I often tend to lean toward waiving a flag of danger and, thus, warning of bad ideas and the bondage, and dysfunction they bring. I have warned of the dehumanizing effects of radical Darwinism and I have bemoaned the selfishness of post-modern amorality. I have challenged us to beware of the constructed “choices” of man and to be very leery of hedonism’s uncanny gift of deception. Week after week I have attempted to craft a story that at least hints a bit at the destructive consequences of what M. Scott Peck calls the diabolical human mind and of History’s tendency toward insanity and seduction.
But today I would like to focus on the power of a good idea, one that bore its fruit some two hundred years ago on February 23, 1807 on the streets of London. The idea was simple, timeless, and profound. Its promoter was a young British Parliamentarian named William Wilberforce. And here was his idea: God is God and we are not.
You see Wilberforce believed that all men and women are created equal. He argued that regardless of age, race, size, shape, intelligence, or lack thereof that we all have unalienable rights granted by our creator; that we all are made in the image of the invisible God; that slavery (which was the backbone of the British economy at the time) is the desecration of such an image; and that by enslaving one man under another the owner is claiming to be God. Wilberforce’s idea was this: No one has the right to define what is human and what is not. This is God’s alone to judge.
For two decades Wilberforce fought tirelessly in the British Parliament for his idea. He was beaten back time and again. He was ridiculed. He was accused of economic treason. He was insulted. He was ostracized. His political career suffered and was all but lost. His influence waned and his voice was muffled. But he held fast to his idea. He relentlessly pursued it, defended it, and promoted, it. He believed in its power. He boldly declared that he would not be silenced. He confronted the “corruption . . . of human nature” and called “vice and wickedness” by their true names. He refused to accept the politically correct definitions of sin and contrasted the self-justifying dismissive talk of “frailty and infirmity, occasional failings, and accidental incidents” with what he called the “humiliating language of true Christianity”, i.e. the call for personal repentance, spiritual regeneration, and moral responsibility.
Wilberforce believed passionately in his worldview. He was confident in it as the only solution to the corruption of politics and the evils of oppression. He, however, did not advocate imposing his views with force. To the contrary, he believed in the power of persuasion and the example of personal integrity. He wrote that Christians should “boldly assert the cause of Christ in an age when so many who bear the name of Christian are ashamed of Him. Let them be active, useful, and generous toward others. Let them show moderation and self-denial themselves.” Thus, he made it clear that his ideas would only prevail if they were grounded in and proven by lives of those who espoused them.
Wilberforce concluded (knowing that he could commend belief but not command it) by saying: “The national difficulties we face result from the decline of religion and morality among us. I must confess equally boldly that my own solid hopes for the well-being of my country depend, not so much on her navies and armies . . . as on the persuasion that she still contains many who love and obey the Gospel of Christ. I believe that their prayers may yet prevail.”
After arguing for over 20 years on the floor of the British Parliament, William Wilberforce celebrated victory on February 23, 1807. It was the victory of an idea, not one of political or military conquest (of “navies and armies”), but that of a good idea over a bad one. It was a victory of truth over lies, of freedom over slavery, of sanctification over sin.
Ideas do indeed matter and in this case we see the power of an idea lived out in humility, balanced with integrity, and measured with grace can indeed change the world. In his example, Wilberforce leaves us with this hope: The “prayers of many who love and obey the Gospel of Christ . . . may yet prevail.”
Note: The movie, Amazing Grace, premieres, February 23, in theaters nation wide. It is the powerful story of William Wilberforce and his fight for the “abolition of slavery and the restoration of society” in the British Empire.