Balkinization  

Friday, February 23, 2007

Doing God's Work

Scott Horton

Two Hundred Years Ago Today, the Global Campaign for Human Rights Achieved Its First Victory


"As soon as ever I had arrived thus far in my investigation of the slave trade, I confess to you sir, so enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did its wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for the abolition. A trade founded in iniquity, and carried on as this was, must be abolished, let the policy be what it might, - let the consequences be what they would, I from this time determined that I would never rest till I had effected its abolition."

- William Wilberforce, speech before the House of Commons, May 12, 1789, Hansard vol. 28, col. 68

Today the cause of universal human rights celebrates an important anniversary. On this day two hundred years ago, the Parliament at Westminster voted an act for the abolition of the slave trade. A few decades later, Parliament also voted the manumission of slaves throughout the British Empire. By that time, in the 1830's, the trafficking in slaves was viewed as a jus cogens crime by legal scholars around the world and the global movement to abolish slavery altogether was well launched.

Charting the origins of the modern human rights movement is an exercise in an uncertain and problematic geography, but if we follow it back along its swiftest channels to its ultimate source, past the American Civil Rights movement, the cause of voting rights for women, the great American abolitionist movement of the first half of the nineteenth century, we inevitably come to William Wilberforce and his sisters and brethren who launched the effort to ban the slave trade. Of course there were the French and American Revolutions with their call for the rights of man; there was Jean-Jacques Rousseau's theory of social contract and Immanuel Kant's conceptualization of a philosophy of right. These things have their vital role.

But conceiving human rights as a social movement and propagating it to a rising class of educated citizens – this was Wilberforce's genius. In the process he developed the techniques of "blame and shame," of spotlighting the victims and their plight, the use of modern mass media, the use of civil society organizations - all things which continue today to be the stock-in-trade of the human rights advocate. His name may be barely known in the United States today. But William Wilberforce was the great progenitor of the global human rights movement, and on this day he deserves to be recognized as such.

He launched his movement in a dark hour and against great odds. The revolution in France and the slave uprisings in the Caribbean (especially the Haitian rising) made the cause an unpopular distraction in many circles. The economic interests arrayed against Wilberforce were enormous. But Wilberforce and his friends waged their battle with fortitude and unrelenting resolve over decades. They waged it with passion. And they waged it with religious conviction. No less than John Wesley wrote to Wilberforce, in what proved to be his last letter, "Unless God has raised you up... I see not how you can go through with your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy.... You will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils; but if God is with you, who can be against you? Oh, be not weary in well-doing. Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery, the vilest that ever saw the sun, shall banish away before it." (Feb. 24, 1793).

Wilberforce mustered many powerful arguments against the slave trade. At first, he avoided denunciations of the slave traders, and instead appealed to their humanity and inherent sense of justice. Throughout the Napoleonic Wars, Wilberforce was also a persistent advocate of the doctrine of humane warfare and raised his powerful voice repeatedly for the humane treatment of all prisoners taken in time of war. He also mobilized the emerging humanitarian law doctrine of protection for prisoners to oppose the slave trade. A large part of the West Africans impressed into bondage and shipped across the sea to be sold were, he pointed out, actually prisoners taken in warfare on the African continent. As such, he argued, they were entitled to humane treatment which could not be squared with the revolting conditions found on board of the slave trading ships. This shows the close, mutually reinforcing relationship between humanitarian law and human rights law that has continued to this day.

For Wilberforce's campaign, opposition to torture was the critical element. Given Biblical texts which explicitly or implicitly condoned the Peculiar Institution, it was difficult to frame a theological attack on slavery per se. But torture was another matter. The cruel abuse of a human being held in captivity was accepted by Wilberforce and most of his colleagues as an offense against Divine Law. Consequently the slave trade was thought a far more vulnerable target than slavery itself. In Wilberforce's great opening speech of 1789, frequently cited as the most important parliamentary address delivered in that memorable era, he dwelt heavily on the physical conditions of the slave ships: how slaves were stripped naked, bound and shackled, packed into the holds of the ship like sardines in a can, subjected to unbearable fluctuations of heat and cold, given inadequate water and food, deprived of sanitation. In such conditions the slaves screamed in agony, many calling out to be killed to put an end to their misery. And very many, by some reckonings most, expired in the process. Wilberforce's contemporaries readily accepted this thesis: that torture could not be permitted, even torture of slaves whose humanity was doubted. It is curious that today, two centuries later, the notion of slavery is a nonstarter, but torture seems to be accepted as fair grounds for debate. There can be no doubt that William Wilberforce would be appalled to make this discovery.

William Wilberforce may be something of an unwanted model for some of today's human rights advocates. He was an Evangelical Christian and, moreover, a Conservative. He sat for decades as a Tory MP for a Yorkshire constituency in Parliament, and his success comes at least to some extent from his close friendship with William Pitt, the youngest prime minister in Britain's history. But these are, I think, among the traits that make Wilberforce such an important figure for us today. He demonstrates the universality of the human rights message and its appeal across partisan and philosophical boundaries. He demonstrates that a political conservative who builds from traditional religious values, who embraces the joys of private property, who advocates a restrained government of limited powers, has every reason to advocate the cause of human rights. He demonstrates that there are and always were compassionate conservatives - men and women who truly earned this label.

But most importantly, Wilberforce reminds us that Evangelical Christianity, in its late 18th and 19th century manifestations, was intensely engaged with the cause of human rights. The campaign to end the slave trade, and later to abolish slavery, was above all their cause. Wilberforce saw his ministry as inextricably intertwined with this cause – bringing comfort to those afflicted by torture, brutalized and stripped of their humanity by the slave trade, and in this vision he had the support of John Wesley and hundreds of other ministers. He was not a social engineer or a man who scorned property. But he had harsh words for religious hypocrites who outwardly manifested their faith while ignoring the mandate to do justice, to support the poor and afflicted. He saved his special contempt for those who used the tropes of religion to justify slavery and the oppression of their fellow man:

"When their conversations get really serious, you will see how little of their Christianity has anything to do with the faith taught by Jesus. Everything becomes subjective. Their conduct is not measured against the standard set by the gospel. They have developed their own philosophies, which they attempt to pawn off as Christianity."

A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes of this Country Contrasted with Real Christianity (1797).

It is impossible for me to read these words today and not think of leaders of America's Religious Right who observed complete silence when reports surfaced from Abu Ghraib, from Bagram, from Guantanamo. Religious leaders who offered apologies and excuses for those in authority even as documents were published that showed that the practice of torture was a matter of formal government policy - of a government they embraced, uncritically. Wilberforce also stood close to politics, and to government. But he never hesitated to raise his voice in condemnation when torture, slave trade, and slavery were an issue. This is the conduct of a man for whom moral principle, not political expedience, was the lodestar.

Hollywood, it appears, is geared to mark Wilberforce's accomplishment today with the release of "Amazing Grace" - a movie named for the tune once understood around the world as the anthem of the abolitionist cause, forever associated with Wilberforce and his friend John Newton. Wilberforce began his great oration against slavery with this observation

"When I consider the magnitude of the subject which I am to bring before the House - a subject, in which the interests, not of this country, nor of Europe alone, but of the whole world, and of posterity, are involved: and when I think, at the same time, on the weakness of the advocate who has undertaken this great cause—when these reflections press upon my mind, it is impossible for me not to feel both terrified and concerned at my own inadequacy to such a task"

And it seems appropriate to this motion picture project, for Wilberforce is a legend larger than any man can hope to be. I will make the trek to see Amazing Grace this weekend and hope that Hollywood has done justice to William Wilberforce. But I doubt that it has.

For those who would follow today in the path of William Wilberforce, I have a suggestion: join The National Religious Coalition Against Torture. By proclaiming that torture is a moral issue, this organization upholds the traditions and calling of William Wilberforce, and applies them to our generation's most vital issue. Today we remember Wilberforce and his noble cause. But surely Wilberforce would want to be remembered by action. Oh, be not weary in well-doing.

UPATE: At the website of The Atlantic magazine, blogger Andrew Sullivan is doing a series of posts commemorating William Wilberforce and the triumph over the slave trade. The setting could not be more appropriate, since from its founding The Atlantic, under the guidance of minds like James Russell Lowell and Ralph Waldo Emerson, was a key bridge for the transmission of Wilberforce's ideas to an American audience. Be sure to pay a visit in the course of the day.

Comments:

the Curious Institution

A true nitpick: it's usually the Peculiar Institution.
 

You ask me, we'd be better off just finishing the job Wilberforce started; Remember, he only got the slave trade abolished. Slavery in Africa continues to this day, with far lesser outbreaks elsewhere.
 

Scott Horton said...

But most importantly, Wilberforce reminds us that Evangelical Christianity, in its late 18th and 19th century manifestations, was intensely engaged with the cause of human rights.

Christians still are heavily engaged in the cause of human rights, fighting to abolish the wholesale murder of children through abortion as well as continuing the fight against slavery, including that of sex and child slaves.

It is impossible for me to read these words today and not think of leaders of America's Religious Right who observed complete silence when reports surfaced from Abu Ghraib, from Bagram, from Guantanamo.

Sir, you really should stay away from the hyperbolic and inaccurate historical analogies.

In past conversations, we discovered that Washington and Lincoln executed unlawful enemy combatants rather than treating them as POWs or criminal defendants as you implied.

In this case, I challenge you to offer any evidence that it was government policy to treat the prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Bagram or Gitmo as the slaves were treated in the 19th Century - forced labor, close confinement without movement by being chained in a hold, whipping, maiming, dismembering, starving and raping.

In doing so, please do not claim that illegal abuses for which the perpetrators were prosecuted and imprisoned constitute official government policy established by our civilian leadership with which you have partisan disagreements.
 

Mr. Horton,

Curious about this quotation by Wilberforce, I endeavored to look it up.

"When their conversations get really serious, you will see how little of their Christianity has anything to do with the faith taught by Jesus. Everything becomes subjective. Their conduct is not measured against the standard set by the gospel. They have developed their own philosophies, which they attempt to pawn off as Christianity."

However, the quote does not appear in the volume you specify. http://books.google.com/books?vid=ISBN1417948639&id=xd7wW-2sYGgC&dq=a+practical+view+of+the+prevailing+religious+system+of+professed+christians+in+the+higher+and+middle+classes+of+this+country+contrasted+with+real+christianity . A content search does not reveal, for instance, the word "pawn" appearing anywhere in the volume. Is the quote misattributed? From one of his speeches, rather?
 

I completely agree that torture is a moral issue, and I am completely in favor of keeping it banned.

Oh, wait, I forget, keeping detainees in anything less than a Hilton is considered torture, ... so nevermind.
 

Jeffrey:

The quote appears on p. 21 of Real Christianity (in the Beltz edition, which is edited and "translated" into more modern English).
 

Humble Law Student considers anything that is not cruel, inhumane and degrading as the Hilton.
 

Thank you, Scott, for your excellent essay on William Wilberforce and his relevance today.

Peter Young
 

Humble Law Student considers anything that is not cruel, inhumane and degrading as the Hilton.

Motel 6 must seem like Heaven.
 

De Palma... Christians still are heavily engaged in the cause of human rights, fighting to abolish the wholesale murder of children through abortion as well as continuing the fight against slavery, including that of sex and child slaves.

It's statements like this that cause mentally balanced people to come to the conclusion that you are mentally ill. You are not a Christian, De Palma, so don't pretend you are. Neither is Tom DeLay.


In 1999 the battle moved from the Republican controlled Congress to the courts. A suit filed by human rights groups representing the Mariana guest workers was settled in US District Court. The suit described the Marianas (also known as Saipan) as "America's worst sweatshop, replete with beatings, forced abortions, vermin-infested worker quarters, barbed wire and armed guards where workers put in 12-hour shifts, seven days a week."

The 32 factories that settled the suit were mostly owned by Chinese, Japanese and Korean companies that supplied more than $1 billion a year of "Made in America" garments to some of America's leading retailers and labels.

Nevertheless, DeLay continues to support the current unregulated Mariana work rules. He has gone so far as to suggest that the United States emulate the way the islands' employers import guest workers from China and the Philippines and suggested that it may provide a model for mainland employers who wish to exploit cheap Mexican labor.

 

Humble Law Student... Oh, wait, I forget, keeping detainees in anything less than a Hilton is considered torture, ... so nevermind.

What kind of barbarian are you? Hiltons are the McDonald's of the ho-tel industry. There are already five of them in and around Paris. Six when she's in town.
 

Thanks, Scott.
This week on BBC R4/In Our Time
Wilberforce's Life and Legacy
 

This comment has been removed by the author.
 

About 3 years ago I dropped into a black hole – four months of absolute terror. I wanted to end my life, but somehow [Holy Spirit], I reached out to a friend who took me to hospital. I had three visits [hospital] in four months – I actually thought I was in hell. I imagine I was going through some sort of metamorphosis [mental, physical & spiritual]. I had been seeing a therapist [1994] on a regular basis, up until this point in time. I actually thought I would be locked away – but the hospital staff was very supportive [I had no control over my process]. I was released from hospital 16th September 1994, but my fear, pain & shame had only subsided a little. I remember this particular morning waking up [home] & my process would start up again [fear, pain, & shame]. No one could help me, not even my therapist [I was terrified]. I asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on me & forgive me my sins. Slowly, all my fear has dissipated & I believe Jesus delivered me from my “psychological prison.” I am a practicing Catholic & the Holy Spirit is my friend & strength; every day since then has been a joy & blessing. I deserve to go to hell for the life I have led, but Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, delivered me from my inequities. John 3: 8, John 15: 26, are verses I can relate to, organically. He’s a real person who is with me all the time. I have so much joy & peace in my life, today, after a childhood spent in orphanages [England & Australia]. God LOVES me so much. Fear, pain, & shame, are no longer my constant companions. I just wanted to share my experience with you [Luke 8: 16 – 17].

Peace Be With You
Micky
 

Anyone who thinks sitting in church can make you a Christian must also think that sitting in a garage can make you a car.
Agen Judi Online Terpercaya
 

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