Over the past year there’s been much discussion about how we should relate to and view Christians from previous generations, especially those who tend to hold hero status amongst us. This has been provoked by the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the tearing down of statues erected to historical figures often with a reputation for philanthropy but tainted by their involvement in the slave trade.
What then should Christians make of the likes of Whitfield, Wilberforce and Dabney who have been implicated in slave ownership? On the one hand, there have been those who have wanted to “cancel” such men completely. On the other hand whilst it is (thankfully) rare to hear people give outright support to slavery, there are those who seek to justify the actions of Christian heroes who held slaves. Usually, the crucial justification is that they were men of their time and so cannot be judged by today’s standards.
I tend to the view that this doesn’t cut it. We are not talking about their eternal salvation, nor are we dismissing the many positives that they brought. However, we cannot ignore that such men had access to the same Scriptures we do and more importantly to the same arguments and evidence as the abolitionists.
Though before we get over excited about judging 17th century men, perhaps we would do well to consider how believers from other times might judge us. What would Paul, Athanasius, Calvin or Wesley make of us if they were transported into the future? How will the church in 50 or 100 years assess our record?
Think about how we engage on issues such as the environment and our willingness to accept a level of pollution using similar arguments about the cost of net zero emissions as those who opposed the rapid dismantling of the slave trade system. Consider how we accept that there will be some abortions or think about our general tolerance of homosexuality, transgenderism, and same-sex marriage providing we are free to choose how we set up our bathrooms, can decorate cakes for who we like and aren’t compelled to conduct ceremonies if we don’t want.
Would a time traveller from the past or a Christian ethicist in the future be happy to say simply that we were “people of their time.” Or would they perhaps want to challenge how much knowledge we had and therefore how much excuse?