Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Rowan Williams' Hull Lecture on Wilberforce and Western Society

[...] The issue is this. Apart from Christianity, what were or what could have been the factors that could drive any critique of slavery in the eighteenth century? We think of the Age of Enlightenment as an intellectual climate in which the assumptions of modern liberal and democratic thought were first formed; and that is not wholly wrong. But you will look in vain to the secularising writers of the period for systematic criticisms of slavery, let alone campaigns for its ending. The liberal and egalitarian principles of the French Enlightenment made not the slightest dent upon the slave system (and the post-Revolution French administrations made no move towards emancipation of their own accord). The egalitarianism of the age was like that of the Stoics in ancient Rome – a theory for the elite, unrelated to actual human relationships in the present, where, sadly, primitive justice had been rendered unattainable. And we must not forget the ways in which some aspects of enlightened thinking could end up reinforcing attitudes of racial superiority by appeal to the normative status of European thinking and the assumption that non-Europeans were incapable of ‘standard’ reasoning. There is an uncomfortable history to be written of what might be called progressive or scientific racism as well as of religiously motivated varieties; Colin Kidd’s recent monograph, The Forging of Races. Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000, is a very distinguished beginning to this study. [...]

I come back to the point made earlier: Wilberforce’s legacy is about the question of whether we believe in a moral state. If we accept that public morality is inseparably connected with the moral health and well-being of persons in a society and that human moral agents can be damaged by being implicated in public and corporate immorality, we are in effect saying that the state’s organs of action cannot be immune from challenge on moral grounds. In the absence (irreversible and not really to be regretted) of a universally shared and assumed moral and religious system, this challenging will be a matter of mobilising and motivating the public at large to bring pressure to bear on public authority because that general public has caught a vision (Jubilee 2000 – but also the beginnings of consumer pressure around ecological matters as it begins to spill over into political pressure). For that to happen, what I have called communities of moral tradition need to go on developing their self-awareness and self-confidence in areas of collective moral issues (and not to confuse this with ill-fated and ill-focused campaigns on questions of personal morality, which are not sensibly addressed through legislative processes). Read more

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