Against the World for the World

Last week conservative activist Paul Weyrich created a major stir when he advised cultural conservatives “to drop out of this culture, and find places where we can live godly, righteous and sober lives.” Now I respect Weyrich, but in this case, I think he's dead wrong. When great culture wars are raging, Christians have no business fleeing the field of battle. This was a lesson taught to us some 200 years ago by a man who is a role model for my life: William Wilberforce, the great British abolitionist, member of Parliament, and a Christian. When Wilberforce began what he called his “two great objects”?the abolition of the slave trade and the “reformation of manners”?his circumstances could not have been more daunting. England’s economy was heavily dependent upon the slave trade. The prospect of reforming manners, or “morals” as we would say today, was no less daunting. Public drunkenness and crime were rampant. The elites of Wilberforce’s day, like those of our own, were contemptuous of morality. In fact, it was fashionable among the landed gentry to be loose in morals and skeptical about religion. Yet, 50 years after Wilberforce began his twin crusades, this had all been turned around. Slavery was abolished in the British Empire. And piety and virtue went from being despised to being fashionable. This remarkable turnaround would not have happened if Wilberforce had allowed the inevitable setbacks of any great struggle to cause him to quit. In fact, for 20 years he fought every year in the Parliament and was voted down until the slave trade was finally abolished in 1807. In a recent essay on Wilberforce, theologian Os Guinness points out some principles that enabled the great leader to change the world in which he lived. First, Wilberforce's faith gave him the perspective to define his purposes, not by the standards of the world, but according to God’s purposes. This gave Wilberforce the courage to go on even when the odds were so heavy against him. Second, despite setbacks, Wilberforce never stopped believing in the power of ideas. He knew that while people may ignore the truth, they still recognize it when they see it. So he looked for ways to remind people of what they already knew in their hearts. For example, he collaborated with Josiah Wedgwood, the English potter, to create an anti-slavery tract in, of all things, a dinner plate. The plate had a picture of a kneeling slave in shackles with the inscription “Am I not a Man and a Brother?” It was because he loved his neighbor that Wilberforce never gave up trying to persuade people to do the right thing. And this love is why his zeal did not turn Wilberforce into a dour scold. In fact, one of his contemporaries called him "the most amusable man I've ever known.” That is, he was amiable and enjoyed even the company of those with whom he disagreed. Wilberforce's life should serve as an example for all of us. Yes, the prospect of turning around our culture may seem overwhelming. But withdrawal from the fray is inconsistent with loving our neighbor?whether that neighbor is an unborn child or the abortionist who tries takes his life. We cannot choose between living godly, righteous lives or participating in the culture. For our neighbor’s sakes, as well as for God’s, we’re called to do both.  


Chuck Colson


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