William Wilberforce is famous as the British MP who fought for the abolition of the Slave Trade. Against great odds, he led the fight against an activity that was thought vital by most of his fellow citizens because of its huge economic value to the British Empire. He was branded a traitor and opposed by powerful corporates and politicians. His struggle lasted fifty years and it was only three days before he died that Wilberforce heard the news that slavery had been abolished across the empire. His incredible contribution has been referred to by historians as ‘one of the turning events in the history of the world’.
But Wilberforce’s goal was much bigger than changing his nation’s laws. He set out to do nothing less than inform and shape the nation’s social conscience. He called this “the reformation of manners.” Before his time, a respectable citizen could stroll past an eleven year-old prostitute on a London street without feeling a twinge of outrage. But Wilberforce set out to change the status quo, and challenge the evils tolerated by ‘polite society’. His goal was to change not just the law but people’s hearts and minds, so that social evils like slavery, child prostitution, alcoholism, public profanity and extreme poverty would not be contemplated or tolerated by good citizens.
I believe our own nation desperately needs Wilberforces today! We live in a time when greed has been enshrined as a virtue; when young schoolboys hold up corrupt politicians as role models for how to get rich quickly without hard work. Soldiers are accused of looting the citizens they should be protecting but those same citizens will gleefully loot an overturned fuel or beer truck on the highway. Immigration officers turn a blind eye to illegal aliens. Drug dealers sell their wares with impunity. City council workers ignore the abuse of building regulations. The rich and middle class are oblivious to the extreme income disparities across our nation.
It’s not enough for us to express our disgust with the status quo on social media! We each need to begin to see our vocation as our space to bring about the reformation of manners. If you are a parent, you need to take your role of bringing up children with strong moral values seriously. If you are a media practitioner or entertainer, use your platform for the betterment of society. If you are an accountant or lawyer or farmer or marketer how is your practice or career or business not just adding to your bottom line but also helping create a better nation?
The second law of thermodynamics states that disorder is the natural state of things. Things generally move towards a state of less energy and more decay unless fresh energy is injected from an outside source. History confirms this. Things don’t just get better over time; someone must act boldly and sacrificially for our nation to change for the better.
As Edmund Burke, another 18th Century British parliamentarian once said, ‘All that is necessary for the forces of evil to win in the world is for enough good men to do nothing’.