Note: This commentary was delivered by Prison Fellowship President Mark Earley.
For years on “BreakPoint,” we have talked about the plight of the oppressed—from persecuted Christians to the victims of the sexual trafficking. Raising awareness is not easy, because let’s face it, most Americans probably cannot even find places like North Korea, Sudan, or Burma on a map—much less tell you about their human rights records.
This lack of familiarity with the larger world is not new. William Wilberforce was all-too-aware of the numbing effect of “out of sight, out of mind.” He knew that before he could persuade his countrymen about the evils of the slave trade, some education was in order. It is yet another lesson Wilberforce has to teach us.
Two hundred years after Wilberforce, most people are still unaware of how brutal the slave trade was: men chained together for up to five months to save space; and diseases such as amoebic dysentery, scurvy, smallpox, and measles spreading in this human Petri dish. Little wonder that of the 13 million Africans who were compelled to make the infamous “middle passage,” 3 million died on the way.
Then, of course, there was the often-inhumane treatment of those “fortunate” enough to survive the journey.
Obviously, those profiting from the slave trade did not tell the British people the truth about slavery. “Out of sight, out of mind” was the order-of-the-day.
As Eric Metaxas writes in his book on Wilberforce, it was the slave trade’s “invisibility” that made this brutal business-as-usual possible. The average British subject did not have the “slightest hint” of the human cost associated with the sugar and molasses in their homes.
That’s why an essential part of Wilberforce’s campaign against the slave trade was to make the British public aware of the cost. He used everything from pamphlets to poetry to pottery to bring the plight of slaves to the public’s attention.
As a result, he was able to tell Parliament that “the nature and all the circumstances of this Trade are now laid open to us. We can no longer plead ignorance . . . We may spurn it . . . but we cannot turn aside so as to avoid seeing it.”
Once the British people stopped looking away, it became easier to do the right thing.
In this Information Age, our problem today is not the kind of “invisibility” Wilberforce combated—people who care about human dignity can easily find out what they need to know. The trick is getting them to care in the first place.
It’s making our voices and concerns heard above what many call the “clutter” of the Information Age. When thousands of things, most of them worthless, compete for people’s attention, we need to help people focus on the right things. We need to remind them that there are things more deserving of their attention than who entered rehab and who fathered whose baby.
Just as Wilberforce became the conscience of his age, we must become the conscience of the Information Age. It will not make us popular, any more than Wilberforce’s persistence endeared him to his peers.
But if we do not try to get people to look at the larger world, then today’s victims of brutality might as well be invisible.
|For Further Reading and Information|
Hero for Humanity: A Biography of William Wilberforce by Kevin Belmonte. An updated version is now available.
|For Further Reading and Information|
Read H. Res. 158, the resolution Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-Penn.) introduced in commemoration of William Wilberforce and the two-hundredth anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade.
Eric Metaxas, Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery(HarperSanFrancisco, 2007).
BreakPoint Commentary No. 070219, “The Spirit of Wilberforce: Worldview in Action.”
Watch the trailer of the upcoming film Amazing Grace at the Wilberforce Forum website.
See these educational resources for Amazing Grace.
David Batstone, Not for Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade—and How We Can Fight It(HarperSanFrancisco, 2007).