|Daniel José Camacho|
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 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.
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.
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.”