When people of good conscience identify with an injustice—slavery, poverty, racism, starvation—their language changes. They begin using unequivocal verbs.
Unequivocal is not a word we hear every day. It means clear, unambiguous. Unequivocal verbs describe actions that have clear and measurable outcomes. We see this in how the Clapham circle talked—men like Thomas Clarkson. He used unequivocal verbs.
Clarkson was a Cambridge student when he won an essay contest on slavery (he later admitted he knew little on the subject, he was just a good writer). Then Clarkson had a profound spiritual experience, “a direct revelation from God ordering me to devote my life to abolishing the trade.” Clarkson began to identify with those trapped in slavery. He concluded, “it was time that some person should see these calamities to their end.”
That person was Clarkson. But note his unequivocal verbs. Abolish. End.
Clarkson was one of the twelve men who formed the Committee for Abolition of the African Slave Trade in 1787. He was given the task of collecting research, interviewing thousands of sailors (he traveled almost 8,000 miles on horseback). When Clarkson died in 1846, the poet Samuel Coleridge paid him a fitting tribute: “He, if ever a human being did it, listened exclusively to his conscience, and obeyed its voice.”
William Wilberforce was also one of the twelve. He too was a man of good conscience. He too had a profound spiritual experience, feeling God calling him to abolish the slave trade. Again, note the unequivocal verb—abolish. Wilberforce began identifying with those trapped in slavery. Sir James Mackintosh would later write, “no Englishman has ever done more to evoke the conscience of the British people.”
For most of my life, I’ve been Thomas Clarkson—before his spiritual experience. I thought I knew about the poor, the homeless. Hardly. My verbs gave me away. Engage poverty. Address it. Those are equivocal, vague. Then we moved into town, to a homeless highway. I began identifying with the homeless. I listened to them. They use unequivocal verbs. They want out. They want their poverty to end… now.
This began to stir something in me. It intensified in 2017. That’s when I first learned of the work of Jon Vandenheuvel. He’s working to build new small cities in Africa (it’s still a work in progress). We began pursuing a partnership to focus on striking similarities between the entrapment and isolation of poverty in Africa and the entrapment and isolation of poverty in U.S. cities. It too is a work in progress, but in both situations, Jon clarified how we’d define success: end systemic poverty. Not engage it. End it, an unequivocal verb. Straight outta Clapham.
Jon uses unequivocal verbs because he identifies with those trapped in systemic poverty. Baptism is identification. Jesus experienced at least two baptisms. The first was John’s, Jesus identifying with sinners like you and me. The second was Jesus’ baptism with fire, where he identified with death. The unequivocal outcome? Jesus abolished sin and death (Heb.9:25-26).
Our partnership continues to evolve as we connect with interested cities, including Annapolis. This Thursday, December 20th, we are presenting “Affordable Annapolis 2030” to the City Council. We’d appreciate your prayers. If you live in the area, please join us. The meeting begins at 3:00pm. It’s open to the public. A packed room would signal to the council that many local citizens are serious about ending systemic poverty.
Serious people feel a sense of urgency. Harvard Business School professor John Kotter says the first step for leading change is having a sense of urgency, what he calls a “gut-level determination to move… now.” Endeavors that fail do so because the leaders did not have a sense of “true urgency.” Those trapped in poverty feel a sense of urgency. They want out… now. Jon has a sense of urgency. I’m beginning to feel one as well.
No doubt we could fail. But as Teddy Roosevelt said, Far better it is to dare mighty things than to live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat. Unequivocal verbs like end draw us out of the gray twilight of opaque outcomes. They shine a light on the need for vast resources we don’t presently have. They highlight why we need coalitions of businesses, policymakers, investors, the faith community, zoning and planning, commercial lenders that don’t presently exist. Daunting? Yes. But can I, in good conscience, walk away from those trapped in systemic poverty? No—because they can’t.