Reflection on Abortion, Wilberforce, and Amazing Grace

I came across this piece in my personal archives and thought it might be worth running here.  I was thinking along these lines because my pastor asked me to preach about the sanctity of life this week in church.

I never learned about William Wilberforce in my twelve years in the public school system. Neither did I run into him in any of my history courses at a large state university. It wasn’t until my summer associate work at Prison Fellowship during law school that I learned anything about the man who ended the slave trade in what was then the most powerful nation on earth.
I recently saw Amazing Grace, which is the story of the British politician’s drive to end the slave trade in the world’s greatest superpower within his lifetime. The film was impressive, both artistically and in its emotional impact. Wilberforce’s story brings you within the power of a quest for justice. You can literally feel the passion to save the Africans from the brutality of the slave trade and the tremendous frustration of Wilberforce and his group as they are blocked at every turn. Stress, anguish, and overwork led Wilberforce to ruin his health battling against the hold of slavery on his culture and its conception of economic interest.
This film is needed today. One of our great debates as we talk about sacred and secular America is whether the Christian faith has anything to say about public policy. Does Christianity have anything to do with the social order or is it purely a “heart religion” that the individual should work out only on his own or behind church walls?
Wilberforce answered those questions decisively in favor of a publicly relevant faith working hard against injustice. He thought a compartmentalized Christianity was a sign of spiritual bankruptcy. Wilberforce’s dedication to Christ and his fellowship with a group of like-minded believers unconcerned about damaging their standing in a slavery-minded society led him and his Clapham sect to mount a tireless decades long assault on the barbarism of the slave trade and then chattel slavery.
Those who wish to understand how Christians can make a difference in their society would do well to study the model of William Wilberforce. He and his friends lived close together in Christian community, but they were not exclusive. They welcomed everyone and engaged in a great deal of hospitality, particularly toward members of Parliament. They took prayer and Bible study seriously. And they endeavored to seriously work out the implications of the Christian faith for politics, economics, social welfare, etc.
To make what may be an obvious connection, Amazing Grace caused me to think about abortion. When I became a Christian in college, I began to be exposed to the case for ending the practice of abortion. Over time, I grew strong in the conviction that abortion ended a human life, that it was violent and barbaric, and that all possible steps should be taken to prohibit the procedure.
Law school took my feelings to a new level. A barely tolerable, white-hot fire rose up in my heart. I read Roe v. Wade carefully and concluded (with most of the intellectually honest legal world) that it was a travesty of cut and paste scholarship. Looking into that case damages one’s faith in the court. Blackmun went home to Minnesota, spent some time in the library studying the question, and then popped out an opinion that got everything wrong, particularly the history of abortion and law in the West. (In retrospect, I’m not sure you can blame him. The forces wanting to legalize abortion had done the recent historical work on the question. It’s only been after Roe that critics have picked apart his many questionable assertions.)
During that time, I decided that if I spent the rest of my life ramming my head against the law of legalized abortion it would be acceptable. I read about people who gave their lives to abortion protest. I regretted the fact that I was married because that meant it would be unfair to my wife for me to get arrested on a regular basis. I wrote a law review article on the topic where I took my best swings at Roe. I became a state-level policy director and lobbyist working, among other things, to require a period of reflection before any abortion could be performed. I testified before legislative committees. I argued the question of the law and the state of the current jurisprudence. I wept with a combination of sadness and rage when I listened to a young black woman report the nightmares she’d had since her abortion. “My son comes to me in my dreams and asks me why I did it.” My feelings about the injustice of abortion and what I felt were the misrepresentations of the pro-choice advocates sometimes led to incredibly dark moods.
When you feel there is an injustice that happens every day, multiple times a day, dripping like a faucet, and that there is nothing, absolutely nothing you can do to prevent it, the anger and frustration can be tremendous. I eventually dealt with it by distancing myself from the problem. I intellectualized and played the game so many conservatives play by backing off from the world and coolly observing its troubles.
I vote pro-life. I write pro-life. But it’s been a long time since I participated in any rallies, followed the issue very closely, or thought about what I could do to drive the cause forward. I backed off because I got hurt.
All this reflection takes me back to Wilberforce and why he was a great man. Wilberforce drove forward for a couple of decades. He struggled and fought and never allowed himself to stop caring and working. He knew exactly, through hard experience, what Paul meant when he exhorted us to keep the faith.  And in the end, he achieved his object. The slave trade ended in the British empire and so did slavery, in part because Wilberforce endured familiarity with injustice.

I never learned about William Wilberforce in my twelve years in the public school system. Neither did I run into him in any of my history courses at a large state university. It wasn’t until my summer associate work at Prison Fellowship during law school that I learned anything about the man who ended the slave trade in what was then the most powerful nation on earth.
I recently saw Amazing Grace, which is the story of the British politician’s drive to end the slave trade in the world’s greatest superpower within his lifetime. The film was impressive, both artistically and in its emotional impact. Wilberforce’s story brings you within the power of a quest for justice. You can literally feel the passion to save the Africans from the brutality of the slave trade and the tremendous frustration of Wilberforce and his group as they are blocked at every turn. Stress, anguish, and overwork led Wilberforce to ruin his health battling against the hold of slavery on his culture and its conception of economic interest.
This film is needed today. One of our great debates as we talk about sacred and secular America is whether the Christian faith has anything to say about public policy. Does Christianity have anything to do with the social order or is it purely a “heart religion” that the individual should work out only on his own or behind church walls?
Wilberforce answered those questions decisively in favor of a publicly relevant faith working hard against injustice. He thought a compartmentalized Christianity was a sign of spiritual bankruptcy. Wilberforce’s dedication to Christ and his fellowship with a group of like-minded believers unconcerned about damaging their standing in a slavery-minded society led him and his Clapham sect to mount a tireless decades long assault on the barbarism of the slave trade and then chattel slavery.
Those who wish to understand how Christians can make a difference in their society would do well to study the model of William Wilberforce. He and his friends lived close together in Christian community, but they were not exclusive. They welcomed everyone and engaged in a great deal of hospitality, particularly toward members of Parliament. They took prayer and Bible study seriously. And they endeavored to seriously work out the implications of the Christian faith for politics, economics, social welfare, etc.
To make what may be an obvious connection, Amazing Grace caused me to think about abortion. When I became a Christian in college, I began to be exposed to the case for ending the practice of abortion. Over time, I grew strong in the conviction that abortion ended a human life, that it was violent and barbaric, and that all possible steps should be taken to prohibit the procedure.
Law school took my feelings to a new level. A barely tolerable, white-hot fire rose up in my heart. I read Roe v. Wade carefully and concluded (with most of the intellectually honest legal world) that it was a travesty of cut and paste scholarship. Looking into that case damages one’s faith in the court. Blackmun went home to Minnesota, spent some time in the library studying the question, and then popped out an opinion that got everything wrong, particularly the history of abortion and law in the West. (In retrospect, I’m not sure you can blame him. The forces wanting to legalize abortion had done the recent historical work on the question. It’s only been after Roe that critics have picked apart his many questionable assertions.)
During that time, I decided that if I spent the rest of my life ramming my head against the law of legalized abortion it would be acceptable. I read about people who gave their lives to abortion protest. I regretted the fact that I was married because that meant it would be unfair to my wife for me to get arrested on a regular basis. I wrote a law review article on the topic where I took my best swings at Roe. I became a state-level policy director and lobbyist working, among other things, to require a period of reflection before any abortion could be performed. I testified before legislative committees. I argued the question of the law and the state of the current jurisprudence. I wept with a combination of sadness and rage when I listened to a young black woman report the nightmares she’d had since her abortion. “My son comes to me in my dreams and asks me why I did it.” My feelings about the injustice of abortion and what I felt were the misrepresentations of the pro-choice advocates sometimes led to incredibly dark moods.
When you feel there is an injustice that happens every day, multiple times a day, dripping like a faucet, and that there is nothing, absolutely nothing you can do to prevent it, the anger and frustration can be tremendous. I eventually dealt with it by distancing myself from the problem. I intellectualized and played the game so many conservatives play by backing off from the world and coolly observing its troubles.
I vote pro-life. I write pro-life. But it’s been a long time since I participated in any rallies, followed the issue very closely, or thought about what I could do to drive the cause forward. I backed off because I got hurt.
All this reflection takes me back to Wilberforce and why he was a great man. Wilberforce drove forward for a couple of decades. He struggled and fought and never allowed himself to stop caring and working. He knew exactly, through hard experience, what Paul meant when he exhorted us to keep the faith.  And in the end, he achieved his object. The slave trade ended in the British empire and so did slavery, in part because Wilberforce endured familiarity with injustice.

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6 thoughts on “Reflection on Abortion, Wilberforce, and Amazing Grace

  1. I was sitting in church and listening our senior pastor/rector preach on embryonic stem cell research (and doing a bang-up job of it, by the way) and something rather sobering occurred to me. I’ve often thought of the position my father was in when his family moved to Montgomery in 1954 (he was 10). I’ve always gotten the sense that the tumult of the civil rights era was rather marginal to his life – his parents were and are clearly segregationists but he wasn’t and isn’t. We often ask ourselves (or at least I do) what would I do if I were in the South in the 1960s? Or the 1850s?

    In listening to the sermon, I realized that I am already there and am all too silent.

  2. I was literally just thinking about the parallels of Slavery and Abortion a couple of days ago. The debate in the mid 1800’s was essentially whether human beings can be considered property. People look back in horror that “America allowed such a brutal injustice to continue for so long,” yet here in the 21st century we write off the killing of unborn children as a “right” of the mother.

    We mourn over miscarriages, and imprison women who leave babies to die in dumpsters. We even charge a person who kills a pregnant woman with two counts of murder – if I’m not mistaken. Yet somehow we justify abortion by saying that the child is the mother’s “property.” Sound familiar?

    27 years ago a pregnant woman made a decision to walk out of the surgery room, telling the doctor at the very last moment that she was going to keep the baby. That child grew up and became my wife last year.

    I believe we will find ourselves on the right side of history on this.

  3. Hunter–I just ran across your blog today…I definitely want to see this movie. Like you, I have learned to hate abortion with a passion.

    At my law school, one student group celebrated the anniversary of Roe v. Wade with balloons. When I went into practice, I volunteered at a Christian legal aid clinic. One of my clients had had an abortion and she looked at me with tears in her eyes, saying “I should have a son right now.” She showed me the paperwork she received from Planned Parenthood on that fateful day. There was an FAQ about emotional distress after an abortion, and the answer said that these symptoms usually go away after two or three weeks. Disgusting.

    Keep up the good fight. We definitely need to mobilize sooner rather than later.

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