This month we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade throughout the British Empire, associated with the name of William Wilberforce, who campaigned vigorously and with dogged perseverance against this terrible traffic in human lives. Wilberforce campaigned as a committed Christian. He saw slavery as a moral offence, totally incompatible with the teaching of Jesus. St Paul had seen that too, but the whole economy of the Roman Empire was built on slavery - slaves were the industrial machinery of the ancient world - and there was no way the tiny and illegal church could challenge one of the major pillars of the established order. But within the Church things were different: slave and master became brothers in Christ (Paul's Letter to Philemon shows what this means in practice), and all such distinctions were abolished in the new order of God's Kingdom.
With the collapse of the Roman Empire slavery virtually disappeared from Western Europe, although the medieval state of serfdom was not that different in its effect on people. Slavery persisted in Eastern Europe and Arab lands as well as in many parts of Africa. The expansion of Europe into the New World of the Americas created an enormous demand for labour, and the "triangular" slave trade with which we are all familiar from history lessons was established. Merchants from Western Europe travelled to Africa with guns, textiles and alcoholic liquor, which were sold or exchanged for a human cargo, which was transported across the Atlantic in appalling conditions to be sold in the slave markets of the Caribbean and North and South America, and they returned home with tobacco, sugar and cotton. Much of the prosperity of Europe in the 18th century depended on this trade.
That is why Wilberforce and the abolitionists had such a struggle. They were fighting economic power and self-interest: to get rid of slavery threatened people's standard of living. And that is still an issue for today! How many of us turn away from the needs of the developing nations, because we are unwilling to face the sacrifices on our part that are necessary to give them economic justice? How many of us are deaf to the warnings of global warming because we recognize what effective action would do to our own comfort and prosperity? It is hard for people to do what they know instinctively to be right if it challenges them to make real sacrifices. So the story of Wilberforce's fight has a message for us today.
The actual abolition of slavery in British dominions took another 16 years to achieve, and a further thiry years (and a Civil War) in the United States of America, and old attitudes linger in the southern states. But the witness of the Bible is quite clear. All human beings are created in the image of God, and therefore cannot be treated as chattels, to be traded and exploited without respect for their feelings and innate dignity. That is a message which still has to be translated into reality in many areas of contemporary life. The concern for human rights derives from the same fundamental insight, and while we argue about the fine detail, we have to remember that huge numbers of people across the world do not enjoy the basic rights that we take for granted - freedom of speech and association, equality before the law, self-determination and, indeed, the freedom of life itself. We need to have far more attention focussed on these issues (including within our own society), rather than worrying about the lunatic niceties which keep lawyers in business. What Wilberforce and his associates began over 200 years ago still has a long way to go, and we could all play a part in it.
God bless you all.
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About the Vicar's Letter
The Vicar's Letter has been appearing in the villages Focus magazine since August 2002.
The Rev. Peter Graham also used to publish The Vicar's Letter in the parish magazine of 1964. Please see the Vicar's Letter area for these.