William Wilberforce was an eighteenth century English member of parliament and the main leader of the British movement to halt the slave trade. Although born into an aristocratic family, he was raised by a pious Methodist aunt and uncle. In 1785, Wilberforce became an Evangelical Christian, which resulted in major changes to his lifestyle and a lifelong concern for moral reform throughout Britain. Beginning in 1787, he headed the parliamentary campaign against the British slave trade, continuing for twenty years until the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807. While the slave trade ended, slavery itself continued in the British West Indies. Finally the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 abolished slavery in most of the British Empire. Wilberforce died just three days after hearing that Parliament had passed the act.
Author Eric Metaxas in a recent biography of Wilberforce observes that the average eighteenth century English citizen had never seen a slave. The enslaved were mostly on Britain’s Caribbean Islands. The home population was oblivious to the rigors of slavery. “They had no idea that conditions on West Indian sugar plantations were so brutal that most of the slaves were literally worked to death in just a few years and most of the female slaves were too ill to bear children.” Wilberforce’s efforts to eradicate slavery were aided by a number of other social reformers including Josiah Wedgwood whose fine chinaware is still manufactured today. Wedgwood produced a porcelain medallion portraying a chained black slave on his knees with hands folded with the plea: “Am I not a man and a brother?” This emblem was reproduced on placards, pamphlets, pendants, flags, embroidery, samplers, even cuff-links. Finally confronted with the humanity of their enslaved brothers and sisters, British public opinion and parliamentary attitudes began to change. Wilberforce and his zealous co-workers first touched hearts and then altered minds and finally effected legislation.
Like the oblivious British citizenry of the eighteenth century, twenty-first century Americans often go about their daily routine not noticing or sometimes conveniently ignoring the threats to human life and human nature that some in modern society zealously promote. Fifty years of terminating unborn life is often dismissed with a shrug of the shoulders. Physician assisted suicide is gradually working its lethal way across the country as a sad response to end-of-life issues. Gender confusion is met with fashionable but ill-founded responses. The true nature of marriage has been altered beyond recognition. Sexuality has been completely divorced from reproduction and linked naively to personal satisfaction. The nation-wide misuse of opiates, drive-by shootings in our larger cities, mass-slaughters even in rural areas and terrorism in all its forms do rightly capture headlines. But, dramatic incidents aside, society’s root problem is a pervasive disregard for authentic human nature. The child in the womb, the young person’s maturity, the authenticity of family life, and the challenges of old age must always be viewed with an eye to God’s abiding natural law. Broader problems of race, sexuality, and violence stem from a lack of appreciation of the value of each and every human life before God. “Am I not a man and a brother,” the unborn child, the confused teenager, the ambivalent adult and the frail elderly call out as loudly today as any British slave did in the eighteenth century.
Christmas celebrates the arrival of the Son of God into earthly society with a full human nature. On Christmas Jesus begins his place within human history stretching from Adam to the present day and into eternity. “He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” The birth of Christ confers untold dignity on all humankind who are made up of the same body and blood, mind and soul, that allowed Jesus to be born, grow, and mature.
God becoming human exalts humanity and reminds all that human nature is something to be understood and revered in the light of God’s revelation. The birth of Christ began two-thousand years of celebrating and promoting human nature in its fullness. Today’s secular, individualistic society meanly celebrates and promotes the belittling and demeaning of human nature. Reproduction, birth, sexuality, marriage, family life, and ageing are being denied the religious supports that our forebears like William Wilberforce and all our Christian ancestors struggled to instill. Post-modern individualism isolates a person from all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge that Christianity has offered to preceding generations.
Honestly celebrating the birth of Christ demands a vigorous re-commitment to the beliefs Christ lived and taught. Christmas happily celebrates Christ’s true humanity and urgently demands that modern society re-assess its own grasp of authentic human nature.