Empathy

Category Archives: Empathy

The end of slavery

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?

In the Silence Hearing the World Cry

Chaim Potok’s book Chosen tells the story of Danny Saunders, the son of a strict Hasidic Jew. For many years Danny’s father, though very human, never speaks to Danny, except when teaching him out of the Talmud. One day the mystery is revealed. Rabbi Saunders explains that God has blessed him with a brilliant son, a boy with a mind like a jewel. When Danny was 4 years old his father saw him reading a book and was frightened. The book described the suffering of a poor Jew, yet Danny enjoyed it!

“There was no soul in my 4-year-old Daniel, there was only a mind”

The rabbi cried to God “What have you done to me? A mind like this I need for a son? A heart I need for a son, a soul I need for a son, compassion…righteousness, strength to suffer and carry pain…”

So Rabbi Saunders followed an ancient Hasidic tradition and brought the boy up in silence, for then “in the silence between us he began to hear the world crying.”

Source:  J. Stott, The Contemporary Christian pp119-120

I Stopped to Help Her Cry

A little girl who was late coming home for supper. Her mother made the expected irate parent’s demand to know where she had been.

The little girl replied that she had stopped to help Janie, whose bicycle was broken in a fall.

“But you don’t know anything about fixing bicycles,” her mother responded.

“I know that,” the girl said. “I just stopped to help her cry.”

 

Source: Unknown.

He Was a Jew Too

Kilmer Meyers was the pastor of a church in Manhattan, USA. One of the more disturbing aspects of his pastorate was a woman named Emma who used to stand outside the church every day at 4pm and scream insults at Jesus. Emma’s pain was understandable – she was a survivor of the Holocaust. One day Bishop Meyers went outside and said to Emma, “Why don’t you go inside and tell him?” She disappeared into the church.

An hour went by and Emma had not returned. The bishop was worried and decided to look in on her. He found Emma, lying before the cross, absolutely still. Reaching down, he touched her shoulder. She looked up with tears in her eyes and said quietly, “After all, he was a Jew too.”

 

Source: Reported in Maggie Ross, The Fire of Your Life.

Enemies No More

Erich Remarque’s book, All Quiet on the Western Front tells of a remarkable encounter between two enemy soldiers during the Second World War. During battle a German soldier took shelter in crater made by artillery shells. Looking around he saw a man wounded, an enemy soldier. He was dying. The German soldier’s heart went out to him. He gave him water from his canteen and listened as the dying man spoke of his wife and children. The German helped him find his wallet and take out pictures of his family to look at one last time.

In that encounter these two men ceased to be enemies. The German had seen the wounded soldier in a new way. Not as an enemy combatant but as a father, a husband, someone who loves and is loved. Someone just like him.

This is always the path of peace and reconciliation, learning to truly see the other and in them recognising someone just like yourself.