Punishment or Protection? Where Wilberforce Got It Right (And Where He Got It Wrong)

Today I want to talk about one of my Christian heroes.  William Wilberforce holds a unique place in history for his lifelong fight against the horrible evil of the North Atlantic slave trade.  His story has been wonderfully told in the movie, Amazing Grace.  (If you haven’t seen it – then do so soon!)


There was more to Wilberforce’s life, however, than his campaign against slavery.  He was involved in a number of other causes.  For example, he was a founder member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (later to become the RSPCA).

However, some of Wilberforce’s campaigns sound less impressive with the passage of time.  For example, he supported efforts to prosecute excessive drinking, cursing and profaning Sunday as the Lord’s Day.  He wanted the British Government to pass legislation against adultery and the printing of Sunday newspapers.  He also supported censorship, being instrumental in the prosecution of Richard Carlile for printing Thomas Paine’s pamphlet “The Age of Reason”.

So why, as Evangelical Christians, do we rightly celebrate William Wilberforce’s political campaigns against slavery and cruelty to animals, yet many of us would feel distinctly uncomfortable at his attempts to use the law to enforce Christian morality and sabbath-keeping onto the general population?

The difference, I believe, is that many Christians have come to realise that it does not honour God when we try to use the law to force non-Christians to live by Christian standards.  That makes us little different from the Taliban.  How can we insist on religious freedom for Christians in Sudan, if we don’t respect the freedoms of non-Christians in countries where we are in a majority?  It also shows a basic misunderstanding of how Christian morality works.  The way of Jesus is to lead people to a place where they make a free and willing decision to receive Christ as Saviour – then the Holy Spirit moves on their hearts so that they choose to live their lives God’s way.

However, the campaigns against slavery and cruelty to animals were essentially different because they did not primarily focus on the badness of the transgressors, but rather on the harm being done to the victims.  The emphasis was on protection, rather than on punishment for punishment’s sake.

Once we appreciate this important distinction, it helps us to understand what are legitimate political causes that the Church should involve itself in, and also the reasons why we should be involved.

For example, laws that try to outlaw adultery or homosexuality are rarely, if ever, motivated by any compassion to protect anyone.  They are more about punishing non-Christians for committing acts that are, by our Christian understanding of morality, sins.  That is, in essence, no different from the Taliban or Boko Haram punishing non-Muslim women for not wearing a hijab.  But laws that prohibit slavery are all about protecting the victims.  This is why, for example, draconian laws against homosexuality, such as threatening life imprisonment in Uganda, do not promote biblical righteousness but rather pervert the true purpose of the Gospel.

Let’s apply this to a very topical issue in the 21st Century.  Prostitution and people trafficking is a huge problem.  As a Christian, I see prostitution as a sinful perversion of God’s good intention for sexual intimacy.  But that is not the reason why I would urge the Government to deal with the problem of prostitution.  Rather I am motivated by the plight of the many thousands of girls and children who are being trafficked and enslaved to enable the prostitution business to thrive.  My opposition to prostitution is compassionate, not retributive.  It is about protection, not punishment.

Another example concerns abortion.  Christians have, at times, given the impression that they are opposed to abortion because they feel that women who have sinned (according to our ideals of sexual morality) should be punished, shamed, and made to realise the consequences of their actions.  That is the kind of thinking that created the massive injustices and unutterable cruelties of the mother and baby homes in Ireland – an issue that is now causing huge anger and is immensely damaging to any churches that were involved.

A baby is never a punishment.  Irrespective of the circumstances surrounding its conception, a baby is a miracle of new life and a gift from God.  And Christian opposition to abortion should be based on one basic principle alone – that an unborn child is the weakest and most vulnerable member of our society and therefore deserves the most protection and care.

So, where does that leave my perspective on William Wilberforce?  I am realistic enough to recognise that even the best of Christians have their blind spots and failings.  But I will continue to honour his memory as a reformer and a champion of human rights, and he continues to inspire me to be a compassionate Christian who will take risks to fight injustice.

A Culture of Civility?

Occasionally things happen which shock us and cause us to take stock of where our society is and what it has become.

Just such an incident happened to me a few years ago.  I was trying to help an Eastern European immigrant family with an issue over their children’s schooling, and we had arranged to meet at McDonald’s in the Blanchardstown Centre,  It was early evening, but since it was winter it was dark.  As I turned into the car park I had to swerve to avoid an erratically driven car that was leaving.  There appeared to be a family inside, with kids bouncing around the back seat each holding their boxed happy meal.  The woman who was driving seemed to be flustered, and I noticed that she had forgotten to turn on her headlights and was heading out onto a dark road with no lights.

I did what any helpful person would do in such a scenario.  I beeped my horn to catch her attention, then pointed down at her headlights and silently mouthed to her, “Your lights are off!”   Then, having done my good deed for the day, I found a vacant parking space and parked up.


As I was picking up my diary and papers from the passenger seat I heard a hammering on my driver’s side window – so I wound the window down to see what was going on.  Imagine my surprise to find a large and aggressive man was screaming obscenities through the window at me!

I stared at him, wondering if I was being mugged.  It seemed unlikely, although I’m middle-aged and grey-haired I’m still fairly large in build and I would imagine that muggers would tend to go for softer targets than me.

Finally I made out what he was screaming at me, “You f***ing b******!  You think you own the road and can order my wife around!”

The situation was so surreal that I actually had to suppress an urge to burst out laughing.  But I said to the large aggressive man, “Hold on, I think you’ve got the wrong end of the stick.  Your lights weren’t switched on.  I was letting your wife know because I’d hate the thought of a car full of kids driving up the N3 with no lights.”

“You f***ing w*****!”  Large aggressive man continued to scream, “Are you trying to be smart?  Come out of that car and fight and I’ll break your f***ing neck!”

At that moment, I have to confess, I was tempted to forget that I was a pastor and to let the old nature take over.  This guy was seriously starting to aggravate me.  However, I knew that no good was going to come of a pastor jumping out of his car to brawl with someone in the car park of McDonald’s.  So I stayed sitting in my car.

Unfortunately this only seemed to enrage him even more, so he started repeatedly kicking the door of my car.  I had to sit there staring stonily through the windscreen until his foot got sore and he got back in his own car.  His wife drove away – this time she remembered to switch her lights on.

After I had finished my meeting, as I was driving home, I reflected on what had just happened.  I whispered to myself, “I know one thing.  If I see another car driving without lights then I’m not going to try to help!”

And that was the moment when I realised how easy it can be for us to become part of the problem of incivility in our society.  I was moved to repentance for how I would allow one incident to make me a less caring person.  I pulled in at the side of the road and prayed, “Lord, help me to be the kind of person who will try to help others, even if it means that stuff like this happens and the door of my car gets kicked in.”

So, if you’re out driving at night and you forget to put your lights on, don’t be surprised if another driver waves at you or flashes his lights at you.  Think of it as one poor individual doing his bit to create a culture of helpfulness and civility.

I Went to Church!

Yesterday I did something I haven’t done in over 20 years.  I went to Church on Sunday.

Now, before someone rushes to correct me, yes, I pastor a church and am there most weeks to try to build up others and to pray for people’s problems.  Yes, most Sunday afternoons and evenings I’m off to be a guest speaker in another church somewhere.  Yes, I go to major conferences where, as part of the conference programme there is a Sunday service.

But what I’m trying to say is that yesterday, for the first time in as long as I can remember, I simply went to Church.  I was on holiday in the west of Ireland, I had nothing planned for the day, and I woke up on Sunday morning, wondered what I would do that day, and thought to myself, “Hmm, I’d like to go to Church this morning.”  Not to preach.  Not to be the guy in charge.  Not because I was a delegate at a conference.  I just wanted to go to Church.

So I went on line and tried to see if there were any bible-believing churches close to where I was staying (Cliffs of Moher, County Clare).  I found the website of North Clare Community Church which is in Ennistymon (site of some spectacular river falls).  The website was clear and gave me a good idea of the flavour to expect.


The driving directions on the website, with the help of my GPS, got me safely to the right location.  It was a much smaller gathering than I’m used to – but the size of the building and the way the seats were laid out still made the place feel pleasantly full without being overcrowded.  People were friendly and welcoming, and I really enjoyed the worship.  It wasn’t a big worship team or anything, but it was tuneful, heartfelt and the Holy Spirit was in it.  The Church seemed to have a strong sense of community, and a lady (I’m presuming she was the pastor’s wife) shared a story for the children.

The preaching was informal in style – think preacher wearing jeans and sitting on a barstool – and I felt very at home.  It appeared to be part of an ongoing exposition of Mark’s Gospel and we looked at the Transfiguration.  It was biblical, balanced and I enjoyed it.

Afterwards there was opportunity to fellowship.  I felt quite anti-social because I had to meet people for Sunday lunch so I had to slip away without partaking of the coffee or contributing to the time of fellowship.

As I drove to lunch I found myself thanking God at such expressions of faith springing up in communities, towns and cities across Ireland.  At one time it would have been next to impossible to find churches like this in so many rural areas.  There is a quiet revolution taking place in our land – and it is largely through the faithful planting of new congregations across the country rather than through one or two well known ministries or megachurches.

I really enjoyed going to Church yesterday.