Wilberforce – a model for today

William Wilberforce (1759 -1833)

By Peter Corney

This year is the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in British territories (1807), an achievement due largely to the tireless efforts of William Wilberforce. By any measure Wilberforce is an outstanding example of Christian leadership and a model of the way a Christian should be at mission in the world today. Indeed many of the issues he applied himself to like slavery and the exploitation of labor have re-appeared in new forms today and demand our attention again. It is estimated that there are some 27 million people in some form of slavery today – bonded and forced labor, children in third world sweat shops, human trafficking, woman and girls trapped in forced prostitution and children kidnapped or sold into domestic slavery, the list goes on.

Wilberforce’s motivation came from a deep Christian commitment. His Christian formation was profoundly influenced by the Rev Isaac Milner his tutor and life long mentor and John Newton the ex slave trader and author of “Amazing grace”, both Evangelical Anglican clergy. It was Newton that convinced him to pursue his vocation as a Christian in politics and not be ordained. He was elected to the British Parliament in 1780 at the age of 22 years!

Wilberforce became part of a group of Evangelical leaders known as “The Clapham group” after the suburb of London where they met. The Rev John Venn, a member of the group, was the Rector of Holy Trinity Clapham. This group, made up of influential lay people like Lord Teignmouth the Governor General of India, MPs, bankers, writers, government administrators, philanthropists and clergy, deeply influenced English society, politics and the development of Christian missions in the early 19th C. Wilberforce and his friends formed CMS and the BFBS and various missions in India. Today’s influential “Anti slavery International” began as a sister society to CMS at this time. Thomas Clarkson, Wilberforce’s lifelong collaborator, was a key member of this group and the quiet driving force behind much of the abolitionist research and strategy.

While known today primarily for his leadership in the abolitionist movement he was also very influential in a wide variety of other social reforms: the reform of factories, child labor, prisons and the provision of primary education for children of the poor. It must be remembered that at this period there was no public education, no public health programs and no industrial relations laws protecting workers.

The English upper classes of the late 18th and early 19th C were not known for their piety and ridiculed the growing Evangelical and Methodist revival. Methodism had taken root mainly among the working poor which further alienated it from the moneyed and landed classes. Another of Wilberforce’s goals was to renew the faith of his peers and he set about this task with the same energy and wisdom that he brought to the abolitionist movement. He wrote a book, “A Practical View of True Faith…”, which was widely read and made a great impact on English family life. He encouraged the pattern of family prayers in which the whole household took part, this became a feature of many large households in the 19th C. These many interests were pursued at the same time as he continued to press the abolitionist cause both in and out of Parliament.

While there had been a constant thread of opposition to slavery among Christians in England – Richard Baxter the great Puritan preacher and later John Wesley had both condemned it as a great evil – nevertheless the Church and established society chose to ignore the issue. It was “over there” in the colonies and so “out of sight and out of mind.”

By 1807 at least three million slaves had been transported from Africa to the Americas by British ships. The method of transport was barbaric and inhuman. The slaves were crammed into tiny spaces unable to move, many died or went mad with claustrophobia in the confined space hardly able to breathe. The sick and dieing were simply thrown overboard. But this evil trade was a significant source of wealth in an increasingly prosperous England as the economic benefits of the Colonies and the plantations flowed back to the developing industrial revolution at home.

In 1787 the “Committee of Twelve” was formed to attack the problem in a coordinated way. It was made up of nine Quakers and three Evangelical Anglicans. This group recruited the young MP William Wilberforce as their parliamentary spokesman.

In 1789 Wilberforce moved his first motion for the abolition of the slave trade in the Parliament but it took 18years to get the Bill through The House of Commons! From 1807 British Naval ships enforced the ban on slave trading but it took another 26 years of campaigning to have the existing slaves released. In 1833 while Wilberforce lay dieing at his home he heard the news that the Bill had passed the third reading. One year after his death, at midnight on July 31st. 800,000 slaves were freed and the institution of slavery ceased to exist in the British territories. This was the result of the outstanding commitment of many Christians and the dedication of the whole life of one man.

On July 29th 1833 in an extraordinary expression of national gratitude Wilberforce was buried in West Minster Abbey by a grateful nation. At the state funeral the pall bearers were The Lord Chancellor, four Peers of the Realm, two Royal Dukes and The Speaker of the House. Almost every MP followed in the procession. This man had not just touched the conscience of the nation he had reshaped its spiritual core. What a magnificent model for Christian Mission!

The task was long and hard because the social and political context was not conducive, indeed often hostile to the cause. The social and political theory was Liaise Fair Capitalism and paternalistic philanthropy. Wealth was not redistributed by government to assist the poor that was the job of individuals. Constant wars with France (on and off from 1759 – 1815) and the American colonies were distracting and the French Revolution (1789) made the English ruling classes nervous about any social change.

The campaign methods used by the Abolitionists are instructive and a model for ‘faith based activism”. John Coffey in his Cambridge Paper (Vol.15/2 2006) describes how they mounted a media and petition blitz to coincide with Wilberforce’s Parliamentary Bills.(10% of the English population signed the Petition!) They assembled damning evidence of the barbaric nature of the trade. They developed a logo of an African man in chains with the words “Am I not a man and a brother?” The famous potter ,Wedgwood, even produced it as a pottery figure! They produced books and posters, they held rallies, they wrote to MP’s. They created a national organization and a huge grass roots movement. Coffey comments: “There were even boycotts on consumer goods, as up to 400.000 Britons stopped buying the rum and sugar that came from the slave plantations”. The Churches were mobilized and “hundred’s of Methodists… signed a petition against the slave trade in the Chapel at the Communion Table on the Lord’s Day.”

Wilberforce and the Abolitionist campaign has much to teach us about Christian Mission and “faith based activism” today. First, is the power of Christian conviction as a powerful motivating force. Second, is what a few really dedicated people can achieve. Third, the need for perseverance and long term commitment. Fourth, it shows us that change can be made even in a hostile social and political context. Fifth, it shows the power of mentors – the influence of The Rev Isaac Milner and John Newton on Wilberforce’s life. Sixth, it reminds us that our Christian calling extends to our everyday vocations.

The need to attack slavery and the exploitation of labor continues today. One way we can celebrate the anniversary of the 1807 victory is to become informed and involved today. Read David Batstone’s new book “Not for sale: the return of the global slave trade and how we can fight it” or contact “Anti Slavery International” (www.antislavery.org).

Religion and politics in Australia



By Peter Corney. July 2005


Even the casual observer of the last federal election in Australia could not miss the extraordinary amount of public comment and interest in the revival of the connection between religion and politics in Australia.


Those with longer memories recalled the dramatic days of Bob Santamaria, the Catholic Church and the DLP in the late 50s and early 60s. The battle between the DLP and the Communists in the Labor Party and the resulting split kept Labor out of office for over a decade. We hadn’t seen anything like the tensions and connections of those days between religion and politics for a long time.


Judging by the recent activities of the two major parties as they vie for the interest of the conservative Christian vote the focus and attention will continue as the run up to the next Federal election intensifies. Not only have John Howard and Peter Costello appeared on the AOG Hillsong platform but also Bob Carr and other Labor politicians have recently attended. In fact at the last Hillsong Mega Conference on July 4th in addition to the state Premier Bob Carr there were at least five federal cabinet ministers, eight Liberal back benchers and two National party Senators present.  On the platform Bob Carr, an agnostic, sounded like a Telly Evangelist giving away CDs as he promised not to bring in a Religious Vilification Act (like Victoria’s) in NSW. It was an unashamed pitch for the conservative Christian vote. We have not seen this sort of political interest in religion for at least 35 years. 


The Labor Party realising that the Liberals beat them to the punch with Family First preferences at the last election have formed their own “God Squad” initiated by Kevin Rudd. It is called the Faith Values and Politics working group. Their clear aim is to try and catch up to the Liberals in connecting with what they see as a significant voting block in contemporary Australian society where many of the old loyalties have changed including religious and political sentiments and alliances.


 Some of the old political/religious cliché’s went something like this:  Catholics voted labor right; Anglicans voted Liberal/National (but many of their leaders were publicly soft left); Pentecostals were a fringe group who were too small to matter and politically disinterested. Most of this has now changed. Much of the Catholic constituency has become socially upwardly mobile and moved away from its working class roots. The Uniting Church (UCA) is now a pale shadow of its former self, its membership is so small and ageing that its voting power is of little significance. The National Council of Churches (NCC) is now weak and it’s style of ecuminism is largely ignored by the new large and growing churches who have their own inter church networks. The Anglican vote is now  much more diverse than it once was. .


The other major change has been the growth of the Evangelical and Pentecostal Churches. The landscape of the Protestant church has been dramatically reconfigured over the last 20 years. This reshaping has until recently gone largely unnoticed in the general community, the press and the party political world. The largest number of adult Protestant Christians in church on Sunday is now in Evangelical, Pentecostal, or independent Charismatic churches. We are not talking nominal denominational census figures here but actual regular attendance. Many of these congregations are very large highly organised regional churches. Hillsong is now well known but there are dozens of others around the nation who have attendances in the 1000 plus range and a significant number in the 3000 plus range. They can be found in all Protestant denominations. Many of the leaders of these large congregations have now become politically active.


Another significant change is that theologically conservative Christians have begun to organise politically. The Pentecostal churches once disinterested in the “grubby business of politics” have become very interested and engaged. Their phenomenal growth since the late 70’s now makes them a significant influence. Family First is the most visible expression of this activity but there is much more going on behind the scene. The Evangelical Alliance now has a Director of Theology and Public Policy and has become more active in Aboriginal Justice issues. Saltshakers are a low key but influential lobby group based in Victoria. The Canberra based Australian Christian Lobby a non-denominational non-politically aligned organisation has attracted many members among theologically conservative Christians and is developing significant political skills and influence. They only began in the year 2000. They currently have around 6000 paid up members. The capital city annual Prayer breakfast movement which is run by conservative Christians has a low key but definite agenda to influence community leaders. It is now attracting very large numbers to its events. Also the influential Pastors Prayer Summit movement has a strong focus on society and the nation.


 What are the forces that are driving this and will they produce a permanent change in our social, political and religious landscape?


 Marion Maddox in her recent book “God under Howard – the rise of the religious right in Australian politics”, argues that John Howard’s conservative agenda has been very deliberately orchestrated through political lobby groups like the conservatively religious Lyons Forum made up of influential Christian federal politicians and the various conservative think tanks like the Institute of Public Affairs, the Centre for Independent Studies, the Tasman Institute and the H.R.Nicholls Society. She argues that a campaign has been successfully waged to shift Australian society to the right by restoring social conservatism and promoting economic liberalism. This has been done she claims by reconnecting conservative Christians with the political process.


There is obviously some truth in this. But the forces at play are much more complex than this and bigger than John Howard. You cannot reshape a societies attitudes so easily unless there is at large a mood that is conducive.


Larger forces, events and ideas both beyond and within Australia are pushing religion and politics back together. They are:


1. The media rub off in Australia of the so called “faith based presidency” of George Bush and his very public religious stance has had a significant effect on peoples awareness of the strong connection between religion and politics in other parts of the world.


2. The power of religious ideas for so long marginalised in the west is now re-emerging in the consciousness of western people. One of the reasons for this is the visible reality of a resurgent Islam, which is entering a new historic period of expansion. This development is now impacting on Western cultures as a result of immigration and international terrorism.


3. For some time now in Australia a values vacuum has existed and people are now sensing this. The vacuum has been created by the drift away from our traditional Judeo-Christian heritage and worldview to a secularist view. This rather arid secularist view is now being challenged by a number of trends in the culture. Post Modernism has created a mood of dissatisfaction with the closed box attitudes of secular modernism. The popularity of New Age spirituality is one response. The anxiety over the growing relational dysfunction of our society in spite of our prosperity – marriage and family breakdown, the growing army of single parents, escalating problems with depressive illnesses and substance abuse, very public and costly cases of corporate immorality. These have all rung the values alarm bells.


Up till now the values discussion has revealed itself most clearly in the values in education debate and the growth in independent and “Christian schools” and their climbing enrolment graphs. They now account for around 42% of all secondary students.


4. Some time ago the majority of ordinary Australians had reached a point of frustration with major political parties who have allowed the political agenda to be hijacked by minority lobby groups who in turn over influence the formation of public policy. The Victorian Racial and Religious Vilification Act is an example of this.


5. A collection of other concerns has also galvanised the theologically conservative Christians into political action: The decline in traditional values and the general coarsening of our culture; the aggressive secularism of elements of the political left when in office, (eg: The Bracks government has sensibly decided to back off any change after a recent secular left inspired review of the provision of voluntary RE in State schools in Vic.); the attempts to redefine traditional notions of family and marriage and the excessive influence on public policy of minority groups pushing family and marriage arrangements that are entirely novel in our social history and at odds with our societal foundations. Interestingly more perceptive politicians are slowly beginning to realise that some of these concerns are shared by a large number of Australians who are not necessarily churchgoers.


6. In Australia multiculturalism as it has been defined and practiced over the last 35 years has worked well. During that time the majority of immigration was from Europe and Asia. Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants although coming from very different cultures have enriched Australian society. But Australians are beginning to sense that the current idea of multiculturalism has its limits when pushed hard by an uncompromising culture and religion. The amber lights are flashing in Europe and the British are already suggesting post the London bombings that they have been too tolerant of religious extremists.  The current concept of multiculturalism needs significant revision in the light of these events. This inevitably brings religion and politics together.


The multiculturalism debate:


Western liberal democracy has evolved a series of core values that are essential to its healthy functioning. Among these are the separation of church and state, the separation of religious law and state law, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, equality of men and woman, universal suffrage, etc. If a particular religion and culture is unwilling to accept these core values and adapt to them then Australian society is in for a difficult and troubled time. Any revised idea of multiculturalism must include the expectation of a commitment by all participating cultures and religions to the core values of the liberal democratic state.


 Historically Christianity in Europe had to adapt and reinterpret a number of its views under the scrutiny and critique of the Enlightenment, eg, the connection between church and state. If a culture and religion that has come from a pre modern context wants to find its place happily in Australian society today it must be willing to come under the same scrutiny and critique. Its ideas must be open to debate, discussion and examination without retreating behind the defence of religious offence or insult. So long as the debate is conducted in a respectful manner nothing should be off limits for critique and vigorous debate. Indeed this kind of debate is one of democracies hallmarks


It will be very important for Christians to enter the debate on multiculturalism. The past idea was largely defined by the secular left and shaped by the optimism and idealism of the 70’s. The current debate is in danger of being reactive and hijacked by the right. Christians need to bring their unique insights to the discussion. Christians have a deep commitment to this issue because the Christian faith transcends race and nation. (SeeGal.3:28.) For Christians no culture is intrinsically sacrosanct, every culture must be submitted to the critique of the Gospel, including Western culture. From the Christian’s Biblical perspective all cultures have both good and bad characteristics, constructive and destructive aspects. The Christian brings the values of “the Kingdom” that Jesus inaugurated as their touchstone for evaluating culture and the various political solutions that the world offers to solve our problems and to create the common good.


This debate makes many Australians nervous but it must not be avoided because it is politically sensitive.


From Australia’s British roots there is a long and proud tradition of Christian involvement with Politics.

Deeply committed Christians like William Wilberforce and the abolition of slavery, Lord Shaftsbury and the Quaker George Cadbury and factory reform, the Methodists and the Union movement, Henry Scott Holland and the Christian Socialist movement, James Keir Hardie the founder of the British Labour party who had a strong influence on Australia’s second Labor Prime Minister Andrew Fisher. A rediscovery of this history, especially by conservative Christians, might turn out to be important for the current times.


The new connections between religion and politics in Australian life raise a number of questions particularly for conservative Christians:


1.How will Australians cope with the inevitable tensions that this “fatal attraction” always generates?

2.The government’s response to Islamic extremists and terrorism will ultimately impinge on the religious freedom of us all. How should we respond to this? 

3.The new awareness in the general public of the power of religious ideas may seem at    first a positive thing but in the current climate of anxiety it may also have some negative impact on evangelism. How should the present climate affect our approach to evangelism?

4.Ordained and lay leaders of congregations need to consider carefully how they approach political and social issues for discussion without polarising congregations around party political allegiances.

5.Will conservative Christians go the distance politically?

6.In addition to the more traditional “moral issues”, if conservative Christians are to be taken seriously politically and to have any broader impact they will need to address some of the more structural justice issues like: Aboriginal health and welfare, youth homelessness, aged care, the environmental crisis, and IR reform.



There is no question that we are in for interesting times!


Peter Corney    July 2005.


Equipping christians for social transformation



By The Rev. Peter Corney OAM


(Delivered on 25/3/09 at the inauguration of the Center of Education and Youth Studies and the Micha 6:8 Centre for Aid and Development Studies  at Tabor College Victoria Australia. The Centre’s are partnerships between Tabor College, Eastern University and Tear Australia and between Tabor and  the Victorian Council of Christian Education (VCCE). In addition to Youth studies the Center’s will also offer courses focusing on International Aid and Development.)



Thank you for the invitation to deliver the address at the beginning of what I believe is a most significant development in Australia in the field of Christian education and training for Social Transformation. This initiative at Tabor brings together, in an interdenominational context, organizations with successful track records as agents of social justice and transformation. The aim is to equip a new generation as agents of social change shaped by the Gospel. I commend this endeavor to you.


One of my involvements these days is with the West Papuan refugee community in Australia. Recently I attended a meeting in Sydney of mainly faith based organizations concerned about the current situation in West Papua and the difficulties of the indigenous Melanesian people and the West Papuan Church.

They live under a very oppressive military occupation by Indonesia. The abuse of human rights is extensive and persistent. The Special Autonomy promised by Jakarta in 2001 has never been fully or properly implemented, to many West Papuans it is a sham. All the well being indicators for the indigenous people are going down – life expectancy, health, education and now Aids / HIV is getting out of control.


The leadership of the West Papuan community is mainly drawn from the Christian Church. We met with the Moderator and General Secretary of the United Protestant Church (GKI) which represents the vast majority of West Papuan Christians. (At least 80% of the indigenous people are Christian.) We met to listen to their story. It was a rather dispiriting report as they expressed their tiredness and frustration with their struggle. But the Moderator used a phrase that stuck in my mind: “We believe the Gospel liberates us from all chains that seek to bind us.” It was like an echo of Luke 4:18-19.


                                “The spirit of the Lord is on me,

                                because he has anointed me

                                to preach good news to the poor.

                                He has sent me to proclaim freedom

                                for the prisoners

                                and recovery of sight for the blind,

                        to release the oppressed,

                                to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (NIV)


The task of Social Transformation empowered by the Gospel is integral to the mission Jesus has entrusted to us, but it is a complex and challenging task. It involves at least these six elements:

  1. The spiritual and moral transformation of people by the Gospel. (It is interesting that the West Papuan’s refer to the coming of the Gospel as “the coming of the light.”)
  2. The transformation of peoples world view.
  3. The transformation of community and social relations.
  4. The transformation of economic and political structures.
  5. The transformation of education and health.
  6. The transformation of the communities physical and technical resources – capacity building.


All these things are interconnected, one impacts on the other. We also know that the way assistance is given can help or hinder the process and in some cases make the situation worse. In her recent book “Dead Aid” (1) the articulate African writer Dambisa Moyo presents a challenging account of the negative results of aid to Africa, particularly inter government aid. In an insightful review of the book Oxford Professor of economics Paul Collier says “ African societies face problems deeper than dependence on aid….the help they need is not predominantly money. Aid is not a very potent instrument for enhancing either security or accountability. Our obsession with it has detracted from the more important ways in which we can promote development: peacekeeping, security guarantees, trade privileges, and governance.” (2) The title of her book is a deliberate play on Bob Geldoff’s celebrity fundraising efforts and while one may feel the case is overstated nevertheless her critique must be taken seriously.


My point is that equipping people well to take part as constructive initiators and facilitators in the processes of transformation is a very important educational and training task.


I have referred to West Papua and Africa but of course the need for people trained in this way is not just in the developing world. The need remains as critical in the developed world. All societies are in constant need of reformation and transformation by the Gospel and the values of the Kingdom of God. It would not take long to compile a list of areas in Australian society in need of transformation right now!


I sometimes think that if our clergy and pastors were trained in cultural awareness, community development and social transformation skills, as well as theology, we might be making more impact on our society.

So my first point is to say how important and strategic I think this venture is.


My second point is an observation about the church.

After years in pastoral ministry one of the things that has become very clear to me is that unless you keep your foot on the pedal as a leader and teacher there are three things that drift off the local churches agenda. They are:

  1. Evangelism
  2. Social justice
  3. Critical engagement with the culture. (By this I mean whether our discipleship is seduced and modified by the cultures norms or whether our discipleship challenges those norms and we seek to live differently and so influence our culture.)


What happens is that our focus has a tendency to drift inwards, probably because we are so practiced at self interest! Our piety becomes introverted and singular, concerned only with our own relationship with God. Of course in the end this is a false trail for three reasons: first, because the Bible allows no such singular focus. We are to “love God with all our heart soul, mind and strength and our neighbor as ourselves.” And loving my neighbor means I will want to introduce him to Jesus, if he is hungry I will want to feed him and if he is being treated unjustly I will want to see justice flow for him. The second reason this is a false trail is because our anxiety about our relationship subtly leads us away from trust in God’s grace. The third reason this is a false trail is deeply ironic because this singular focus also leads to the erosion of the very thing I have become so preoccupied with – my individual relationship with God. This is because love and obedience are inextricably linked in the NT. The words of 1John2:3-6 make this very clear.

                        ‘We know that we have come to know him

                        if we obey his commands. Those who say,

                         “I know him,” but do not do what he commands

                        are liars, and the truth is not in them.

                        But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly

                        made complete in that person. This is how we

            `           know we are in him: whoever claims to live in him

                        must walk as Jesus did.’ (NIV)


The opposite of this introverted spirituality is the trap that those of us with a passion for social justice sometimes fall into – working for justice in God’s world without keeping God’s love alive in our hearts. This pathway leads to spiritual anorexia, cynicism and often such a rancorous spirit that our friends start avoiding us!


My third point is some historical observations about Christianity’s relationship with culture.

I have borrowed and adapted categories first developed by H. Richard Niebuhr as he reflected on this. (3) Six relationships can be observed historically:

1. Christianity under the culture. Eg: Persecution under the Roman Empire in the first three centuries; Byzantine Christianity oppressed by Islam under the Ottomans’; the Church under Communism in Laos or China today.

2. Christianity against the culture. Eg: Where the Church is actively opposed to the dominant culture, as in the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany with Bonheoffer and Niemoller, or The Solidarity movement backed by the Catholic Church and opposed to Communism in Poland in the 1980’s.

3. Christianity over the culture. Eg: Where the Church dominates and controls the culture, exerting power over it as in the Holy Roman Empire from the Middle Ages till the 15th C., or Geneva under Calvin.

4. Christianity withdrawn from the culture. Eg: Where the Church disengages and withdraws into ghettos or closed communities like the Anna Baptists in the 16th C or the Amish in North America or the Exclusive Brethren and some forms of Evangelical pietism today. The motive may be either fear of contamination from the culture or a desire to create the Kingdom on earth in an ideal community.

5. Christianity absorbed by the culture. Eg: Where the Church is seduced by the dominant cultures values and conforms to them, adapting its values and beliefs to fit the culture. The contemporary Western Church reveals many examples of this like prosperity gospel teaching or ordinary Christians adopting the same materialism and consumerism of those around them. Apartheid in South Africa, tribal conflict in East Africa, and the culture of violence and confrontation in Northern Ireland are all tragic examples from the recent past.

6. Christianity transforming the culture. Eg: Where Christianity acts like salt and light in the culture, reshaping its values and affecting public policy like the influence of the 18th and 19th C. English Christian social reformers. We have just recently celebrated the two hundredth anniversary of the work of Wilberforce and the Christian movement for the abolition of the slave trade. But it is not as well understood that Wilberforce and his friends in the Clapham circle created 69 different societies for the reformation of English society and the spread of the Gospel. Western countries like Australia and North America are the inheritors of their far reaching work of social transformation. The scope of their concerns took in education, factory reform, child labor reforms, health, workplace safety, prison reform. They were even involved in the passing of special laws for “the protection of native peoples” in the British colonies. They began The Bible Society, CMS, The Mission to India, the RSPCA, the list goes on. It was a remarkable achievement.


I trust that what we are launching today will help to train and inspire a new generation to embrace this sixth relationship with their culture – transformation.


My final comment is a reflection on our disturbed times. One of our leading papers this week carried an unusual graphic with the lead story in the business section. (4) The story was about the international financial crisis and excessive executive payouts. It showed an engraving of Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden and an angel standing guard at the entrance, except that the entrance was to a bank! The title was, “Where to after the fall?”  This leads me to my final reflection.


In Ridley Scott’s iconic film Blade Runner we find ourselves in Los Angeles in the future (2019). The setting is bleak; “ecological disaster, urban overcrowding, a visual and aural landscape saturated with advertising, a polyglot population immersed in a Babel of competing cultures, decadence and squalid homelessness.” (5) But juxtaposed with this social decay is brilliant technological achievement. High above the teeming filthy streets live the wealthy few in luxurious gated skyscrapers.

In one of the early scenes we find ourselves in the head office of a high tech corporation who are the creators of Cyborgs – advanced robots who are almost indistinguishable from humans. But some of the Cyborgs have gone feral and hunting them down is the core of the films plot. A ‘Blade Runner’ is a bounty hunter of rogue Cyborgs.

As we view the interior of the luxurious penthouse office we see an Owl perched on a stand. Then the Owl takes flight, passing in front of the vast plate glass windows behind which a brilliant orange sun is setting.


The symbolism is deliberate. The Owl has always been seen as a symbol of wisdom. In Roman mythology he accompanies the Goddess Minerva, Goddess of wisdom. But it was the German Philosopher Hegel who famously wrote “…the Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk…,” by which he meant, that philosophy only comes to understand an historical condition as it is passing away. (6)

This image right at the beginning of Blade Runner is telling us that the films bleak vision of the future is what the sunset of our epoch will look like – the twilight of Modernity and Post Modernity (or Hyper Modernity.)

The question for us is ‘As the Owl spreads its wings and the sun sets on Western Culture is our wisdom about the cause of its decay clear and sharp enough to enable us to transform it from it from decay to renewal?  Or, to change the image, has the West fallen so far from the values and world view that delivered us something close to Eden that we can’t get back?


Peter Corney.



(1)    Dambisa Moyo (2009) “Dead Aid- Why aid is not working and how there is another way for Africa.” Penguin Books.

(2)   Paul Collier. Jan 30th 2009  Book review in the “Independent.”

(3)   H. Richard Niebuhr “Christ and Culture”. First published 1951. (Torch Books 1956)

(4)   “The Age”( March 21st 2009) Business Day pp.1.

(5)   Clayton J. (1996) “Concealed Circuits: Frankenstein’s Monster, the Medusa and the Cyborg” in Raritan Quarterly Review No 15 Vol 4 (Spring) pp.53-69.

(6)    G. W. F. Hegel, (1996)  From the preface to the “Philosophy of Right” (1821)

       Prometheus Books, New York.