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Posted by on Mar 8, 2008 in Politics | 3 comments

Memo To: Senator Obama

We’re snowed in here in southeastern Ohio. So, after I finished working on my sermon for tomorrow, we sat down to watch Amazing Grace. Have you seen it? It’s the second time for me. It tells the story of British politician William Wilberforce and his decades-long fight for two main life goals: the end of the slave trade in Britain and the reform of society.

Three days before Wilberforce died, after years of struggle and personal pain, slavery was banished from the entire British Empire. It was a signal achievement, particularly in light of the fact that, unlike here in the United States, the end of that hateful institution came without the firing of a shot.

Along the way, Wilberforce was outmaneuvered by wily pols more than once. On one occasion, his antislavery bill, a version of which he offered each year for decades, seemed destined for passage. But it died for the lack of four votes, those belonging to four members of Parliament for whom the opposition had purchased tickets for the performance of a comic opera that happened at just the moment the vote on Wilberforce’s bill was to take place.

Wilberforce, young and eloquent might have given up. He didn’t.

But there was something else he didn’t do. He didn’t keep making the same mistakes.

Wilberforce retained his idealism. But he also became shrewd. The film says that a lawyer who’d spent time in the West Indies and hated the slave trade, suggested a tactic by which Wilberforce and his allies might move toward abolition. Eighty percent of the slaves in the West Indies were brought in under ships flying neutral flags, even if they were British or French. This was a dodge for slavers. Had they flown the flags of the British or French, then at war, privateers in the pay of one or another of the combatant nations, would have boarded the ships. But ships flying the flags of neutral nations, such as that of the United States, which brought in not only slaves, but essential wares, were able to get into port in the West Indies unmolested. Wilberforce’s allies introduced a bill that would authorize that ships flying neutral flags, which may have been carrying other contraband, be stopped. It would dry up the slave trade and because it was seen as a measure devised to commercially strangle the French, it was entirely unobjectionable. Its passage was the beginning of the end of slavery.

(Its demise was hastened when, just before the vote on the flag bill was taken, Wilberforce purchased tickets to the races for most of the pro-slavery caucus.)

Wilberforce’s story is compelling because it underscores a truth that resonates not just in British (and American) history, but world history. The greatest politicians have always been those who are both idealistic and shrewd. In the US, such figures have sometimes started out shrewd and allowed idealism to propel them to great deeds–think Abraham Lincoln and the Empancipation Proclamation and Chester Alan Arthur, the one-time political spoilsman who became the champion of Civil Service reform, come to mind.

Hang with me on this. I’m about to make a point.

I have, to borrow a phrase often used by the husband of Hillary Clinton, no dog in this hunt, the hunt for the Democratic nomination.

But I see the millions of people you are energizing and inspiring and I feel that, no matter what a person’s politics, getting people excited about politics again is a good thing. Politics, after all, is nothing more than the art of working with people to get things done. And I believe that politics is best when more people are consrtuctively involved.

With all due respect, Senator, you must be shrewd of you are going to win this nomination fight. And you must fight her every time she claims that her “experience” is superior to yours.

If Senator Clinton actually negotiated with any foreign country, as she claims, she did so without the authorization of her government and if she did, a record of it should be produced.

If Senator Clinton has produced any substantive legislation in her time in the US Senate, she should produce the evidence and you should lay out what you accomplished in Springfield.

If Senator Clinton pretends to be more able to handle an international crisis, you should point out that unless one has commanded military personnel (which not even Senator McCain has done), been an ambassador, or served as president, no one who becomes president has experience at being president.

On top of that, you must insist that she come clean with the American people. She should release her tax records. She should release all the records relative to her failed national health care efforts in the early days of her husband’s administration.

I know.

You are running as a different kind of candidate. And though I can name about ten issues on which you and I are in susbtantial disagreement, I respectfully submit that demanding that Senator Clinton be accountable to the American people and to the truth relative to her potential service as president is part of your job as a candidate for the Democratic nomination.

You owe something to all those idealistic people who are registering to vote for the first time so that they can vote for you and giving to a political campaign for the first time so that they can support you. You owe something to all those kids who believe you when you say, “Yes, we can.”

You owe them shrewdness. You owe them a fight. You owe them a commitment to calling Senator Clinton out. She hasn’t been afraid to call you out. Nor should she be. But you shouldn’t be afraid either.

In Amazing Grace, there’s a scene involving Wilberforce and his boyhood pastor, John Newton. Newton, you know, was a former slave ship captain who repented of his sin, then became a pastor and antislavery activist. He also composed the hymn, Amazing Grace, a recollection of how, in Jesus Christ, God graciously accepted him, forgave his sins, and changed him into a friend of God. Wilberforce revealed to Newton that he was considering leaving politics to become a pastor. Newton urged him not to do that. He should stay in the political arena to fight slavery. But, he warned Wilberforce, he would get dirty. The filth of a thousand slave ships and the obscenities of powerful people bent on retaining power would stand in his way. But, Newton said, he needed to keep on.

Newton might as well have cited the words of Jesus when He told His followers, “You must be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.” Jesus could hardly have used more evocative imagery. The serpent was the one who tempted humanity away from God. The dove was thought to be the purest of all the birds, even lacking in bile. Christians, Jesus was saying, must be both.

I think that reformers must be both as well. I don’t know whether you will get my vote in the fall or not, Senator, and, because I am a pastor, I won’t say anything about it publicly anyway. People don’t need preachers to tell them how to vote.

But I do know this: You are under a moral obligation to demand accountability from Senator Clinton and to tell your story. You owe it to all those people who really are hankering after a new kind of politics.

[Also see here, here, here, and hereA scene from 'Amazing Grace'.]