted from my letter of response to the invitation.

That the issues also reflect on the challenges faced by the regional university in the anglophone Caribbean, and also the implications of the agendas of a Sheik El Faisal, add to the reasons why it is necessary for us to think about the following:

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I . . . [am] expressing my specific and severe disappointment . . . . The specific point which excites this remark is the statement in the letter of invitation [to a public lecture on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the ending of the British Empire Slave Trade]:
Dr X will take a critical look at the sentimental construction of abolitionists as humanitarians versus the true historical abolitionists as spokesmen of a new colonialism safe from the dread of slave revolts. [emphasis added]
I find this statement to be grossly unfair, and superciliously and uncivilly dismissive; also, it is riddled with anachronisms that imply an unwarranted accusation of hypocrisy.

It is also grossly distorting of the evident motives and career of the relevant abolitionists, such as for instance Mr William Wilberforce.

In some ways even worse than these, is the one-sided advocacy implied in the dismissive use of the term "sentimental," in the context of a region that has but one research-level university which therefore has an obligation to avoid faddism, one-sided historical revisionism and political correctness . . . .

Added to all of this, I am increasingly concerned that one sided revisionism of the religious dimension of the history of our region will create an utterly distorted view of this crucial dimension of our past.

For, this comes only several years after Dr Sultana Afroz . . . presented a thesis that inter alia in effect 2/3ds of the slaves in Jamaica at the time of emancipation were crypto-Muslims, and that Anabaptist founders of the native Baptist church of Jamaica such as George Liele [we have in hand his covenantal statement of faith!] were similarly in "fact" Islamic; which is seemingly deaf to the overwhelming evidence that our slave ancestors in Jamaica were predominantly animist, then Christian [and of course syncretist between the two] as the Baptist faith took hold. Had Dr Afroz's thesis been true -- and Cf. Prof Maureen Warner-Lewis' response on specific points in the wider set of claims advanced by Dr Afroz -- . . . Jamaica would unquestionably be a Muslim state today.

In short, the claims just don't add up with what we already know on abundant and not exactly inaccessible evidence. I append several substantiating sources, on key factual points:
--> Even so humble a source as Wikipedia notes of Wilberforce that he "was an English politician, Member of Parliament for Yorkshire (1784–1812), a philanthropist, and evangelical Christian who, as a leading abolitionist headed the parliamentary campaign against the British slave trade, culminating in the passing of the Slave Trade Act in 1807, which paved the way for the complete abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833" and also . . .

--> that in his view, as expressed in his personal Journal,
' "God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners"[38][39] (‘manners’ meaning ‘morality’ in the English of the eighteenth century).'

--> Accordingly, he was involved, from my recall, in something like sixty-nine reformation movements, including things such as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, reformation of the plight of child chimney sweeps, and that of the insane. Of course, he was a finite, fallen, fallible human being so his record is not perfect; nor obviously is that of the other Abolitionists of his day. [Nor is our own record today . . .]

--> A similar pattern extends to a great many of the other evangelical reformers of the late C18 and early C19 as the social implications of the ethics of the Gospel gradually broke through the personal and cultural barriers, then took on the power and policy agendas of their day. In short, whatever else Wilberforce and others were, they often were Gospel-motivated humanitarians.
The dismissal of their commitment, struggle and sacrifice as "sentimental construction" is utterly unworthy of their memory.

--> Next, we need to understand the implications of the anachronism that lies in the accusation that they were "spokesmen of a new colonialism," to wit, one "safe from the dread of slave revolts." First, there was no workable alternative to colonialism at the time and this simply was not an issue. The anachronism of our resentment over colonialism freights itself with all the rhetorical grace of a live donkey kicking at the carcass of a safely dead lion.

--> Second to that, we need to take a more serious look at the usual consequence of slave revolts in the era: pointless slaughter and massacre. In the case of the major success, war, slaughter on an even grander scale and tyranny for two hundred years has been the result. Indeed, as events raced to the Baptist War in Jamaica, the Missionaries laboured in vain to correct the dangerous mis-impression that abolition had already been granted, and pointed out that uprising was a futile and self-defeating act. While as a result of the uprising and the burning of 13 dissenter chapels by the Colonial Church Union and its ilk etc, the response of the authorities in Britain to the incensed dissenters there did accelerate the Emancipation Act, I am not at all convinced that it was worth the price, short-term or long-term.

--> In short, IMHCO, none of the key terms in the thesis as advanced . . . is justified, or just.

--> Turning to the incidental matter of Dr Afroz's claims, I [link] two further documents that in the case of the first, shows where I believe she has gone seriously wrong in her transforming of an indisputable small minority presence of Muslim [and former Muslim] slaves into a majority people-group identity. The second is Prof Warner-Lewis' similar response, which speaks for itself.
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The above is significant in itself as a response to yet another bit of unbalanced historical revisionism that seeks to undermines our understanding of the major significance of the antislavery movement as a key case in point of Biblically based reformation movements materially contributing to the rise of modern liberty.

But there is also the issue of the hungry hyena lurking in the shadows as the live donkey kicks at the dead lion.

For, as we discussed only a week or two back, in attacking the Gospel on national Television in Jamaica, Mr Trevor William Forest, aka Sheik Abdullah El Faisal, declared -- and pardon the vulgar tone and substance:
Christianity was introduced by slave masters . . . . European slave masters also shoved Christianity down our throats – they also threw human excrement down our throats
In short, Islamist radicals such as El Faisal and his ilk seek to create a hostility to the Christian faith as being a repulsive and toxic imposition by our former slave masters shoved down our throats as an instrument of oppression, with overtones of Sadistic enjoyment of having the power to carry out such abuses.

In fact, of course, especially in Jamaica, it was precisely dissenter, Evangelical missionaries and their sending churches who were strongly associated with (i) missions to the slave population, and with (ii) the Abolitionist movement. Indeed, this close association was one reason why the Anglican-based Colonial Church Union in Jamaica took occasion of the Baptist War uprising of 1831 - 32, to burn down thirteen dissenter chapels.

Sherlock and Bennett, in their well- worth- reading The Story of the Jamaican People [Kingston, Jamaica: IRP, 1998], are well worth excerpting on the result as it played out in the UK:
As soon as news of the rebellion was received, the West India interests immediately strengthened their propaganda campaign, denounced the "incendiary preachers" . . . and inveighed against the lunacy of "letting loose those wild beasts [i.e., the slaves]." . . . Buxton counter attacked on March 7 [1832] when he declared in the House of Commons: "if the question respecting the West Indies was not speedily settled it would settle itself in an alarming way (i.e. by further rebellions) and the only way it could be settled was by the abolition of slavery."

. . . . on 1 April, Lord Belmore's report on the
white insurrection was published in Britain. It described in detail the attacks on the chapels and the missionaries. The burnt out cane fields had signalled an attack on property while the burnt out nonconformist chapels signalled an attack on the right of dissent and freedom of conscience. The talk about secession [to join the slave-holding states of the USA] and open defiance of the laws by the Colonial Church Union shocked many . . . .

The political crisis came to a head in the middle of May 1832. On 12th May the king refused the request of the Whigs that he appoint a number of peers so as to give them the necessary majority in the House of Lords . . . The Whigs resigned. The king recalled Wellington [of Waterloo]. For ten days Britain was on the brink of revolution . . . The Whigs returned to power on the 19th of May, the Lords accepted the Reform Bill and the king signed it on 7 June . . .

During May missionaries from Jamaica arrived, among them . . . William Knibb, who told the committee of the Baptist Missionary Society: "But if it be necessary I will take them [my wife and children] by the hand and walk barefoot through the Kingdom but I will make known to the Christians of England what their brethren in Jamaica are suffering." . . . He began his campaign at the annual missionary meeting at Spitalfield's Chapel in London, where he declared "Whatever the consequence I will speak. I will not rest day and night until I see slavery destroyed root and branch," and he pointed to the story of the antislavery campaign as "a wonderful evidence of the force and influence of the truth when brought home to the heart and conscience of a Christian nation." [pp. 223 - 225. Italics added.]
Thus, as Sherlock and Bennett summarise, "[n]ever before had the case against slavery been presented so forcibly to the British people by white men who had spent some years in Jamaica, ministering to African-Jamaicans, observing the plantation system from within, acquainting themselves with the slave laws and learning how great were the powers of the owner. "

Buxton, defying severe pressure from his own party, returned to the attack in parliament, and declared in the House of Commons, that "a war against people struggling for their rights would be the falsest position in which it was possible for England to be placed." After further publicity, much more parliamentary debate and conflict, and a despatch from the Governor of Jamaica that corroborated the Missionaries' testimony, abolition was passed on August 28, 1833, to take effect August 1st 1834.

Thus, we can see that both the one-sided revisionists and the Islamists are on the relevant historical evidence plainly wrong.

Further, through the words of Knibb, and the actions of Buxton and many others, we can see the potential of Biblically anchored reformation and liberation movements in not only his time but our own too.

That brings us right back to the perennial challenge that stands before us, as we face the issues, power-agendas and oppressions of our own time: Why not now, why not here, why not us? END
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UPDATE, Oct 31:
Since the story of Sir Thomas Buxton, as the second leader of the antislavery cause in the UK parliament [and the man who shepherded through the actual act of Emancipation] is also important in understanding the motives and actions of the Gospel ethics-motivated reformers relative to Dr X's thesis, I now again excerpt, from even so humble and accessible a source as Wikipedia:
Buxton was born at Castle Hedingham, Essex, England. His father was also named Thomas Fowell Buxton. His mother's maiden name was Anna Hanbury. She was a Quaker (member of the Religious Society of Friends). Through the influence of his mother, Buxton became a close friend of Joseph John Gurney and his sister, Elizabeth Fry, who were both prominent Quakers. Buxton married their sister Hannah Gurney, of Earlham Hall, Norwich in May 1807. . . . .

Although he was a member of the Church of England, Buxton attended Friends meetings with the Gurneys and became involved in the social reform movement being led by Friends. He helped raise money for the weavers of London who were forced into poverty by the factory system. He provided financial support for Elizabeth Fry’s prison reform work and became a member of her Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners in Newgate.

Buxton was elected as a Member of Parliament for Weymouth and Melcombe Regis in 1818. As an MP he worked for changes in prison conditions and criminal law and for the abolition of slavery. He also opposed capital punishment and pushed for its abolition. Although he never accomplished this last goal during his lifetime, he did help to reduce the number of crimes punishable by death from more than two hundred to eight.

Thomas and Hannah Buxton had eight children. Four of them died of whooping cough during a five-week period around April 1820. Another one died of consumption some time later . . . .

The slave trade had been abolished in 1807, but Buxton began to work for the abolishment of slavery itself. He helped found the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery (later the Anti-Slavery Society) in 1823. He took over as leader of the abolition movement in the British House of Commons after William Wilberforce retired in 1825. His efforts paid off in 1833 when slavery was officially abolished in the United Kingdom. Buxton held his seat in Parliament until 1837.

In 1839 Buxton urged the British government to make treaties with African leaders to abolish the slave trade. They sent a team (not including Buxton) to the Niger River Delta in 1841 that set up a headquarters and began negotiations. The party suffered so many deaths from disease that the government called them back. In 1840 Buxton was created a baronet. His health failed gradually, which some believed was caused by the disappointment over the failed mission to Africa. He died a few years later . . .
Again, I find that there is abundant reason to conclude that Buxton (though flawed as we all are) was clearly a humanitarian in the mould of Wilberforce; one who had the sensitivity and compassion to try to abolish the death penalty in the 1820's - 30's, and who plainly -- and in colloquial terms -- died of a broken heart when a further humanitarian mission led to mass deaths among the delegation, doubtless reminding him all too painfully of his own loss of four children to Whooping Cough in one month in 1820.

Further to this, his attempt to negotiate a settlement with African leaders in the pre-colonial era to abolish the slave trade in toto, immediately implies that he recognised the legitimacy and sovereignty of said leaders -- as did the UK Government, by direct consequence of the very act of trying to negotiate with them.

Thus, once more, the first -- and sadly dismissive -- part of Dr X's thesis is clearly inapt and the second is plainly anachronistic relative to abolitionist leaders of the relevant sixty-year period, i.e. 1780's - 1840's.

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FURTHER UPDATE. Nov 8 (a): Over the past day, I have received from the local sponsoring institution for the public lecture, a print copy.

While the tone and substance are such that, sadly, I must conclude that it is plainly pointless to attempt here a step by step rebuttal, a few additional remarks will be helpful in balancing the situation and further correcting on facts and issues. Hopefully, this will help to clear the air of the blinding, poisonous clouds created by the burning of rhetorical strawmen.

For instance, the lecture begins with a public attack on me by name, a public attack that (in an unfortunately classic strawman fallacy) fails to fairly state or address the specific issues and remedies I raised in questioning the above thesis and instead caricatured what I had to say then set out on the all-too-familiar path of one-sidedly indicting the litany of the real and imagined sins of Christendom on matters linked to slavery -- while failing to assess, e.g., the very interesting implications of a point that say a Bernard Lewis has long since raised.

Now, too, despite Dr X's dismissive reference, I make no apology for again linking so humble but useful a source as Wikipedia as a first point of reference for basic, easily accessible, cross-checkable information! Yes -- as I have had occasion to comment at other places and times -- Wiki is flawed (as are all sources made by fallible humans), but that does not mean we can simply broad-brush dismiss what it summarises or cites in a specific case. Instead, we need to apply straight-thinking principles.

Let us excerpt briefly from Professor Lewis' now classic, balancing discussion on the roots of Muslim rage:
. . . revulsion against America, more generally against the West, is by no means limited to the Muslim world . . . . The accusations are familiar. We of the West are accused of sexism, racism, and imperialism, institutionalized in patriarchy and slavery, tyranny and exploitation. To these charges, and to others as heinous, we have no option but to plead guilty -- not as Americans, nor yet as Westerners, but simply as human beings, as members of the human race. In none of these sins are we the only sinners, and in some of them we are very far from being the worst . . . .

Slavery is today universally denounced as an offense against humanity, but within living memory it has been practiced and even defended as a necessary institution, established and regulated by divine law. The peculiarity of the peculiar institution, as Americans once called it, lay not in its existence but in its abolition. Westerners were the first to break the consensus of acceptance and to outlaw slavery, first at home, then in the other territories they controlled, and finally wherever in the world they were able to exercise power or influence -- in a word, by means of imperialism . . . .

In having practiced sexism, racism, and imperialism, the West was merely following the common practice of mankind through the millennia of recorded history. Where it is distinct from all other civilizations is in having recognized, named, and tried, not entirely without success, to remedy these historic diseases. And that is surely a matter for congratulation, not condemnation. [Kindly follow the link and read on. By the way, while all of this was going on, I was reading Samuel Eliot Morison on the southern voyages of exploration, which brings out the many sins of the explorers and conquistadores with great force, the more effectively for being given with a measure of sympathetic judgement on these men as great but greatly flawed men, not mere one-dimensional "blue-eyed devils." Perhaps, it is not too much to hope that our region's historians could emulate such a maturity of tone?]
In short, it was this same flawed and woefully sinful (as we all are) but significantly open to reformation Christendom which Dr X would indict, that -- in material part under the impact of the teaching of the Gospel as freed through the Reformation -- first created a public that realised that slavery as a whole, was wrong and needed to be abolished as an institution. Then, in however inevitably flawed a fashion, they actually set about abolition, and in many cases have stayed at this thankless and apparently endless task, down to today. [We should also note on the contributions of Gospel ethics motivated Christians to the wider project of liberation and empowerment I have discussed here and here.]

In that context, Britain set out -- in however imperfect and flawed a fashion as we humans inevitably will -- to abolish the slave trade and slavery in its colonial dominions. Specifically, in the British empire, it was various dissenter Christians who first led the organised campaign against slavery, and it was Christian MPs associated with this who led the campaigns in parliament.

Further to this -- as, for instance, the above cite from Wilberforce's Journal that Dr X sought to dismiss by noting that my specific cite came from Wikipedia
shows -- Gospel Ethics based philantropic and humanitarian principles were a material part of their motivation. (Note: refs. no.'s 79 and 80 in the relevant article are to [79] Piper, John (2006). Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, p. 35, and to [80] Pollock, John (1977). Wilberforce. London: Constable, p. 69.)

Indeed, it is worth excerpting an online dictionary definition: a humanitarian is
someone devoted to the promotion of human welfare and to social reforms.

In the case of Wilberforce, the same Wiki article correctly notes that, in addition to abolitionism, championed many other causes including: "Reformation of manners and the Society for the Suppression of Vice, Charity schools . . . and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals." Buxton, as noted above was especially involved in penal reform, including attempting to achieve the abolition of the death penalty in the 1820's - 30's. Knibb, as I recall, first went to Jamaica as a Missionary school teacher, and continued to work there as a pastor and was a champion for the rights of the enslaved Afro-Caribbeans, especially on his return to Britain.

In short, these men on the simple record of facts -- whatever their inevitable flaws and failings as fallible human beings -- credibly were humanitarians. So, again, I must continue to point out: it was wrong for Dr X to try to sweep away this record with words like:
the sentimental construction of abolitionists as humanitarians.

Similarly, it is fair comment to again note that colonialism simply was not an issue at the time, as there was no credible alternative. Thus, the Abolitionists were not champions of a new Colonialism, but were arguing for liberation within the realm of what was reasonably possible in their day.

So, again, there is a plain need for the Faculty members of the only research level university in the Commonwealth Caribbean, to
avoid faddism, one-sided historical revisionism and political correctness.

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CAPSTONE UPDATE, Nov 9th:
It is rare for me to do a third update to a single post, but it is well worth the effort to add here from even so humble a source as the Wikipedia article on his life, the epitaph for William Wilberforce at Westminster Cathedral, which is attached to the statue by Samuel Joseph:
To the memory of William Wilberforce (born in Hull, August 24th 1759, died in London, July 29th 1833); for nearly half a century a member of the House of Commons, and, for six parliaments during that period, one of the two representatives for Yorkshire. In an age and country fertile in great and good men, he was among the foremost of those who fixed the character of their times; because to high and various talents, to warm benevolence, and to universal candour, he added the abiding eloquence of a Christian life. Eminent as he was in every department of public labour, and a leader in every work of charity, whether to relieve the temporal or the spiritual wants of his fellow-men, his name will ever be specially identified with those exertions which, by the blessing of God, removed from England the guilt of the African slave trade, and prepared the way for the abolition of slavery in every colony of the empire: in the prosecution of these objects he relied, not in vain, on God; but in the progress he was called to endure great obloquy and great opposition: he outlived, however, all enmity; and in the evening of his days, withdrew from public life and public observation to the bosom of his family. Yet he died not unnoticed or forgotten by his country: the Peers and Commons of England, with the Lord Chancellor and the Speaker at their head, in solemn procession from their respective houses, carried him to his fitting place among the mighty dead around, here to repose: till, through the merits of Jesus Christ, his only redeemer and saviour, (whom, in his life and in his writings he had desired to glorify,) he shall rise in the resurrection of the just.

2 comments:

Lloyd Cooke aka Daddy said...

Gordon,

Thanks for your thankless job of leading the fight for believers and thinkers against the mindless oposition to truth in history and to Christian positions. Thanks for studying and knowing the issues so that you can factually oppose the opposers of truth and Christian faith.

For Christ and truth,

Lloyd A. Cooke

Gordon said...

Bro Lloyd

Coming from a Church historian such as you are, that is deeply appreciated. Thank you, sir.

Gordon