Published in the Courier Mail on 20 June 2007
AMAZING Grace is perhaps one of the best known hymns ever. It can be sung, or at least hummed even by those who never venture into a church.
It has a timeless melody and its message of redemption warms the heart.
Happily, the movie of the same name, being released in Australia in late July, also carries such universal appeal. It tells the story of William Wilberforce, the man who fought for decades to see the slave trade, and ultimately slavery, abolished in England and the English colonies.
The movie title is drawn from Wilberforce’s friendship with converted former slave trader, and author of Amazing Grace, John Newton. From a modern perspective, it is almost a mystery that Wilberforce’s battle took so long.
History informs our horror at the fact that men, women and children were bought and sold as commodities with full political and social permission.
The widespread apathy of English society regarding this was in part due to the lack of understanding about the slave trade but also due to the spiritual and moral condition of English society.
Religion was given empty assent and was largely marginalised and dissociated from personal and public life. Into such a situation came a spiritually energised Wilberforce who realised that world view, informed by faith, does indeed affect both an individual’s and nation’s decisions.
For example, Wilberforce’s Christian values such as unconditional love, equality, self-sacrifice, stewardship and justice, motivated not just his drive to abolish slavery but also saw him found a large number of other benevolent associations, including the RSPCA. His Christian faith was a vital aspect in persevering to protect the exploited and push for the abolition of slavery. You would think this would mean his faith was welcome in this debate. However, you would think wrong.
In what is eerily reflective of the current Australian political environment, Wilberforce was remonstrated for involving his faith in his political life.
Those who would argue that faith cannot inform politics or legislation would be wise to think upon the great social changes that politicians have led precisely because of their faith.
Perhaps the most recent comments from former senator Amanda Vanstone bear reflecting on. Vanstone, in a recently published article, contends, “Australians are generally highly apprehensive when (some) politicians believe their own set of values makes them somehow morally superior on a particular issue and that this therefore gives them the right to legislate according to those views.”
While no one is advocating a theocracy, Vanstone’s sentiments, if historically applied, would have prevented Wilberforce from abolishing slavery. He worked to bring in legislation precisely because of his moral views.
While there was initially little popular support for his views, he was so convinced of the moral superiority of equality of all, as opposed to the exploitation of some, that he kept trying to legislate accordingly.
Ironically, Vanstone’s article is entitled “Fair Go – Our Ultimate Value”. Released only months after the 200-year anniversary of Wilberforce’s victory, which truly won a fair go for all, it denies the validity of the very power which energised the abolition movement. Moral conviction is not intrinsically wrong, nor is faith-based conviction. It is inappropriate and unrealistic to call for politicians to deny their sense of right and wrong if that is based on Christianity.
Every politician bases their conviction on a world view which is informed by their belief, or lack thereof, about God. Intellectual honesty demands we integrate what we believe with what we do or we become hypocrites and no one, least of all an Aussie, likes a hypocrite.
To deny the place of a person’s convictions in reasoned debate of morally contentious issues, simply because those convictions are illuminated by faith, doesn’t make sense. History reminds us of this clearly. Soon, so will cinemas.
Ruth Limkin is a Brisbane pastor and writer