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The Small Increments of Change

A few years ago I read Paul Chamberlain’s Talking About Good and Bad Without Getting Ugly, a book that proposes ways that Christians can talk about difficult issues—issues like abortion, homosexual marriage, euthanasia—in a pluralistic society. The final chapter is a case study that features William Wilberforce as an example of a man who used his Christian convictions to bring about widespread cultural change. Wilberforce was a driving force behind the abolition of slavery within the British Empire. The results of his efforts are seen and celebrated in Western society to this day.

There was one aspect of his strategy to abolish slavery that I found both a challenge and encouragement. Wilberforce was a realistic man; he knew that the kind of change he longed for required the British people to adopt a whole new mindset and would therefore take time and patience. They had to be led to see that slavery was an afront to the God-given value of human beings. They had to see that the conditions of slavery were an abomination to a nation that claimed to be Christian. They had a lot to learn and such lessons would take time.

Because of the distance the people had to come, Wilberforce was willing to accept incremental improvements. For example, at one point he supported a bill, passed on a trial basis, that would regulate the number of slaves that were permitted to be transported on a single ship. Slaves had previously been laid in rows on benches, chained on their sides with the front of one pressed against the back of the next. This proposed legislation demanded immediate improvements but implictly and explicitly supported the continuance of slavery. Still, Wilberforce saw it as a step in the right direction and for that reason he was willing to support it. Another time he voted for a bill that required plantation owners to register all of their slaves. While this bill also supported slavery, Wilberforce understood that a slave registry would keep plantation owners from adding to their number of slaves by buying them from illegal smugglers.

Wilberforce saw these incremental changes as accomplishing two goals. First, they improved the living and working conditions of slaves. While slavery continued, at least the slaves were afforded a greater amount of dignity, even if it had to be measured in small increments. Second, he believed that affording slaves greater rights set the Empire on a slippery slope. Having acknowledged the humanness of the slaves, people had to admit that slaves were something more than animals. The British Parliament had given approval to bills that Wilberforce knew would eventually but inevitably lead to nothing short of abolition. And of course his beliefs proved to be correct. The incremental changes he lobbied for proved to be the starting point for the eventual abolition of slavery.

Chamberlain points out that this same strategy has been used by those opposed to the dignity of life. Abortion is a prime example. What was first allowed as a concession to protect the physical health of a woman soon became a measure to protect her mental health. Mental health is far less objective than physical health and soon abortion was widespread. From there it was only a small step to societal acceptance.

As I read about Wilberforce I wondered if, put in the position of a parliamentarian, I could support legislation that supported abortion or euthenasia or homosexual marriage, even if that legislation seemed to be a step in the right direction. Would doing this be merely pragmatic? Or would it be sinful to tacitly support something so wrong, even while believing that it would lead to a more biblical end?

Chamberlain suggests that this principle, which we see in the life of Wilberforce, is the hardest to accept. He writes, “In their zeal to achieve a specific goal, whether banning abortion on demand, eliminating poverty or improving labor laws, some today operate with an ‘all or nothing’ mentality. Anything less than accomplishing one’s full goal all at once is viewed as an unacceptable compromise, as giving tacit approval to an unjust practice.”

But I think Chamberlain also helps uncover the solution. We need to be careful, when pondering this kind of a choice, that we do not make a decision based on two alternatives, only one of which is real. Wilberforce knew that he did not have the opportunity to vote for or against slavery. Instead, he was given the opportunity to decide between the status quo and a slight improvement on it. He voted for the improvement. While we might say that in doing so he also voted for slavery, and there may even be some truth to this, the fact is that this vote was not, in reality, for or against slavery. He kept focused on what was immediately attainable, but with his eyes gazing longingly at a future target of complete abolition.

Might we do the same with abortion, euthenasia and the cheapening of marriage? I know of politicians who have refused to vote for incremental change, stating that nothing but the end result would be worth their support. Is it possible that these people missed a golden opportunity to enact at least some level of change that may have proven beneficial? I can’t say and really only God knows for sure. But it is certainly possible that these people were too fixated on the final goal, not realizing that this was simply not attainable. Not yet.

One lesson Chamberlain wants us to learn from Wilberforce’s life is that change, especially change that effects all of society, comes in increments. This is true whether the change is for good or for ill. Those who promote abortion, euthenasia or homosexual marriage seem to realize this and have been effective in their strategy of bringing about change. Perhaps as Christians we have been too focused on the final result and have not been able to know a good thing when we see it.