Cloud of Witnesses :: Remembering Josephine Butler

Josephine Butler (1828-1906) | Colossians 1:15-20

Bright, blinding lights ahead.
You stare. Transfixed.
Unable to move, unable to see, unable to comprehend
All that is before you
All that you’re taking in
All that this could be.
All that this might mean.

Bright, blinding lights ahead
And I struggle to avert my gaze.
Transfixed, uncomfortable, unnerved.
Desiring deeply to move from this place
To look away, to close my eyes, never to be confronted
With all that is before me
With all that I’ve taken in
With all that this could be
With all that this might mean

For he is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.

And I stand there transfixed, unable to move, unable to see, unable to comprehend the vastness, the implications of what this might mean. Unable to wrap my mind around what it might mean for such a thing to be true.

This one. This man. This Jesus. Conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. This very same Jesus who suffered under Pontius Pilate. The very same one who was crucified, died, and was buried. This one. The image of an invisible God. The firstborn of all creation. The one who has been raised from the dead.

If you’re anything like me, and I don’t know if you are, you stop. You stare. Transfixed. Excited. Worried. Unable to comprehend what this might mean.

You stop here in the heart of Colossae, an outpost of the Roman Empire. In the heart of East Vancouver.

You stop, transfixed.

Transfixed by what, in this world, sounds like fanatical heresy. Unable to move, for fear of being accused of treason. Worried to look, for fear of being named a co-conspirator. Unwilling to comprehend the power and the extent of this claim. Full comprehension might mean the end.

The end of life as we know it.
The end of whatever comforts we’ve known.
The end of that dream of a quiet life in the country,
the suburbs, or
that up-and-coming part of Fraser (I hear it’s the new Main Street).

Transfixed and terrified by this terrific treasonous treatise, this bold proclamation that God is God and Caesar is not. Leaking the Empire’s deepest, darkest secrets, its underbelly weakness, you’ve seen Snowden’s insurrectionist cable, a note slipped under the table with the words to this subversive freedom song.

For he is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.

The world, and all that is in it, was created in and through Jesus the Christ.
Not in and through Caesar, Obama, Putin or Harper.
Not in Mulcair, May or even JT – whether we’re talking Trudeau or Timberlake.

It’s not in Sean Parker or Mark Zuckerberg that we live and move and have our being – no matter what stake they have in your digital image.

The world and all that’s in it. All that is, seen and unseen, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers. All of these things have been created in and through Jesus Christ. All are subservient to their creator no matter what they say. And all are united in the oneness of God’s creation, for

He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.

Eye on the prize, we’ve fixed our eyes on this one, God’s firstborn son, the one who was, and is, and is to come.

For Josephine Butler, a well-known British social activist who lived from 1828-1906, it was this God revealed in Jesus Christ that was the source and object of all worship. No matter what the cost, no matter the opposition around her, she fought tirelessly, fueled by faith, unable to avert her gaze from Christ and the needs of God’s children, especially those shoved carelessly to the margins.

And though the battles were long and hard, though they took a great toll on her health, Josephine Butler remained faithful to Jesus. Butler’s story is a well-known feminist tale, but little has been written about her deep-rooted evangelical Christian faith.

Apparently, in this world, that’s just confusing.

As anyone with access to Wikipedia can tell you, Josephine was the seventh child of John Grey and Hannah Annett. Her father, John, was a cousin of Prime Minister Charles Grey, under whose administration slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1833, all the while sipping his own special blend of tea.

But this isn’t about John or Earl Grey, although they too are a part of our cloud of witnesses. This is about Josephine Butler and her faithful response to the Image of the Invisible God.

Josephine’s tireless activism focused almost exclusively on advocacy for the rights of women in an era where such rights were less than guaranteed. She focused her concern and her advocacy primarily on the plight of women who had been forced to prostitute as a means of economic survival. Her most famous campaign was for the repealing of the Contagious Diseases Act, an act that gave the state the powers to seize and arrest women suspected of having (what we might call today) Sexually Transmitted Infections, but didn’t worry so much about the men whose use and misuse of these prostituted women was the real cause of pathological and social contagion.

Her activism, rooted in an evangelical Christian faith, pushed the boundaries of what might be considered proper. Her zeal for this work amongst prostituted women was formed in a family deeply engaged in another abolitionist movement.

Reflecting on a lifetime of advocacy, Butler wrote:

When my father spoke to…his children, of the great wrong of slavery, I have felt his powerful frame tremble and his voice would break. You can believe, that at that time sad and tragical recitals came to us from first sources of the hideous wrong inflicted on negro men and women.

Josephine’s earliest feminist instincts were awakened by tales of slavery. For her, prostitution and slavery were deeply intertwined. The connections between money, greed, and power – specifically male power and privilege – were self-evident. And while some of our churches are still today fighting about the proper hierarchy of men and women in the Christian household, Josephine and her husband George lived an intentionally mutual relationship.

In a letter to his wife, George Butler – an Anglican Priest – shared:

“I should think it undue presumption in me to suggest anything to you in regard to your life and duties. He who has hitherto guided your steps will continue to do so. Believe me, I value the expression of your confidence and affection above ‘pearls and precious stones’, but I must not suffer myself to be dazzled, or to fancy that I have within me the power of judging and acting aright which would alone authorize me to point out to you any path in which you ought to walk. I am more content to leave you to walk by yourself in the path you shall choose; but I know that I do not leave you alone and unsupported, for His arm will guide, strengthen and protect you.”

That is to say, that this Victorian marriage was remarkably founded on an assumption of and the practice of true equality.

In her writings, Butler draws clear connections between the lust and greed of the slave-dependent British Empire and the way in which its barons of power treat women. Speaking of the wrongs inflicted on black women as a part of the slave trade, Butler says of women:

“I think their lot was particularly horrible, for they were almost invariably forced to minister to the worst passions of their masters, or be persecuted and die…how keenly they awakened my feelings concerning injustice to women through this conspiracy of greed and gold and lust of the flesh, a conspiracy which has its counterpart in the white slave owning of Europe.”

Greed. Money. Power.
Insatiable appetites
and the worst passions of their masters.
Powers of individuals
Shaped and reinforced
by the insatiable lusts of empire
Desires to rape, subjugate, and control
All that is not powerful
All that is not of the empire
All that does not fit into
What is good and right, and wealthy, and male.
It sounds familiar.
Sounds familiar to ears new and old.
To meek and bold
Seeking to live lives of faith
In the midst of what some might call this confusing
communion of corporate sponsors and advocates,
these principalities that dominate our airwaves,
that pump their audacious power through palaces and marble halls
on movie screens and in shopping malls
and even though in our heart of hearts, we all know
that every single empire falls,
we can’t help but wondering
How did we end up here?

It sounds all too familiar, and in response, Josephine Butler declares

“Ours is a battle in which ‘we declare on whose side we fight; we make no compromise; and we are ready to meet all the powers of earth and hell combined.”

Principalities that seem too great to bear,
Powers that seem too strong to resist

And yet in the midst of it, we hear this freedom song crackling in the background:

For in him [in Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

And so the question becomes: whose side are we on? The question is not simply “who is Lord of your life,” although that’s a part of it.

The question raised by St. Paul in this Colossian hymn, and by Josephine Butler’s life is rather, who is the Lord over all of life?

Reconciled in Christ.
All Things Reconciled.
The powers have been defeated,
And in Christ reconciled.

And though we wage battle.
And though there is injustice left to fight
The powers have been defeated
And been reconciled to God in Christ.

There are struggles that continue for us today. A few weeks ago, some of these struggles for justice were named in our very own community:

Our posture with indigenous peoples
In light of all that has happened
All we’ve been a part of
From Residential Schools and Systemic Racism
To our ignorance and indifference
Which is just as bad

Our posture towards LGBT communities
In light of all that has happened
All we’ve been a part of
From division and hurt
To outright exclusion
Delivered at the hands of the church

And as we approach the table.
As we approach our Lord’s table,
to partake in the food of redemption, and
the drink of reconciliation,
As we, the Church, the Body of Christ, offer ourselves
As living sacrifices
Poured out
We do not offer to God
Offerings that cost us nothing
Because we are reminded that
all has been reconciled.
To God in Christ
and that all will be reconciled
to God through Christ’s body, the Church
Poured out
For the life of the world.
And that somehow, through the power of the cross,
Jesus has reconciled all things
Not just the good guys
Not just the people with whom we agree
But that Jesus has reconciled all things
And that our kingdoms,
Our quests after power and control
Our miserable attempts at fidelity
All end in the same place, recognizing that
All have sinned
All have fallen short
And all will somehow,
Through the power of Christ
Be redeemed because

We who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, have been reconciled in Christ’s fleshly body through death

Josephine Butler fought her entire life for the dignity of those pushed to the margins by both society and the church. She was strong, yes. And at times was weak. She succeeded, and encountered failure. But in it all, she was not so much motivated by Ideas About God, but by staring fully into the face of Christ Crucified.

As we conclude, listen to some of Josephine Butler’s personal reflections on faith:

“I never yet knew a heart which was constituted to feel a deep human love for a doctrine. Every heart must learn to love a Person….For my part I cannot truthfully echo the complaints of those say they do not love, for I do love. I have many complaints against myself, but not this one—I love my Lord and not chiefly because He has saved me. I love Him for that, but I love Him most because He loves me, and because He is so loving, so glorious, so awful in beauty.”

Bright, blinding lights ahead.
We stare. Transfixed.
Starting to move, starting to see, starting to comprehend
All that is before us
All there is to take in
All that could be.
All this might mean.
No longer captive to the powers of this world
We are united in Christ
We are united through Christ
We are united because of Christ
And off in the distance,
Winding its way
through Colossian streets,
along 1st Ave
and to the ends of the earth
We hear this Freedom Song:

For he is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.

Amen. And Amen.

Andrew Stephens-Rennie on FacebookAndrew Stephens-Rennie on Twitter
Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Andrew is a writer, dreamer and organizer with a keen interest in developing leaders in faith, compassion and justice.

He currently serves as the Director of Missional Renewal for the Anglican Diocese of Kootenay on the unceded territories of the Sinixt, Syilx, and Ktunaxa nations. He previously served as the Director of Ministry Innovation at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, BC.

Andrew is cofounder and contributing editor at, and co-editor of "A Sort of Homecoming: Essays Honoring the Academic and Community Work of Brian Walsh" with Marcia Boniferro and Amanda Jagt.

One Response to “Cloud of Witnesses :: Remembering Josephine Butler”

  1. Brian Walsh

    Amen, amen, and thank you.


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