The Conscience of the Information Age

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For years on "BreakPoint," we have talked about the plight of the oppressed—from persecuted Christians to the victims of sexual trafficking. Raising awareness is not easy, because let's face it, most Americans probably cannot even find places like North Korea, Sudan, or Burma on a map—much less tell you about their human-rights records.

This lack of familiarity with the larger world is not new. The real-life hero of the movie Amazing Grace, British parliamentarian William Wilberforce, was all-too-aware of the numbing effect of "out of sight, out of mind." He knew that before he could persuade his countrymen about the evils of the slave trade, some education was in order. It is one of the many lessons Wilberforce and the film Amazing Grace has to teach us. (I strongly want to encourage you to buy this film for yourself and to share it with your family, friends, and neighbors. It has just been released on DVD, and it has become one of my favorite films of all time.)

Two hundred years after Wilberforce, most people are still unaware of how brutal the slave trade was: men chained together for up to five months to save space, and diseases like amoebic dysentery, scurvy, smallpox, and measles spreading in this human Petri dish. Little wonder that of the 13 million Africans who were compelled to make the infamous "middle passage," 3 million died on the way.

Obviously, those profiting from the slave trade did not tell the British people the truth about slavery. As Eric Metaxas writes in his book on Wilberforce, it was the slave trade's "invisibility" that made this brutal business-as-usual possible. The average British subject did not have the "slightest hint" of the human cost associated with the sugar and molasses they used in their homes.

That's why an essential part of Wilberforce's campaign against the slave trade was to make the British public aware of the cost. He used everything from pamphlets to poetry to pottery to bring the plight of slaves to the public's attention.

As a result, he was able to tell Parliament that "the nature and all the circumstances of this Trade are now laid open to us. We can no longer plead ignorance . . . We may spurn it . . . but we cannot turn aside so as to avoid seeing it."

Once the British people stopped looking away, it became easier to do the right thing.

In this Information Age, our problem is not the kind of "invisibility" Wilberforce combated—people who care about human dignity can easily find out what they need to know. The trick is getting them to care.

We have to make our voices heard above what many call the "clutter" of the Information Age and the chatter of talking heads. When thousands of things compete for people's attention, we need to help people focus on the important things. We need to remind them that there are things more deserving of their attention than which celebrity entered rehab or who fathered a baby.

Just as Wilberforce became the conscience of his age, we must become the conscience of the Information Age. It will not make us popular, but if we do not try to get people to look at the larger world beyond their TV screens, then today's victims of brutality might as well be invisible. A good place to start is with the film Amazing Grace.

From BreakPoint®, November 20, 2007, Copyright 2007, Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with the permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the express written permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. "BreakPoint®" and "Prison Fellowship Ministries®" are registered trademarks of Prison Fellowship