It was 1785, a time of turbulent politics and social upheaval, as the British Empire was expanding across the world. Corruption in government was common, and slavery remained a plague on British integrity. But in the midst of this storm, a young man obtained a seat in the House of Commons and proceeded to change the world.
Although William Wilberforce is remembered today as one of most renowned leaders in the English anti-slavery movement, at 21 he was confused, split between his political and spiritual lives. He sought to serve both God and country, but the two goals often seemed to conflict. It was his spiritual mentor and the author of “Amazing Grace,” John Newton, who set him on the right path: “It is hoped and believed that the Lord has raised you up for the good of His church,” Newton said, “and the good of the nation.”
He was raised for the good of both. He needed to work for both. William Wilberforce dedicated his life to political and social activism, to pursuing justice for the oppressed in the name of Christ. He died only days after learning that slavery had been successfully abolished, something that may not have happened if he had abandoned his position of influence. Wilberforce is significant not only because of his faith and passion, but because of the way he used a social platform to make a difference. His platform was political. His purpose was far greater.
What’s your platform?
Do you see something in the world you want to change?
Do you have the platform you need to make that change?
These are two questions that will define the millennial generation. As Christians and citizens, we have a calling to be active participants in culture and society. But how can we bring about change if we don’t have a platform? Some Christians feel prideful about speaking with passion, so they remain silent, turning down social influence in the name of humility. But we must remember that Jesus Himself had a social platform, and that humility does not negate the need for social influence.
Jesus had a social platform as a Jewish Rabbi.
The story of Jesus has made us averse to power because we focus on how He humbly loved widows, orphans, lepers and the marginalized of society. Yet He was also a well-educated Rabbi – a respectful title tor spiritual leaders and teachers of the Torah. This position of influence was immensely important in Jesus’s ministry.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus physically declares Himself to be a Rabbi: “Now when Jesus saw the crowds, He went up on a mountainside and sat down” (Matthew 5:1).
In this era, only Rabbis were granted the privilege of sitting to teach. Jesus wanted was using this social platform to gain respect and the attention of His followers. Again and again in the Scriptures, Jesus is referred to as a Rabbi, revealing how the people around him respected his social position.
After returning to Nazareth, His home town, Jesus went to the synagogue and read a scroll from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).
But after he finished reading, instead of speaking as a Rabbi would—explicating the passage by applying it to similar parts of the Scriptures—Jesus did something audacious. He said, “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).
The crowd was furious with Jesus after hearing His words. What he had done was bold, but He was using His existing social platform to spark the greatest change in history, proclaiming Himself to be the Messiah. Yes, He was humble. But He was also powerful, and knew how to use His influence.
Humility does not negate the need for social influence.
Jesus’s brand of social influence is rare; He was both a humble carpenter and a well-known leader (not to mention the son of God.) He made a difference on a small and personal level while also making a difference in a much broader way. We are called to do the same. Humbly acknowledging our roles as Christ followers does not keep us from striving for professional excellence and seeking means of social influence. These are the very avenues with which we ought to proclaim truth and institute change.
We must not turn down the positions with which God can use us to change the world. Feeling compassion is not enough. Caring is not enough. We must act.
We can lament the world’s problems, or we can prevent them.
Think of it this way: If you see a social offense in the world, you can do little things that will remove the sting and put a bandage on the wound. Or you can pursue platforms of activism that will lead to bigger things, and eventually prevention.
Bandaging wounds only works until you run out of bandages. A true social activist thus recognizes the importance of political power. A great example comes from Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryll WuDunn, two Pulitzer Prize winning human rights journalists. Their documentary Half the Sky, a call to arms for women’s empowerment and an end to sexual violence across the globe, explains that while activist organizations can help women who have been victims of rape, they can only go so far. If a nation’s political infrastructure legitimizes aggression, and law enforcement doesn’t have the means to try criminals, long-term change is a lost cause. Individual level work is necessary, of course, but so is institutional work, to prevent problems by changing laws.
Isaiah 61:1 says, “He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.”
This is our mission, and we must use all our resources to be successful. We need to be people like Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Malala Yousafzai—but we also need to advocate social change in the name of Jesus. We need to set the captives free and give voice to the oppressed through our social influence. We need to be like William Wilberforce, putting passion into action. But first, we need a platform.
What’s your platform?