It’s wrong or right, white or black: there is no gray. It’s either this or that, with no in between: you are for us or against us, there is no fence-post sitting.
This type of thinking isn’t considered cool anymore. There is good reason for it too. And yet, I think there is still room for the dichotomous approach. The rich lording it over the poor is always wrong; the powerful mistreating the weak is reprehensible; men who take advantage of women—either by sheer physical largeness or more commonly acceptable societal norms—is just flat-out wrong. Not treating people in a loving manner (and I am so sick of the trite and perversely overused statement “love the sinner, hate the sin”) and flagrant abuse is something we don’t have to beat around the bush about. It is wrong.
We all see some issues we think need changing. The beauteous thing about humanity is we all are able to identify aspects of various matters that could and should be improved.
However, knowing—and being angry!—that some injustice is being perpetrated or moral travesty is being allowed and implementing meaningful changes within our culture and government is a slightly different issue. At least, I think so.
I have this well-educated friend who is part of an identifiable minority. When asked what political party he especially respects, he gets really tickled by shocking the askers and saying, “Communism.” Then while their mouths are drawn, he adds, “Specifically Maoist and Leninist.” He goes on to say, “At least those guys could get something done!” (He isn’t actually a communist, but I love the shock value his answer gets.)
And so it seems to me we come to a problem in our very non Maoist or Leninist political sphere, better known as democracy. If we see an injustice—and if we don’t, we aren’t paying attention—what are we as Christians supposed to do? Especially if we are in the minority and the thing in question is culturally acceptable? Or at least accommodated.
For sure we can pray for the group or topic in trouble or need; we can pray for the governing bodies that they would have wisdom in dealing with the issue. We can even get involved in groups that help assist in the struggle. But here is where I think we sometimes get it wrong—and this is in part due to our culture, which values now—we expect changes to happen too fast. We don’t consider that the problem we see took time to develop, and it’s in all likelihood going to take time to be dismantled, rectified, and so on, and so on.
Enter William Wilberforce. If you haven’t seen the movie Amazing Grace, you still probably know his important role in ending the slave trade in Britain. What you might not know is that Wilberforce had no illusions about ending the maliferous practice in a short period of time. In fact, his work in the British Parliament started in the late 1780s, with the ending of slavery only coming in 1833—three days before his death. That’s nearly half a lifetime!
Do I, in our culture of now, have that much patience? Yet addressing problems that have taken years to develop probably requires sufficient strategy. I found the following lessons from Wilberforce exceedingly timely for those of us who see injustices and want to do something about them.
Wilberforce refused to allow the issues he was fighting against to be labeled “religious” or morally subjective. Even then, the idea that there is a moral relativity was employed against social justice issues. After all, slavery was legal, socially acceptable, and culturally engrained. But he eliminated the option for slavery to be wrong at a mere religious or moral level. He helped engender the idea that it was fundamentally wrong. Furthermore, to make his arguments less like personal attacks, he included himself in the criticism. He said,
I mean not accuse anyone, but to take shame upon myself, in common indeed, with the whole … of Britain, for having suffered this horrible trade to be carried on under their authority. We are all guilty—we ought to plead guilty, and not exculpate ourselves by throwing the blame on others.
The other methodology Wilberforce employed was the power of incremental progress. He was culturally informed enough to realize that immediate emancipation was sadly neither practical nor possible. (Although this is a distasteful idea, I think it reaches to many areas of social justice Christians are concerned about.) Thus, for Wilberforce, the power of the slippery slope could be utilized in a positive way. He introduced small laws—and ways of thinking about human rights that worked to reverse slavery—but they took nearly forty years to work to his and other of the abolitionists’ final endgame. Such laws, in fact, angered many abolitionist supporters and other anti-slavery church people of the time. Why? Because they wanted immediacy. They saw a wrong being committed and wanted it to be stopped now. Laws that didn’t outright end slavery were seen as accepting slavery as an institution. (Yes, be annoyed; I was floored at the lack of foresight. And alas, this attitude still exists today in other areas. It’s the all or nothing binary, and it’s, well, dumb.)
After unsuccessfully trying to ban slavery outright in the 1790s, Wilberforce turned to incrementalization. He introduced legislation that decreased the number of slaves that could be transported; then regulations on sales and the introduction of slave registration were next steps. Also passed were laws on the treatment of the enslaved (e.g., banning whipping). This ultimately proved successful. In fact, historians generally agree that these incremental steps—over time—were responsible for the ultimate procuring of freedom for slaves.
So back to us. We as Christians do have a mandate and responsibility to help make life better here on earth. We are supposed to be salty. We are supposed to be rescuers. And yet we also are to be wise and effective while doing it.
I think there are two ditches we can easily fall into. In one ditch are those people who see the forest and maybe not the trees. They are tempted to feel impotent to make changes because the requirements for meaningful change are so overwhelming. The result is that they can feel powerless and therefore give up and do nothing. The other ditch is for those who are impassioned and even work in the trenches—they see the trees all the time. They see the immediate needs and hunger for immediate results, and, as a result, they can be frustrated with those people who seem unwilling to voice their dissent and act for immediate change. Perhaps something we can learn from Wilberforce’s model is the value of steadfastness, and that progress takes passion, time, and patience. The interim, though agonizing, is not a time to despair, but to intelligently persevere.