Daniel José Camacho

Please welcome guest writer Daniel José Camacho, an M.Div. student at Duke Divinity School, currently pursuing ordination in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He tweets @DanielJCamacho.

As a Protestant Christian, I have become accustomed to hearing fellow Christians invoke the name of William Wilberforce, the late 18th/19th century British abolitionist. Was Christianity deeply implicated in the trans-Atlantic slave trade? Sure. “But there was Wilberforce,” is a typical knee-jerk response. Who has inspired young evangelicals in their contemporary abolitionism? Wilberforce. How can Christians flourish in a same-sex-marriage world? Wilberforce provides the best option. And of course there is Amazing Grace (2007), the film which depicts Wilberforce and his Calvinist, evangelical faith as a major force in bringing down British slavery. While much of what it said about Wilberforce is not entirely untrue, I’m concerned about how much of it falls into what Ngozi Adichie describes as “The danger of a single story.” The problem is not merely the accurate portrayal of an individual but what such narrations leave out and what they say about Christian memory and approaches to social justice.

There is definitely more to Wilberforce than the romanticized, one-dimensional portraits which elevate him as a relentless defender of human dignity. He had a legalistic bent for “suppressing sin,” which included supporting the prosecution of activities such as cursing. It is documented that he jailed a bookseller for publishing Thomas Paine, disliked grassroots political activism and mobilization, and promoted a gradual and partial emancipation for black slaves. Nevertheless, my goal is not to simply smear the reputation of a flawed individual. Instead, I want to focus on what Wilberforce represents. For many Christians, Wilberforce represents the sincerely-held belief that British Christians were responsible for the abolition of the slave-trade. But this is to distort the record.

In 1944, Eric Williams, historian and future prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, attempted to contextualize the abolition of Caribbean slavery in his book Capitalism and Slavery. While much can be said about the limits of Williams’ old Marxist tendency to reduce problems to the economic sphere, his account of abolition (particularly Chapters 11 and 12) was ahead of the times.

Eric Williams

Through archival research compiled from England and throughout the Caribbean, Williams demonstrates that leading abolitionists, such as William Wilberforce, were a) not radical but reactionary, b) still opposed to the plight of workers, c) only reluctantly and slowly committed to full emancipation, d) inconsistent, e.g. in condemning West Indian but not U.S. slavery, e) heavily invested in commercial considerations, f) silent about free blacks owning land, and g) committed to the Christian civilizing-evangelization of blacks. Williams highlights the impact that slave revolts, particularly the successful Haitian revolution led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, had in pressuring the legislative hand of colonial powers considering abolition.

In calling the black slave “the most dynamic and powerful social force in the colonies,” Williams was unsettling dominant historical accounts which had screened out black agency in abolition/emancipation. In describing the importance of the revolts of the enslaved in pressuring planters and colonial governments, he was deconstructing one-sided historical narrations which exaggerated the purity and effectiveness of humanitarians and the triumphalism of Christian compassion. With time, most historians have confirmed Williams’ initially bold claims, acknowledging the complexity of humanitarian efforts and the various factors at play in Caribbean abolition.

All of this makes me question how Wilberforce is used today. I’m afraid that many Christians’ invocation of Wilberforce, like that of John Newton and perhaps even Bonhoeffer, might reveal more about the reflexes of white, western Christianity to absolve itself than reveal much else. Wilberforce has come to be deployed in triumphalist narratives that attempt to present the inevitable success of Christians’ defense of human dignity all the while screening out other actors and minimizing the deep ways in which Christians were implicated in the very creation of the problems. One can see this logic at work in a piece such as “The Christmas Revolution.” Peter Wehner’s piece subtly assumes Christianity’s monopoly on global compassion vis-à-vis western civilization and backs this up by simply asserting that “Christianity played a key role in ending slavery and segregation.” Surely, that is a convenient way of summarizing the past 500 years of Christianity in the Americas.

I believe that part of Wilberforce’s legacy might be embodied by InterVarsity’s recent response to a talk affirming the #BlackLivesMatter movement. InterVarsity’s statement functions as a form of damage control for constituents concerned about the evangelical organization’s indirect support for the protest movement during the conference Urbana15. In Intervarsity’s response, what was an apparent endorsement of #BlackLivesMatter becomes an affirmation of “all lives are sacred,” reconciliation, and the activism of Francis Schaeffer and Chuck Colson. Re-mixing BLM by sampling figures such as Francis Schaeffer, whom many consider “the most influential intellectual figure in the history of the Religious Right,” is a sure way to blunt the edge of any protest song.

William Wilberforce

Many Christians are trapped within a circular and self-exonerating logic which presupposes that only the dominant spiritual and intellectual legacy of Europe and the United States has fixed/can fix the problems of the world, or at least fix them best. The shape of justice is determined by who gets to define. Perhaps that is why the ones who invoke a William Wilberforce will rarely invoke a Toussaint L’Ouverture. Maybe that is why theological reflections on the American and French revolutions abound and the Haitian revolution is an afterthought. For the conservative social justice activist, history is rightly guided by the saints above and not the always-heterodox resistors below.

I agree with Kaya Oakes who has argued that Christians are running out of options when it comes to their relationship to a changing society. In my mind, whether it’s the “Benedict Option” of conservative withdrawal or the “Wilberforce Option” of evangelical social engagement, these are audibles within the same Eurocentric playbook. These pretend to be the universal Christian options and exhibit what Anibal Quijano has called “the provincial pretense to universality.”

If Wilberforce exhibited contradictions in his social justice and overestimated his impact, do not be surprised if those emulating him today repeat these problems. Many forget that Wilberforce was not a fan of full emancipation and mass agitation, let alone black slave revolts. Instead of a Christian faith that strives for conviviality, deep repentance, and humble solidarity, the temptation for Christians is to play saviors and field generals to problems they have long caused or worsened while downplaying the agency of others and discrediting their forms of resistance and claims to dignity.

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