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Doing good and helping the poor

Cover story | Amazing Grace author Eric Metaxas uncovers the "rare and bright gem" that was William Wilberforce

Issue: "'Into captivity they shall go'," Feb. 24, 2007

Eric Metaxas is the author of Amazing Grace, a new biography of William Wilberforce (HarperCollins, 2007) that serves as companion to the new Hollywood film of the same title (see p. 10). Wilberforce led the fight to abolish slavery and reinvigorate British Christianity in the late 18th century and early 19th century.

Metaxas uses his lively wit and character to talk with non-Christians in Manhattan, where he is an author and teacher. He has been a writer for VeggieTales and Chuck Colson's Breakpoint radio program. An earlier book, Everything You Always Wanted to Know about God (but were afraid to ask), mixed humor and evangelism.

WORLD: Why should Americans care about William Wilberforce, a dead British fellow who lived in the days of powdered wigs?

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METAXAS: He is one of the greatest Christian heroes of all time. He dedicated himself to doing what was utterly unthinkable in his day, abolishing the slave trade in the British Empire. He also knew how to be thoroughly in the world while being utterly not of the world. He could serve as a new model of what it is to be devoutly Christian while powerfully and effectively engaging the culture around us.

WORLD: You have put Wilberforce in the Hall of Fame of social reform and justice. In fact, you assign him almost the biggest room in that house.

METAXAS: The world that Wilberforce was born into didn't even question the idea of slavery; in fact, the entire worldview of the British Empire was what we today call social Darwinism. The rich and the powerful preyed on and abused the poor and the weak. But Wilberforce saw that the gospel commanded those in power to help the powerless. He pulled this Christian idea right into the social and political spheres.

Wilberforce and his friends were so successful that today we take the idea of a social conscience for granted. Today we argue about how to help the poor and suffering-should the public or private sector take the lead? Of course Wilberforce was so successful that today doing good and helping the poor has become secularized. We've forgotten its roots, that it's a fundamentally Christian idea, brought to us by a Christian man and his friends two centuries ago.

WORLD: Christians on the left seem as enthusiastic about the Wilberforce story as those on right. How does he transcend our political debates?

METAXAS: In Wilberforce's day there was no division between what we today call the social gospel and evangelicalism. Anyone who was a Christian knew that sharing one's faith and helping the poor and suffering were two parts of the same thing-the gospel of Jesus Christ. Today those on the left love Wilberforce's social innovations and passion to help the downtrodden. Those on the right love his vibrant evangelicalism.

WORLD: Do you see any parallels between Wilberforce's campaign against slavery and today's pro-life movement? Differences?

METAXAS: Both the abolitionist and pro-life movements exist at the intersection of faith and politics, always a scary and dangerous place to be, because there is no traffic cop, so to speak. It can get ugly. Wilberforce took great pains not to seem as though he was saying that he was morally superior to his political enemies. He treated them with extraordinary graciousness and love. He really knew that he was as wicked a sinner as the worst slave trader-without that sense of one's own sinfulness, it's very easy to become a moralizing Pharisee. Unfortunately Wilberforce's humility and love of his enemies is something that many pro-lifers have eschewed entirely, damaging the whole movement.

WORLD: Wilberforce's two objectives were abolition of slavery and reformation of manners. To Americans that sounds like he wanted to teach people how to pick up the right fork for the salad. What did he mean by reformation of manners?

METAXAS: Right, he didn't mean table manners. He meant the moral and social behavior of the entire culture, which was hopelessly brutal, violent, selfish, and vulgar. He hoped to restore civility and Christian values to British society, because he knew that only then would the poor be lifted out of their misery.

WORLD: Who in American history most resembles Wilberforce? Any of the presidents?

METAXAS: We've not yet seen anything like his combination of outspoken faith, brilliance, eloquence, and winsomeness in any of our political leaders. Wilberforce was an exceedingly rare and bright gem, and we should pray God would do something like that again.

WORLD: Wilberforce was part of several political coalitions, some temporary ones, others lasting almost a lifetime. What can we learn about coalitions with people of different faiths from his experience on social justice issues?

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