Should our leaders govern with a “culture of compromise” or stand on principle?
Eric Metaxas has written two terrific biographies of men who fought on principle, only accepting necessary compromise as a tactic. The more famous and acclaimed book, “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy,” is actually bettered by Mextaxas' biography of William Wilberforce titled “Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery.”
Both Dietrich Bonhoeffer and William Wilberforce lived among the elite in their societies. Both had lots of time to think, read, travel and discuss ideas. Neither came from devout families, though Wilberforce lived for a time during childhood with Methodist relatives. This was the period of John Wesley Methodists with strict rules and personal piety.
Wilberforce abandoned such teachings for an extensive period of debauchery and idleness with his university friends. His closest friend, William Pitt the Younger, came from one of the most powerful families and became prime minister at a young age.
Bonhoeffer's Lutheranism evolved. He upset the church leaders early on by stressing actual reading of the Bible, and connected with other Bible-reading Lutherans in key places. Bit by bit, small compromise after small compromise, it led to Hitler selecting Lutheran leadership who recognized him as head of the church and even changed the Bible to acknowledge Hitler's role.
The underground “confessing Lutheran church” grew as a result, and many church leaders finally drew back in horror after realizing what they had done. But others, felt that the church's survival — with or without any principles left — was the most important goal.
Bonhoeffer increasingly resisted pressure, decided to stay in Germany and battle until death. He was killed. But we remember Bonhoeffer, not the compromisers.
Wilberforce became a force in parliament, with powerful friends including his best friend the prime minister. Wilberforce, influenced by John Newton and others, reformed and became increasingly devout, though never a sourpuss. His gifts of enthusiasm, passion, friendship and love of life developed many allies. His coalition toiled for decades against the slavers.
Wilberforce reluctantly accepted a compromise here or there to advance the cause, but wasn't proud of his compromises. They were tactically necessary. And of all things, when it appeared victory might finally be at hand, he voted his conscience about war with France (which he opposed) nearly toppling his friend Prime Minister Pitt. Part of the consequence was delaying the abolition of the slave trade for another long period.
Metaxas has an ear for the telling anecdote and juxtaposition. He mixes some optimism and humor even into the Bonhoeffer book, and the Wilberforce book brims with fascinating stories. While neither man was perfect by any means, both men demonstrate the power of ideas and defending them at the risk of popularity, and even life. Both anchored their beliefs in the Bible itself.
Our world has plenty of people eager to advance through compromise. What we are missing is the leadership of people like Wilberforce and Bonheoffer.