At the close of the eighteenth century the slave trade was a thriving and very big business. Prominent families held slaves and interests in the slave business, a vast swathe of people depended on slavery for their livelihoods, and public opinion was undisturbed by it. When Clarkson threw in his lot with a small group of Quakers in opposition to the trade the odds of success were seemingly impossible.
On May 22, 1787 Clarkson and about a dozen others met in the James Phillip Bookstore for the first official meeting of the Committee of the Slave Trade. They devised a strategy to gather intelligence on the trade, expose it’s inhumanity via pamphlets, posters and public lectures, and build momentum for a banning of the British slave trade. Clarkson became their only full time anti slavery campaigner. He travelled tirelessly throughout England seeking to gather intelligence on the slave trade and to draw people’s attention to its cruelty and inhumanity.
The task was incredibly difficult. Few of those involved in the slavery business would talk to him; he received death threats, and at least one attempt on his life; many mocked him. In that first year he noted
I began now to tremble, for the first time, at the arduous task I had undertaken, of attempting to subvert one of the branches of the commerce of the great place which was then before me…. I questioned whether I should even get out of it alive.
Yet the tide of opinion began to turn. Petitions containing thousands of names started to find their way to Parliament. More people joined themselves to the cause, including the potter Josiah Wedgewood, who crafted a relief of a kneeling slave with the words “Am I not a man and a brother?” that became a popular and influential adornment, and parliamentarian William Wilberforce, who championed the cause in Parliament. Hundreds of thousands stopped using sugar, the major slave produced good in England, and slave-free sugar started appearing. The autobiography of freed slave Olauda Equiano became a best seller and many heard him speak.
Within five years of that first meeting at the James Phillip bookstore public opinion had turned against the slave trade. Parliament however would take longer to conquer. William Wilberforce was the spearhead of the parliamentary campaign.
So enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did the trade’s wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for abolition. Let the consequences be what they would; I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition
Like Clarkson, Wilberforce met with fierce opposition and derision. Admiral Horatio Nelson for example, condemned “the damnable doctrine of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies”. He also found the support of colleagues such as the Prime Minister, William Pitt.
Bills against the trade were moved in 1791, 1792, 1793, 1797, 1798, 1799, 1804, and 1805, all without success, until on February 27, 1807 a bill for the abolition of the slave trade passed the House by a vote of 283 to 16.
The anti slavery activists had assumed that once the shipping of slaves was outlawed slavery would collapse. This assumption proved naive. While no more slaves were shipped, slaves continued to be held on British owned plantations in the West Indies and their children enslaved. This set off continued campaigning. A mass uprising of slaves in 1831 signalled the oppression of slaves was no longer sustainable, and in 1833 the Emancipation Act finally saw the end of British slavery.
It took fifty six years, but who’d have thought that from that meeting of a dozen people in the James Phillip Bookstore on May 22, 1787, armed with nothing but their determination and their voices, would issue such a result?
On February 23, 1997, a priest named Oscar Romero was installed as Catholic Archbishop of El Salvador. His appointment dismayed a number of his fellow priests and delighted the repressive governing regime. Romero was known as a conservative and both the government and reform minded priests thought he would remain silent on the human rights abuses that were occurring throughout the country.
Romero soon proved them wrong. During his priesthood he had spent time with the campesinos (peasant farmers) that made up his congregations and his attitude to politics changed. He saw the ways power and wealth were manipulated to the advantage of a small group of families. For the poor majority this issued in hunger, children dying because their parents could not afford medicines, and extreme violence, including beatings, rape and murder, when they dared object.
Two weeks after his installation, Archbishop Romero’s friend, Rutilio Grande, was murdered by the paramilitary. Grande had been creating self-reliance groups among the campesinos and was seen to challenge the status quo. Romero demanded the Government investigate the murder, but his demand was met with silence.
From this point on Romero’s opposition to State sanctioned injustice became increasingly vocal. He used his masses, his public speeches, his Sunday sermons that were broadcast by radio, and both public and private correspondence, to denounce the exploitation of the poor and the violence against those who opposed injustice. He publicly reported injustices and called for reform of the political and economic institutions which entrenched violence and injustice. He refused to officiate or appear at Government events, knowing that would be seen as endorsing the State. When the Government refused to investigate its crimes, Romero established his own investigative tribunal to bring the crimes to light. Romero became an outspoken advocate for justice.
Romero had got in the way. On the 24th May 1980, as he was celebrating mass, Romero was assassinated by gunshot. Just moments before he had said:
We know that every effort to improve society, above all when society is so full of injustice and sin, is an effort that God blesses, that God wants, that God demands of us.
In 2004 Victor Yushchenko stood for the presidency of the Ukraine. Vehemently opposed by the ruling party Yushchenko’s face was disfigured and he almost lost his life when he was mysteriously poisoned. This was not enough to deter him from standing for the presidency.
On the day of the election Yushchenko was comfortably in the lead. The ruling party, not to be denied, tampered with the results. The state-run television station reported “ladies and gentlemen, we announce that the challenger Victor Yushchenko has been decisively defeated.”
In the lower right-hand corner of the screen a woman by the name of Natalia Dmitruk was providing a translation service for the deaf community. As the news presenter regurgitated the lies of the regime, Natalia Dmitruk refused to translate them. “I’m addressing all the deaf citizens of Ukraine” she signed. “They are lying and I’m ashamed to translate those lies. Yushchenko is our president.”
The deaf community sprang into gear. They text messaged their friends about the fraudulent result and as news spread of Dmitruk’s act of defiance increasing numbers of journalists were inspired to likewise tell the truth. Over the coming weeks the “Orange Revolution” occurred as a million people wearing orange made their way to the capital city of Kiev demanding a new election. The government was forced to meet their demands, a new election was held and Victor Yushchenko became president.
Philip Yancey writes
“When I heard the story behind the orange revolution, the image of a small screen of truth in the corner of the big screen became for me an ideal picture of the church. You see we as a church do not control the big screen. (When we do, we usually mess it up.) Go to any magazine rack or turn on the television and you see a consistent message. What matters is how beautiful you are, how much money or power you have. Similarly, though the world includes many poor people, they rarely make the magazine covers or the news shows. Instead we focus on the superrich, names like Bill Gates or Oprah Winfrey.… Our society is hardly unique. Throughout history nations have always glorified winners, not losers. Then, like the sign language translator in the lower right-hand corner of the screen, along comes a person named Jesus who says in effect, Don’t believe the big screen – they’re lying. It’s the poor who are blessed, not the rich. Mourners are blessed too, as well as those who hunger and thirst, and the persecuted. Those who go through life thinking they’re on top end up on the bottom. And those who go through life feeling they’re on the bottom end up on the top. After all, what does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose his soul?”
Source: Philip Yancey, What Good Is God, pages 184-186
The Olympic Games, Mexico, 1968. The marathon is the final event on the program. The Olympic stadium is packed and there is excitement as the first athlete, an Ethiopian runner, enters the stadium. The crowd erupts as he crosses the finish line.
Way back in the field is another runner, John Stephen Akwhari of Tanzania. He has been eclipsed by the other runners. After 30 kilometers his head is throbbing, his muscles are aching and he falls to the ground. He has serious leg injuries and officials want him to retire, but he refuses. With his knee bandaged Akwhari picks himself up and hobbles the remaining 12 kilometers to the finish line. An hour after the winner has finished Akwhari enters the stadium. All but a few thousand of the crowd have gone home. Akwhari moves around the track at a painstakingly slow pace, until finally he collapses over the finish line.
It is one of the most heroic efforts of Olympic history. Afterward, asked by a reporter why he had not dropped out, Akwhari says, “My country did not send me to start the race. They sent me to finish.”
Source: reported on Sydney 2000 Olympics website
Levi Coffin is an unsung hero of the American anti-slavery movement. In the 1820’s Coffin moved to Newport, Indiana and opened a shop. His home soon became a central point on the famous Underground Railroad, a pathway from slavery in the USA’s South to freedom in Canada. People like Coffin would take enormous personal risk to help fleeing slaves on their journey. Coffin provided refuge for up to 17 refugee slaves at a time at his house, and so active was he that three major routes on the Underground Railroad converged at his place which became known as Grand Central Terminal.
Because of his activities Coffin received frequent death threats and warnings that his shop and home would be burned. Yet he was undeterred. Like many of the whites involved in the Underground Railroad he was driven by his Christian convictions. Coffin was a Quaker and explaining his commitment said “The bible, in bidding us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, said nothing about colour.”
Levi Coffin is just one example of a person who decided to do what he could about an injustice he saw. And his action resulted in hundreds of oppressed slaves finally finding their freedom.
Source: reported in Readers Digest July 2001
During the deepest, darkest days of apartheid when the government tried to shut down opposition by canceling a political rally, Archbishop Desmond Tutu declared that he would hold a church service instead.
St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, South Africa was filled with worshippers. Outside the cathedral hundreds of police gathered, a show of force intended to intimidate. As Tutu was preaching they entered the Cathedral, armed, and lined the walls. They took out notebooks and recorded Tutu’s words.
But Tutu would not be intimidated. He preached against the evils of apartheid, declaring it could not endure. At one extraordinary point he addressed the police directly.
You are powerful. You are very powerful, but you are not gods and I serve a God who cannot be mocked. So, since you’ve already lost, since you’ve already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side!
With that the congregation erupted in dance and song.
The police didn’t know what to do. Their attempts at intimidation had failed, overcome by the archbishop’s confidence that God and goodness would triumph over evil. It was but a matter of time.
Source: reported in Jim Wallis, God’s Politics
The story of Telemachus is the story of extreme courage in the face of evil. Telemachus was a Christian monk who, in 391CE, went on a pilgrimage to Rome. While there he noticed crowds flocking to the Colosseum to see gladiators do battle. He followed them in, only to witness a sight that repulsed him.
Emperor Honorius was celebrating his triumph over the Goths. Gladiators armed with spears and swords reenacted the battle. After their reenactment the bodies of the dead were dragged from the arena and its bloodied surface covered with a fresh layer of sand.
In came a new series of gladiators. Some were armed with swords and spears, others with nets. The crowd watched with excitement as they sought to outdo each other. When a gladiator was wounded, his opponent would loom over him, waiting for the crowd’s verdict on whether to slay him or let him live. So great was the bloodlust that at times wealthier spectators would climb down to get a better view of the execution.
Telemachus watched with horror as people died, battles raged and the crowds cheered. Prompted into action, this bald headed, robed figure found his way onto the arena floor. He ran toward two gladiators locked in battle, grabbed one of them and pulled him away. He exhorted the two gladiators to abandon their murderous sport. He appealed to the crowd to not to break God’s law by murdering.
The response was anything but favourable. Angry voices drowned out Telemachus’, demanding that the spectacle continue. The gladiators prepared to do battle again, but Telemachus stood between them, holding them apart, urging them to reconsider. Driven by the anger of the crowd and their rage at Telemachus’ interference, the gladiators cut Telemachus to the ground, as the crowd threw missiles at him. Telemachus was killed.
But his death was not in vain. In 405 Emperor Honorius declared gladiatorial battles were to end at the Colosseum. Tradition tells us that it was Telemachus’ brave protest that helped move him to do so.
Source: Reported in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
It has been said that all that is needed for evil to succeed is for good people to stay quiet. And the converse is also true, when good people speak up, evil can be defeated. This was graphically illustrated inside Bulgaria during the dark days of World War 2.
Bulgaria was allied to Germany, with a formal agreement made in 1941. This agreement allowed for German military bases inside Bulgaria, while handing back to Bulgaria lands that had been in dispute between the two countries. Members of the Bulgarian government who wished to implement Hitler’s “final solution” against the Jews planned to begin the first phase by sending all the Jews from the returned lands to Germany’s concentration camps.
When a member of Parliament, Peshev, heard of the plan he gathered other representatives and marched into the office of the Minister for the Interior, demanding an explanation. Peshev and the others pressured him to rescind the order, which he did.
However, not all regions received the telegram in time. In Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city, Jewish people were rounded up during the early morning, with most held in the local school hall, awaiting deportation by train to Germany. Here Metropolitan Kyrill, the head of the local church acted immediately. He sent a telegram of protest to the king, threatening to lie across the tracks in front of the first train to leave with Jews. He then went to the school where he was barred entry by the police. Announcing that he no longer felt himself bound by the laws of the government and would act according to his conscience as a minister of Christ, Kyrill climbed the fence promising the Jews gathered there “Wherever you go, I’ll go.”
Some time after the order not to deport the Jews arrived at Plovdin and they got to return to their homes. Meanwhile, local MP Peshev was expelled from the vice presidency of the Parliament and censured.
Foiled at their first effort, the Gestapo pressured the king into an order that Jews be expelled from cities into the Bulgarian countryside. They hoped this would stir up anti-Semitism in the country and allow the deportations to go ahead. It was at this point that Metropolitan Stefan, head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church came into his own. He convened a meeting of his church’s Synod which unanimously condemned the order to move Jews into the countryside.
The government made plans to go ahead with the deportation anyway, scheduling it for a day of national celebration, in the hope that the deportation would go unnoticed among the day’s festivities. Stefan would have none of this. As head of the national church it was his job to officiate during the celebrations. Standing on the steps of the cathedral, a large crowd lay before him and the members of the government, including the Prime Minister, sat behind him. He threw away his prepared speech, strongly condemned the persecution of the Jews and called on the government to resist the influence of the Nazis. The Prime Minister rose after Stefan to denounce him and called on him to stop interfering in political matters.
The deportation to country areas proceeded, but Stefan was unbowed. In the face of threats to arrest him he offered to christen all Jews who wished to, a measure that would mean they could not be deported to Germany. The Minister for the Interior responded by refusing to recognise all christening certificates issued after January 1, 1943, and ordering the closure of the churches of Sofia. Stefan informed the government that his Churches would ignore the order and sent a circular to all his parish priests explaining the fate awaiting Jews in Germany. Fearing a public backlash the government backed down. The churches remained open until the end of the war and the Jews were allowed to remain in Bulgaria. Tens of thousands of lives were saved, all because people of good conscience refused to be silent in the face of evil.
Source: reported in Christianity Today magazine, Oct 4, 1999. Vol 43, No. 11.
Former US President Richard Nixon is infamous for his place at the center of the Watergate scandal. He disgraced both the office of the President of the United States and the United States itself in the eyes of the world. When Hubert Humphrey, a former US vice-president died, Nixon attended his funeral. Dignitaries came from all over the country and the world, yet Nixon was made to feel decidedly unwelcome. People turned their eyes away and conversations ran dry around him. Nixon could feel the ostracism being ladled out to him.
Then Jimmy Carter, the serving US President, walked into the room. Carter was from a different political party to Nixon and well known for his honesty and integrity. As he moved to his seat President Carter noticed Nixon standing all alone. Carter immediately changed course, walked over to Nixon, held out his hand, and, smiling genuinely and broadly embraced Nixon and said “Welcome home, Mr President! Welcome home!”
The incident was reported by Newsweek magazine, which wrote: “If there was a turning point in Nixon’s long ordeal in the wilderness, it was that moment and that gesture of love and compassion.”
Carter gifted Nixon with love and compassion. Nixon certainly had done nothing to deserve it. It was an act of pure grace on Carter’s part. When the bible speaks of God’s blessing it speaks in exactly the same way. Blessing is never a reward for good behaviour. It’s a gift, a gift of pure, unadulterated grace.
In the year 156 an 86 year old man was brought before a Roman official and asked to renounce his atheism. He was no atheist by our standards. Rather he was the devout Christian bishop Polycarp. To the Romans however he was an atheist, for he refused to worship the emperor as a god along with the other gods of Rome.
Polycarp knew denial would mean a painful death – either being thrown into the arena with a wild animal or burned alive on a pyre. Three times he was questioned, three times invited to renounce his “atheism”, but no renunciation of Christ would he make. “Swear and I release; curse Christ” urged the Roman official, to which Polycarp replied “Eighty-six years have I served him (Christ), and he has done me no wrong: how then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”
Polycarp was not spared. A pyre was built and he was burned alive, but his words echo down through time to us: “Eighty-six years have I served him (Christ), and he has done me no wrong: how then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”
Source: Based on a text from Lightfoot, Apostolic Fathers cited in A New Eusebius. Documents Illustrating the History of the Church to AD 337.
Philip Island, in Victoria Australia, plays host to one of the greatest nature experiences possible. On the shores of Philip Island are the burrows of thousands upon thousands of fairy penguins, extraordinarily cute little birds that stand only 30cm or so tall. Every morning the adult penguins head out to sea to catch fish. At the end of the day they return to land to bring back food for their chicks. Watching them get from the water to their burrows is both funny and exhilarating. The penguins surf in on the waves, then gather in groups at the water’s edge. Their burrows are 100 metres or so away, with the open space of the sandy beach between them. All of a sudden a group of penguins will take off, waddling as fast as their little legs will carry them across the beach. But then, having got 10 or 20 metres they’ll suddenly turn around and waddle back to the water. They wait, then try again. One group makes it, but another performs this strange ritual of turning back. And on it goes, through the dying light of day, until finally the penguins have all crossed the beach and met their chicks in their burrows.
What’s going on? Why the strange stop-start-return ritual? The answer’s quite simple. At sea the birds are fast swimmers, able to dive deep. At sea they’re safe from predators such as eagles and hawks and dogs and cats. In their burrows their safe below ground. But on the open beach they’re vulnerable and exposed. On the beach they can only waddle slowly and are easy pickings for predators. And so, as they cross the beach, the moment they see a shadow or something out of the corner of their eye, they turn back and race for the safety of the water.
It seems that we humans are a lot like those fairy penguins. When confronted with challenging situations we find ourselves like the penguins standing at the water’s edge. We know where we’ve got to go, we know we’ve got to get across that beach to get back to the burrow, but it can be so terrifying. When we step out of the water and start waddling across the beach we leave our safety zone behind, we’re in no-man’s land where it’s dangerous, uncertain and where we’re vulnerable. Yet to get to the burrow we must leave the safety zone behind and strike out into the danger zone.
Source: Scott Higgins.
You’ve probably never heard of Enyon Hawkins. Enyon was a Welsh miner, born in 1920 and dying in Wales in 2001. Yet you probably should know about him, for Enyon characterises much of what an unknown person can do through simple acts of love. During World War Two Enyon was an able seaman aboard the British navy vessel British Dominion. On January 10, 1943, German U-Boats fired three torpedoes into the British Dominion. The ship exploded into flames and was burning furiously. Many of the crew jumped into the sea, the only way they might escape with their lives. However even that was fraught with more than the usual danger, for oil from the ships fuel tanks had spread across the water and threatened to set even the ocean ablaze.
Enyon Hawkins was one of those crewmen who jumped into the ocean. He was also a very strong swimmer, and keeping his wits about him, organised most of the sailors into a group and led them away to safety. It was his example and encouragement, especially to the weaker swimmers, that kept them going until they were rescued by the British Navy.
On two occasions Enyon left the group to turn back and save others. This meant swimming into oil covered waters that were ablaze. The risk of being completely enveloped by the flames was very high, and though Enyon escaped it was not before he suffered extensive burning to his face. However it was made worthwhile by the lives of those he saved.
After the war Enyon was awarded medals for bravery and leadership. It was recognised that apart from Enyon’s actions most of the men from the British Dominion would have lost their lives.
Application: love, bravery, courage, impact, greatness. Enyon’s story reminds us that you don’t need to be an admiral or famous to make a dramatic impact on the world. All you need to do is start loving people where you are, as you find them.
One wet and miserable morning in Ohio Ray Blankenship was making breakfast in when he looked out the window onto the open stormwater drain that ran alongside his house. What he saw terrified him – a small girl being swept down the drain. He also knew that further downstream, the ditch disappeared with a roar underneath the road. Ray ran out the door and raced along the ditch, trying to get ahead of the little girl. Then he hurled himself into the deep, churning water. He surfaced and was able to grab the child’s arm. They tumbled end over end. Within about one metre of the drain going under the road, Ray’s free hand felt something protruding from one bank. He grabbed a hold and held on for dear life. “If I can just hang on until help comes,” he thought. But he did better than that. By the time fire-department rescuers arrived, Ray had pulled the girl to safety. Both were treated for shock. On April 12, 1989, Ray Blankenship was awarded the US Coast Guard’s Silver Lifesaving Medal. The award is fitting, Ray Blankenship was at even greater risk to himself than most people knew. You see, Ray can’t swim.
Source: Reported in Los Angeles Times Syndicate.