On Thursday the church remembered William Wilberforce who worked all his adult life to abolish slavery, only succeeding three days before he died. He faced many obstacles and lots of opposition but he was determined to overcome the terrible trade in human beings. Like Jesus, he kept his focus on others and not on what happened to him.
The readings were Psalm 18, Luke 22:47-62. The reflection follows.
It’s very easy to read some passages of the Bible and think that you know it all, have read it all before, and have nothing more to notice. The Gospel for today could easily get that response from us. Most of us are pretty familiar with the Christmas story and the Holy Week and Easter story. We know about Judas betraying Jesus, we even call people a Judas if they betray nowadays. It’s all familiar stuff. However, the strength of scripture is that there is always something more to find.
Two things struck me when reading this that I would like to share with you. The first is the matter of the kiss. This would have been the customary greeting given to a rabbi by his disciples. It shows affection and obedience to the one who is teaching. Judas chose to use something good for a bad purpose. I tend to think that the betrayal would not have seemed so bad if Judas had not chosen to accomplish it with a kiss. To me it seems to add insult to injury.
Thinking about this prompted me to think of the way we often greet each other online, if we want to show affection or concern. We will type (hugs), maybe with more brackets if we want so show more affection! There have been times when people have done that to me and it has meant a great deal and been a wonderful encouragement. There are other times when it is done and I know that the right emotion is not behind it. The person giving the hug is going through the motions, maybe for effect, maybe to impress others, but I know that they have acted in a way that doesn’t match with the apparent affection. I don’t know about you, but I find this two faced way of behaving really hard to bear. I tend to ask myself why they bother to offer a hug. I think I could deal with them much better if they made no pretence of affection at all.
When something like this happens to me, a betrayal of sorts, my focus tends to be on me and how I feel. I may go over and over what has happened, effectively keeping the hurt alive by attending to it.
This brings me to the second point that struck me in the passage. I noticed where Jesus’ focus is all the time while the betrayal takes place and in the immediate aftermath. Jesus focuses on others and not on himself, despite the fact that he is being terribly wronged. His first focus is on Judas. Jesus actually challenges Judas’ behaviour to his face. Few of us have the courage to do that. We are much more likely to complain to other people than to face the perpetrator themselves.
Jesus’ attention then turns to the disciples, halting them before they act even more foolishly in his defence and get themselves arrested. Despite the fact that the one whose ear was cut off was the slave of the high priest, a person bent on eliminating Jesus, he still benefited from Jesus’ care and healing. Finally Jesus turned his attention to those who came to arrest him, challenging them on their behaviour as he had done with Judas. After the impassioned pleas to God to find another way forward than the cross, the undoubted fear of the suffering to be faced in the next few hours, the heartache at the betrayal of one who shared in that first communion in the upper room, Jesus turned from his own concerns to look at what was best for others.
When I choose to focus on myself when I’m wronged, I am not following the example of Jesus. Jesus said that the actions of Judas and the chief priests were in line with the power of darkness. I sense that if I dwell on the unhappy feelings I have as a result of unkind actions by others, I am aligning myself with darkness too. If I choose to copy Jesus, to look at the needs of others, I am lining myself up with the light.
Today we remember William Wilberforce, who worked to abolish slavery. William worked from 1788 to bring about the abolition of slavery. He had so many set backs in the process. Early on, key witnesses were bribed to change their testimony to the Privy Council to being in favour of slavery not against it. William could have dwelt on this betrayal but his focus was so firmly on the plight of the slaves that he carried on fighting.
Even when there looked to be progress, parliament threw up obstacle after obstacle. A general election caused delay and opinion in the country swung back in favour of slavery. After two years the vote in parliament went against abolition. It would have been so easy to give up but Wilberforce fought harder than ever. Nearly every year in the 1790s Wilberforce introduced his Abolition Bill. In between times he also set up the Bible Society, which continues to this day, and which our former Priest-in-charge, Mark works for in New Zealand.
Wilberforce continued to work year after year and on 23rd February 1807 Parliament finally voted overwhelmingly to abolish the slave trade. Wilberforce was overcome by emotion during a speech by Romilly commending him and sat with his head in his hands, in tears. At the end of the speech there were cheers in the House.
Wilberforce could have finished his campaign at this point. He was in his 50s and his health was not good. However, he wanted to make sure that all those who were slaves in the British colonies would be emancipated. His efforts met with more and more resistance from the government but even that didn’t stop him. Wilberforce chose to no longer support the government’s stance, but to campaign openly for the end of slavery.
Wilberforce retired from the House of Commons in 1825, making his last public appearance at a meeting of the Anti-Slavery Society in 1830. Gradually in parliament the Emancipation Bill gained support. The final reading of the bill in the House of Commons was on 26th July 1833. Slavery would be abolished but the planters who used slave labour would be compensated. When Wilberforce heard the news he said, ‘Thank God that I have lived to witness a day in which England is willing to give twenty millions sterling for the Abolition of Slavery’. He died three days later.
Wilberforce could have abandoned his campaign, have made his focus to be the unfairness he experienced, the obstruction and the betrayal, but like Jesus he kept his focus on others. Without his giving of nearly his whole adult life to the cause of abolishing slavery, it’s hard to know when it would have stopped. His life is truly an inspiration to us all.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor