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.


One thought on “Punishment or Protection? Where Wilberforce Got It Right (And Where He Got It Wrong)

  1. Nick,
    Wilberforce is one of my heroes too but while I knew he ran other campaigns I did not know what they were. So thanks for the enlightenment! But much more importantly I think you are spot on on your analysis and your examples are excellent. Thanks for putting it all succinctly. As human beings we seem to have a natural inclination to be pharisees – pushing whatever we believe is right. Thank God for grace…

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