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William Wilberforce and the Possibility of “Christian” Politics

William Wilberforce was a passionate Christian who entered politics for the sole purpose of ending the slave trade.  For more than thirty years he passionately  and courageous labored to get Parliament to outlaw the practice. His life’s dream was fulfilled a month before he died in 1833. It’s no surprise, therefore, that Wilberforce is frequently held up as an example of how Christians can and should be involved in politics.  The lesson we need to learn from Wilberforce, we are sometimes told, is that we can change the world by political means.

By contrast, in my book The Myth of a Christian Nation I challenged Christians to keep their allegiance to the Kingdom of God distinct from their political involvement. While political involvement can at times do some good, our unique call is bring about social transformation in a unique Jesus-looking way.  Only what looks like Jesus, dying on a cross for his enemies, can be called The Kingdom of God.  Our unique call, in other words, is to demonstrate God’s love through sacrificial service to the world.  Some have recently argued that my perspective stands in conflict with the example of Wilberforce  – as though I’d possibly be against what he did.  This is not at all the case.  To clarify the situation, I’ll make four points.

1)  I consider Wilberforce to be one of history’s greatest human beings, and certainly one of history’s greatest politicians!  The thing that makes Wilberforce’s passion and achievement most remarkable is that, while most English people in the 19th century knew they benefited economically from the slave trade, it wasn’t something most actually witnessed. The brutal plantations the slaves worked on were all in far off English colonies (Jamaica, for example).  In fact, Wilberforce himself never managed to witness first hand any of England’s slave plantations.  Whatever information English people had about the ghoulish conditions of slaves was gleaned from rumors that circulated or, much less frequently, from people such as John Newton who had actually participated in it.  (It was Newton’s testimony that inflamed Wilberforce’s passion).

This state of relative ignorance made it easy for English folks to benefit from the slave trade without any pain of conscience, especially since the slave industry propagated the lie that slaves actually faired better under British authority than they did in their own native countries. The main challenge Wilberforce faced, therefore, was getting Parliament and the general populace to believe the testimony of John Newton and others regarding the nightmarish truth about the slave trade. This challenge Wilberforce faced with a passion, courage and persistence that has rarely been equaled.

There is nothing about any of this that in any way conflicts with my conviction that Christians need to keep their allegiance to the Kingdom of God distinct from their involvement in politics. Wilberforce was simply a man who learned the barbaric truth about an inhumane practice and who nobly made it his life mission to end the practice by enlightening and motivating others.  As contemporary parallels we might cite those noble souls who are now trying to raise our awareness about the horrors of sex trafficking in various parts of the globe or the catastrophic AIDS epidemic that is devastating parts of Africa. Or we might point to those who are trying to bring an end to the  ghoulish treatment of animals on industrial farms by making people aware of it, encouraging them to buy only from “Free Farms” (where animals are allowed a degree of natural living) or to become vegetarian.

These are obviously issues Christians should be concerned about, but there’s nothing uniquely Christian about this  concern.  Any decent human being should feel passionately about the sex slave trade and be concerned about the mistreatment of animals, once they are informed.  It shouldn’t surprise us, therefore, that among the leaders of the contemporary global justice movement and the fair treatment of animals movement are orthodox Jews, Buddhists, Muslims and an assortment of atheists, in addition to Christians.

2) This leads us to a second important point: politics is about issues that concern the polis – the Greek word for “city state” (we could today render it “society”). A good politician works to solve issues that divide a particular society (polis) by providing reliable information while striving to build a consensus around shared values and ideals. In 19th century England this might at times involve appealing to Scripture, since England was at this time “officially” Christian.  So it should not surprise us if Wilberforce at times made appeals to Scripture. But the broader point is that Wilberforce, like any good politician, was simply trying to bring about change by informing people and building a consensus around shared ideals. There’s nothing distinctly Christian about this.  If Wilberforce had been an agnostic instead of a Christian, he’d have done the exact same thing – if , indeed, he was thinking like a good politician.

This point is important for evangelicals in America, for unlike 19th century England, our polis is increasingly pluralistic and divided.  While politicians still occasionally reference a biblical passage (almost invariably out of context!) to garner allegiance from the Christian voting block, the Bible is not a broadly shared source of authority – certainly not on political matters.  The way to effectively resolve issues in a society such as ours, therefore, is to appeal to values and ideals that are more broadly shared.  In other words, the standard that is relevant for resolving political issues in a pluralistic society is not the Bible, but common human decency.

All this is to say that, while Wilberforce is certainly an example of the good that a noble and smart politician can accomplish, we ought not to take him as an example of how to bring about change by uniquely Christ-like means.

3) Along these same lines, we need to bear in the mind the vast difference between issues of good verses evil, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, ambiguous issues that divide a polis because of lack of agreement regarding how to best achieve a particular good. (I’m aware that this distinction may not always be clear cut, but this will have to suffice for now). The practice of slave-trading, sex-trafficking and the AIDS epidemic are examples of the first.  In these cases, evil people, or evils in nature, are brutally dehumanizing fellow human beings. Here the challenge is to inform people of what’s going on while appealing to their common human decency to confront the evil head-on.

Most political issues, however, are not of this sort. They rather fall into the second camp. Consider, for example, the hot political issue of what economic program most helps the poor. Should we place a higher tax burden on the wealthy in order to provide safety nets and opportunities for the poor (roughly, the Democratic plan)? Or should we rather provide more incentives for the wealthy to expand their business ventures so they will continue to create new jobs, thus providing opportunities for people to get out of poverty (roughly, the Republican plan)? This is an issue about which decent people who passionately care about the poor fundamentally disagree (despite the fact that people on both sides often accuse their opponents of not caring).

Or, more controversially, consider the issue of abortion.  Despite the heated accusations people on both sides of the fence sometimes hurl at their opponents, “pro-choice” voters are not in favor of killing babies, and “pro-life” voters are not in favor of oppressing women! The issue, rather, is that there is in our society no broadly shared consensus about how to weigh the rights of the mother against the rights of the unborn.  This, in turn, reflects the fact that there’s no shared consensus about when personhood begins, what the metaphysical status of the unborn is at various stages of development, and whether the government or women should have the power to decide these issues.  This is not a matter of one group of good people fighting against another group of evil people.  Rather, this is an issue about which good people fundamentally disagree, even after all the information is on the table.

Now, if an issue is a matter of good verses evil, decent people will all be united against the evil once they are informed about it. The task, in this case, is the one Wilberforce faced.  One needs to disseminate credible information to motivate decent people to confront the issue.  If, however, the issue is one about which decent people disagree, even when all the information is on the table, the political challenge is to build consensus by appealing to values shared by all parties while calling for compromise. (Christians often hate the word “compromise,” but it’s absolutely essential in politics when decent people can’t agree).  The only way to bridge the divide in the polis is by finding a middle ground all parties can, in principle, agree on.

What we need to see is that, in either case, there is no uniquely Christian stance to be taken.  If an issue is a matter of good verses evil, then it will be obvious to decent people what should be done, so appealing to distinctly Christian teachings is unnecessary. If, however, an issue is a matter about which decent people disagree, even when all the information is on the table, appealing to distinct Christian teaching won’t be helpful, for the simple reason that the society (polis) isn’t all Christian.  So, whether the issue is good verses evil or an ambiguous issue that divides society, we’re mistaken if we think there is a uniquely Christian “position” to be found.

I thus appreciate appeals to Wilberforce as our example of how Christians, along with all other decent people, should do everything they can – including being involved in political processes, as necessary – to confront evils such as the contemporary slave trade, sex-trafficking and the AIDS epidemic.  But when people use Wilberforce as an example of how Christians should assume the “Christian” position on issues about which decent people disagree, I believe they are fundamentally misusing his example. There may (or may not) be uniquely Christian teachings that resolve ambiguous issues in certain ways for Christians.  But this says little about what opinion a Christian should have regarding ambiguous issues about which decent people disagree.

4) Finally, let’s ask the question: What would a uniquely Kingdom approach to issues of good verses evil look like? What should the Church have done in Wilberforce’s day, and what should the Church being doing now, about issues such as the slave trade?

The Kingdom, I have said, always looks like Jesus, dying on Calvary for the very people who crucified him.  The Kingdom, in other words, is also about sacrificing one’s own time and resources (and life when necessary) for the sake of all other people, including our enemies.  So the question is: How can Christians individually and collective look like Jesus, expressing God’s love, for people oppressed by sex-trafficking, the slave-trade, the AIDS epidemic, and so on? Three things need to be briefly said.

First, the Church must get informed and then help inform others, for unless one knows about an evil,  they can’t possibly be motivated to confront the evil.  This might involve financially supporting workers in the field, whether they be Christian or not, whose mission it is to enlighten people about various atrocities around the globe. To draw an analogy with Wilberforce’s day, this would be a bit like supporting the John Newton’s of the world to help them get their voices heard.

Second, individuals and churches must seek God’s guidance about how they should sacrifice of their own time and resources to help rescue people caught in sex-trafficking and the slave-trade, to help people oppressed by AIDS, etc.  This might involve partnering with organizations that work directly on the field, such as the International Justice Mission, Project Rescue, World Vision, the Child at War Center (an organization that rescues children recruited for war, mainly in Uganda), or any number of other organizations.

Third, and in my mind most importantly, the Church as a collective whole must ask how it can sacrificially enter into solidarity with those oppressed by human and natural evil.  Unfortunately, we Christians have allowed ourselves to be so divided for so long that it’s hard for many to even imagine what this would look like.

In fact, I am convinced that one of the reasons so many are inclined to rely on government to do the right thing is because the Church has been so impotent for so long, due to its fragmentation, that many suffer from an impoverished imagination.  How we need to recover this!  Think of the impact we could have in the world, to the glory of God (not any government), if we united around a vision to sacrificially serve the world. We would be, in effect, a giant Jesus, which is exactly what the Church is supposed to be.

I’m happy to say that there are many encouraging signs that the Church is moving in this direction. Leaders like Rick Warren, Bill Hybels and (yes!) Bono are making great headway in rallying the collective body around a vision of service – rather than being divided in the name of doctrinal purity.  Each individual, and each church, should seek God’s direction on how they should align themselves with this beautiful, growing movement.

In closing, I encourage Christians to be informed about the issues of the world and to be engaged in the political process however they feel led.  With Wilberforce, your passion may help change the world.  But I encourage them to not identify their political involvement as uniquely Christian, for it is not. And I encourage all Christians to see their primary authority and identity as residing not in how they are political, but in how they sacrifice themselves in love for others.

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