Three great thinkers of our history grew from strong Christian faith and the idea that a person has to do something.
William Wilberforce – credited with the abolition of the slave trade across the British Empire;
Florence Nightingale – the woman we think of as the mother of modern nursing;
And William Booth – founder of the Salvation Army.
Each of them has a remarkable story, and on the face of things, these three people were incredibly different – born at different times, different genders, different professions, different experiences.
But they all were Christians. And they all lived in a time when social change was moving faster than the established churches and the government could keep up.
In Booth’s case, as a reverend, he felt that even the Methodists weren’t doing enough, so he formed the Salvation Army separate from the church, but firmly rooted in the teachings of the Bible.
Their faith guided them to do more with their lives than what society expected from them. Nightingale had a calling, and Wilberforce had what we’d now call an existential crisis.
William Wilberforce came from a privileged background, and his destiny was to gad about town until he settled down with a wife. But he knew in his heart that there was something more he could do.
In 1780 when the 21-year-old was elected to the Parliament of England, eleven million Africans had been taken from their homeland and sold into slavery.
The practice of buying, selling and owning human beings, and by the nature of their race considering them subhuman, was entrenched as a necessary part of the economy.
As such changing the laws to ban slavery was going to be very difficult. Not the least because of the financial power of the slave traders, but the crimes against slaves were committed outside of England and far from view of ordinary Englishmen.
Wilberforce toyed with the idea of entering the church and becoming a preacher. But his friend William Pitt and then Prime Minister, reminded Wilberforce that the principals of Christianity lead to actions as well as meditation.
Another influence was John Newton – writer of the hymn, ‘Amazing Grace’. Newton captained slave ships for 20 years before he returned to England and spent the rest of his life repenting his sins trafficking humans for money.
Consider the times: no radio, television. Europe was in turmoil; in 1776 the Americans declared independence and was at war against the British. In 1793 the French declared war on England. The issue of slavery was linked to sedition and Wilberforce himself was so accused, forcing him to retreat on the issue.
In that period of retreat, Wilberforce struggled with failure, but he didn’t give up the idea completely. He knew and others knew slavery had to be abolished because it was (and remains) an anathema to Christianity.
By way of coincidence, one of the people fighting to abolish slavery was William Smith, Grandfather of Florence Nightingale.
Florence Nightingale was, in her own way, extraordinary. It is very hard for women today to comprehend the role of women 100 years ago, let alone 200.
Today we are expected to get an education, find employment and take responsibility for ourselves.
Nightingale was born to privilege and as such was educated, but idle, until she married a suitable man and had children.
She did not see her life like that and had a calling at age 17, that she would serve God through nursing. To do that, she had to fight convention of the day that women of her class did not work, and a family who blocked her.
Eventually Nightingale trained as a nurse and worked in a range of civilian hospitals in England, until she and a team of nurses were sent to a field hospital in Turkey to care for wounded soldiers in the Crimean War.
While there, she identified hygiene and nutrition as vital to the recovery of sick and injured patients. She used statistics to prove her case, and eventually revolutionised health care in Britain and around the world.
Had Nightingale not had her calling, her belief that God wanted her to follow her vocation, we possibly wouldn’t have the standard of health we have today.
Likewise the founder of the Salvation Army – the man who created the models which provide help to drug addicts, alcoholics, the homeless and those living in poverty today – William Booth.
Booth created the Salvos out of a frustration with the state ignoring the needs of people living in poverty, and in many cases creating systems which effectively kept them down.
Booth knew that if he applied the Christian Gospel to social problems, it would go a long way to helping the poor, providing homes for single mothers, ex-felons and alcoholics. He created training programs for urban unemployed, for immigrants to work on farms and schemes to help with legal advice, banking and health services.
He knew that good works also created ‘heaven on earth’ for his congregation. He expected them to go out and find people in need, to help them overcome their vice and find the Word. And he knew this would in turn give his soldiers joy through service.
Booth was extraordinary for his time. The Salvos today is largely as Booth created it in the 19th Century, because he created an organisation which has its principles in a higher purpose, of service to the community and to help the weak and poor. And by using Christian philosophy, Booth created something better than what the government could have created.
Wilberforce, Nightingale and Booth all looked at society through a prism of Christianity, saw the inequities and unjust nature of how things were done and said ‘I will do something. It will honour God for me to do so’.
It is the great sadness of our time that we don’t ask ‘what can I do? What is my role as a citizen and servant of God in solving the unsolvable problems?’ Instead we often call out for the government to do something, do more or do everything.
And while governments can affect change, sometimes they don’t do it the best way.
When the government attempts a problem, it is limited by money. (Well a good government is.)
The government can redistribute your money: take it from you and give it to someone else, many of which you wouldn’t choose yourself.
Governments can provide services, but could they ever match the care, compassion, heart and companionship Booth had for the drunkards, fallen women, unemployed and homeless?
We ask government to do things that could – and once were – done by individuals and groups. Those groups worked together to solve the social problems around them, and in doing so built a strong social fabric, based on the common and mutual goal of tackling a problem. In the process they grew to know one another and understand each other’s perspectives. The outcome was to build something bigger than themselves.
This happens a lot less now, and our social fabric is weaker for it.
When we expect government to help those around us, instead of accepting that we have a responsibility to do it, we deny ourselves the chance to form bonds with our neighbour.
When we ask government to take care of the challenge of caring for our elders as they age, we lose the moments, the knowledge, the shared dignity that comes from helping one another through life’s most painful moments.
And when we outsource caring for our children to the state, we miss the opportunity to earn their trust, teach them our morals and ethics, and help them feel security that sets them up for the emotional resilience needed to cope with the challenges of being a teenager and adult.
The world isn’t perfect, and we can’t always do these things alone. But often we don’t even think to call on our village, before we call on a big, impersonal, and far-away government.
And we should question if that’s the best call we can make.
The strength of our social fabric is hard to measure, but Booth, Nightingale and Wilberforce understood how much it matters. Do we?
There are unintended consequences every time government steps in to play a role where it previously hadn’t.
Most people look at the laws we have in this country to outlaw discrimination, and think they are a good thing. They are based on international human rights law, something most people – not knowing much more than that it sounds good – assume is a good thing.
Following the horror of WW2, world-wide there was impetus to declare once and for all that some conduct was not OK – that some rights are inherent to who we are and cannot be taken away. You can see how, in that context, the idea had appeal.
But as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was formalised into the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, and other instruments to outlaw racial discrimination, they effected a seismic shift in what we understood of the meaning of being free.
For all their grand statements, these instruments, largely at the insistence of the Soviet Bloc, placed for the first time real restrictions on free speech, and obligations on the state to compel action against those who might say or do things that might amount to incitement to discrimination, hostility, hate or violence.
In 1966, at the time of the convention dealing with racial discrimination, the west had no need for laws to compel action against incitement to discrimination. The democracies of the United Kingdom and United States had formed on the basis of Christianity, and under common law hate speech wasn’t tolerated, violence tolerated even less.
Sure! Society wasn’t perfect. But the law was clear.
The decision of the international community to sign up to these conventions created an impetus for legal change here and throughout the west. It meant that instead of having natural rights derived from God; inherent rights to life, liberty, property and all that flow from them, our rights started to be limited by the attempt of statutes to say what is and isn’t within bounds.
The cultural shift was huge. Instead of ensuring natural rights were not burdened, states became responsible for the elimination of intolerance and discrimination, something which couldn’t be achieved without suppressing freedom of speech.
Would it even work? You can’t compel a person, by force of law, to be kind, or to love.
It necessitates banning the saying and doing of words that offend, words that are unpleasant to hear, but that would have been lawful in the common law world before the discrimination acts because they don’t prompt violence.
And it begs the question: is the right to avoid being offended more important than the right to free speech?
I don’t think so.