In these days when ‘celebrities’ are revered it is tempting to think that it is only the big names like William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi who have made any difference to our lives today. But these men could have done NOTHING without many thousands of ordinary people who shared their dreams.
In this article we will see from recent history how people like you and me can make a real difference.
The abolition of poverty
When William Wilberforce commenced his campaign in Parliament to abolish the slave trade he was met by laughter and derision. His supporters realised that William could not do it alone and that public opinion would have to change first before Parliament would act. Throughout the land, in communities and churches, people stood up and declared that slavery was wrong. In the day before television, social networks and a limited press, thousands of leaflets were produced with graphic images showing how people were crammed into the slave ships.
Gradually public opinion changed. Arrayed against the abolitionists were the powerful figures of merchants, plantation owners and other people who benefited financially from the slave trade. But in the end, the power of money could not stand against public opinion. William Wilberforce rightly received a standing ovation in Parliament when the slave trade was declared illegal – but it was the unsung heroes, thousands or even millions of ordinary people who really changed the world for the better.
It took a civil war in the United States to abolish slavery, but for 100 years the sons and daughters of slaves were treated as second-class citizens. They put up with segregation, hatred and the Ku Klux Klan. But eventually many African-Americans and white Americans decided that enough was enough and a civil rights movement was born. Into this situation a pastor, Rev Martin Luther King began to verbalise what people were thinking.
His “I have a dream” speech was probably the most powerful speech ever made, made even more so by the 200,000 to 300,000 supporters in the centre of Washington. Dr King’s speech was influential in the passing of the Civil Rights act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965). But it was the thousands of ordinary people who marched on Washington, and millions of supporters throughout the country that persuaded President Kennedy and Congress to change the law.
The independence movement in India
India was the jewel in the Crown of the British Empire and the key to Britain’s prosperity in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It would have seemed economic and political suicide to consider granting independence. There was already an Indian National Congress made up of elite politicians who were pressing for independence. But it was Mahatma Gandhi who persuaded millions of Indians that it was no good fighting force with force – the way of terrorism – but to employ nonviolent civil disobedience as a way to freedom.
Gandhi was a very inspirational man whose life was consistent with his powerful words. But it was the thousands, and then millions of ordinary people who suffered injuries, prison and even death for the cause. We can never underestimate the power of nonviolent action by ordinary people to change the attitudes of those in power, and change the world for the better.
The abolition of extreme poverty
I believe that the time has come for ordinary people around the world to say, “enough is enough” and to communicate to our leaders, politicians and economic powers that it is no longer acceptable for 25% of our population to live in abject poverty and many more to be just marginally above the extreme poverty level.
G8 and G20 leaders can talk and pontificate forever, but until these world leaders come together with the pressure of public opinion in their respective countries, nothing will change. But already I’m sensing that public opinion is changing. Grassroot organisations throughout the world are increasing in support. Television and newspapers report the avoidance of tax by rich individuals and corporate organisations.
But I am looking for a greater realisation throughout the world that gross inequalities exist between rich and poor and that the common good of the whole human race is at stake. I’m looking for a change in developed countries like the United States and United Kingdom. I’m looking for a change in countries like India to see a grassroots movement involving the many millionaires and people from the “untouchable” caste that seeks the common good of all its citizens. I am looking for the millions who live in poverty in Africa to cry out for justice, and I want the whole world to hear their cry.
There are many other issues which will only be changed by passionate individuals, working together to change our world. Some examples are:
- The elimination of preventable diseases through immunisation, education and scientific research.
- Dealing with modern slavery, trafficking and child exploitation.
- Raising minimum wages to a realistic “living wage”.
- Abolishing discrimination based on religion, race, culture or gender.
- Discrimination against immigrants.
- Etc, etc, etc
Things we can do as individuals and together
I may never become a Wilberforce or Gandhi. I will certainly never become a Mother Theresa or a Gladys Aylward (or even a Paula O’Keefe). But I care passionately about poverty and injustice and I hope that in reading my blog and seeing my Facebook comments others will become passionate too. Here are some things we can do as individuals and things we can do together:
- Write a blog with our experiences and outlining our passions.
- Engage with others by making meaningful comments on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.
- Take part in petitions for example organised by 38degrees, Change.org or e-petitions.
- Write to your member of Parliament or the Minister responsible.
- Join a campaigning group, movement, pressure group or organisation.
- Join a political party and try to influence policy from the inside.
- We can pray, “Thy Kingdom Come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.
- Give to organisations seeking to relieve poverty or fighting against injustice.
- Volunteer your time to help the local charity, food bank or campaigning group.
These things are far too important to leave to Politicians. Some of our representatives act out of their own deep-rooted care for justice and equality. But many are continually trying to asess public opinion with a view to the next election. This is the age of the internet and social media. Believe it or not, you and I together have the power to change our world for the common good.