The other night we watched Amazing Grace again. It’s a powerful film about the Abolition movement in England, led in no small part by William Wilberforce. Wilberforce’s story is compelling, all the more so because his efforts to end the slave trade were very much rooted in his faith and desire to follow Jesus. Wilberforce began following Jesus in earnest after his political career began, and there’s a great scene in the movie between he and his butler that plays out like this:
William Wilberforce: It’s God. I have 10,000 engagements of state today but I would prefer to spend the day out here getting a wet arse, studying dandelions and marveling at… bloody spider’s webs.
Richard the Butler: You found God, sir?
William Wilberforce: I think He found me. You have any idea how inconvenient that is? How idiotic it will sound? I have a political career glittering ahead of me, and in my heart I want spider’s webs.
Richard the Butler: [sitting down next to WW] “It is a sad fate for a man to die too well known to everybody else and still unknown to himself.” Francis Bacon. I don’t just dust your books, sir.
Having been found by God, Wilberforce struggled with whether or not he should remain in politics, and in the movie version of his story, there were many voices in his life that came together to convince him to continue his political career in large measure so that he could work to end the slave trade. One of those voices was John Newton, a mentor of his, a pastor, and former slave ship captain who spent his days haunted by his former career. Newton, the reader may know, wrote the famous hymn “Amazing Grace,” from which the film takes its title. Knowing even just that much about Newton’s life puts the words of the hymn in a new light. Though Newton doesn’t have much screen time in the film, his scenes are powerful. For example, he is depicted in the film as saying: “Although my memory’s fading, I remember two things very clearly. I’m a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.” Newton was haunted by the “20,000 ghosts” of the slaves he was responsible for transporting either to death or into bondage, and so fiercely urged Wilberforce to remain steadfast in his efforts to bring an end to the slave trade. He again is depicted as saying:
I can’t help you. But do it, Wilber. Do it. Take them on. Blow their dirty, filthy ships out of the water. The planters, sugar barons, Alderman “Sugar Cane”, the Lord Mayor of London. Liverpool, Boston, Bristol, New York. All their streets running with blood, dysentery, puke! You won’t come away from those streets clean, Wilber. You’ll get filthy with it, you’ll dream it, see it in broad daylight. But do it. For God’s sake.
So Newton urged Wilberforce to remain in government because Wilberforce “had work to do.” Likewise, Wilberforce’s friend and compatriot who would became Prime Minister, William Pitt, is depicted as arranging a dinner meeting with anti-slave trade activists who told him: “We understand you’re having problems choosing whether to do the work of God or the work of a political activist. We humbly suggest you can do both.” Here’s that scene from the movie:
And so he did. Thus began a long effort to pass legislation that would end the slave trade. In fact, it took 16 years for Wilberforce and his allies to get a bill passed, and even then it required a bit of political “trickery” to do so. The final vote to end the slave trade did not end slavery outright, but it was a momentous and long-awaited step in the right direction, one which Wilberforce had given his life and health to help bring about. As Wikipedia notes:
Sensing a breakthrough that had been long anticipated, Charles Grey moved for a second reading in the Commons on 23 February 1807. As tributes were made to Wilberforce, whose face streamed with tears, the bill was carried by 283 votes to 16.
Of course, this was not the end of Wilberforce’s story. He continued to advocate for steady progress toward the ultimate goal of ending slavery in England altogether, but it would take another 26 years for that to occur. Again, Wikipedia picks up the tale:
On 26 July 1833, Wilberforce heard of government concessions that guaranteed the passing of the Bill for the Abolition of Slavery. The following day he grew much weaker, and he died early on the morning of 29 July at his cousin’s house in Cadogan Place, London.
Wikipedia adds that the bill passed a month after Wilberforce did. This steady, lifelong advocacy for the ending of slavery went hand-in-hand with Wilberforce’s faith. Such dedication over such a long time reminds me of the title of the Eugene Peterson book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, for surely that’s what Wilberforce’s life represented. Or, as Newton again is depicted as saying in the film: “God sometimes does His work with gentle drizzle, not storms. Drip. Drip. Drip.”
It’s interesting to revisit this pivotal moment in history amid the racial tensions of today and the disheartening realization that all the “progress” in the world over the past 50 years or so can’t come close to making right the injustice done over the 3+ centuries that came before. As important as bringing an end to the slave trade and then to slavery itself was, it is a decidedly unfinished business as people of color today represent a gravely disproportionate share of the economically and educationally disadvantaged and represent a gravely disproportionate share of the prison population, etc. Still, Wilberforce’s story is inspiring, and we were glad to have been reminded of it again.
So it was with slavery on my mind that I was reviewing one of my recent posts about our efforts to get “small” and I again came across this language from Rod White that helped move us in this direction. He’s writing about Paul and encouraging us to remember that Paul was a person “on the margins” writing to other people “on the margins” of Empire (the Roman one, in Paul’s case, while today we live under the shadow of the “American” one). Rod says:
One of the first tasks in understanding him is to let go of any imperial outlook, the supposed privileges of being an American citizen, the protection of the huge military apparatus, etc., and become small enough to need a Savior, to act as a slave of Christ. Translators during the Reformation undermined our understanding when they decided that translating the common Greek word for “slave” as slave was too demeaning and tidied things up by using the word servant instead (which is a big difference). In Philippians 2:7, for instance, Paul describes Jesus as taking on the condition of a slave. It is much more realistic, isn’t it, to see how humankind oppresses Jesus than to see Jesus as serving up salvation to us as we decide whether we want it or not. In order to hear what Paul, the slave of Jesus, is teaching, we’ll have to get into his slavish shoes.
There’s that language of “becoming small” which has been so important in shaping the paradigm we’re working to live into. And obviously too there’s quite a paradigm shift in regard to thinking about slavery. Rod has a lot more to say about slavery than just what I’ve quoted above, and I would again encourage you to read the rest, which you can find here. For now, though, I should just add that Rod is careful to say that Paul “advises slaves to get free if they can. And he tells Philemon to treat his runaway slave as a brother, or to just charge him whatever it costs to set him free.” However, Rod’s point is that…
…there are no slaves in Christ. A slave in the world is God’s free person. A free person in the world is God’s slave. This is hard to translate for people who believe the delusion that law makes them free and rational rules and education will prevent suffering. Paul might respond to such ideas, as he did, and say, “Though I am blameless before the law, I am God’s prisoner, a lifelong felon freed by grace.” Similarly, no one works for human masters, we do whatever we do for the Lord. Even when oppressed, we experience the hope that we will have our reward and the oppressors will get theirs.
Again I want to be very clear about what Rod isn’t saying, as far as I can tell. He’s not saying that because “a slave in the world is God’s free person” we ought not work tirelessly as Wilberforce did to end slavery wherever we find it. What I do hear him saying is that whatever state or social position we find ourselves in, as Bob Dylan put it, you “gotta serve somebody.” Rod says, speaking of Paul: “His thoughts are a lot bigger than whether a person is going to gain social or political freedom. That achievement would be frosting on his hope cake. The cake is being freed from the need to be freed from what humans do to you and being a grateful slave to the salvation that Jesus is working into us.” I still love that “frosting on his hope cake” line.
The point, I think, is that salvation isn’t something we just look forward to after we die. Jesus offers us freedom now, whether you’re a rich male of European descent like myself or the lowliest refugee risking it all to get to this country which has (literally) afforded me so much. Having just watched Amazing Grace again I continued my reading for Lent. I mentioned in my last post that I’ve started reading Brian Zahnd’s important work, A Farewell to Mars:
Zahnd has something to say about slavery too, though it’s a side point in the larger argument he’s making for following the peacemaking way of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. Zahnd says:
He’s drawing a direct line from life in the way of Jesus to efforts to end slavery wherever and whenever they’ve been found throughout the world. He adds:
Indeed, precisely because we who not only follow Jesus but have been set free by him have therefore also “been freed from the need to be freed from what humans do to us,” we therefore are compelled to work against enslavement wherever we find it. I struggled with the word “compelled” in the line above, but it’s the right word, for I am a slave…of Christ. I gladly surrender my very body, mind, soul, and spirit to the One who has set me free. I am not just free, after all, from something, I am free for something. Zahnd above speaks prophetically against those who misunderstand Scripture, or worse, twist and misuse it for their own nefarious purposes, to “make” it mean that the big point of life with Jesus is to give us our heavenly retirement plan when we die while everything we leave behind here on earth burns. I’ve recently written about this too.
Zahnd says: “A secret (or not-so-secret) longing for the world’s violent destruction is grossly unbecoming to the followers of the Lamb. We are not hoping for Armageddon; we are helping build New Jerusalem.” I’m reminded again of N.T. Wright’s ever helpful work in calling us to remember that the point of the Christian life isn’t to escape the earth and get to heaven; rather, because of Jesus, heaven will come to earth some day and indeed is already coming, even now, wherever we who have been “saved” choose to live like Jesus is “already” our King.
All these thoughts were swimming in my head as we attended Mill City Church‘s worship gathering this morning. Today was the second in the sermon series for Lent: “What’s So Great About Easter?” We’re focusing during this series on one of our four “Mission Priorities” for 2017: “Gospel and Neighbor.” Today, one of our pastors, J.D., talked about what exactly it is we need to be saved “from.” He said that in part what we need to be saved from is a “cycle of captivity.” He gave some very vulnerable examples of this from his own life and then challenged us to be willing to be fully present with our neighbors, whoever they might be, as opportunities arise to discuss the things in our life that would have our allegiance, that in fact seek to enslave us and hold us captive. Do you see the theme running through my weekend, starting with our viewing of Amazing Grace on Friday night? At every turn God seems to be saying something to me about slavery.
For a long time I lamented that God seemed absent and hidden from me, that I could not find him in the places I expected to. There’s a lesson there that I’m still learning. Now, though, I seem to have entered a new season in my life in which I can’t help but find God everywhere I look. God seems to be waiting around every corner, lurking in every face, stowing away in the pages of every book, and leaping out at me from the melody of every song. I am grateful, to be sure, and will continue to treasure up all these things and ponder them in my heart. William Wilberforce, at least in the movie Amazing Grace, said he didn’t so much find God as was instead found by him. I believe this is something of what I’m experiencing now. In Wilberforce’s case, God found him and led him to see Jesus in his enslaved brothers and sisters from Africa, and therefore he was led to do everything within his power to overturn the laws that enabled their enslavement. Paul speaks of slavery and calls us to realize that even if we happen to find ourselves enslaved in the world, if Christ has set us free, we are free indeed. Likewise, if we happen to find ourselves in positions of power in the world, Christ has still set us free from the trappings of that power, and we are still free, indeed, to stand and work in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who find themselves in earthly chains.
We do indeed need to be saved from a cycle of captivity. Whatever keeps us from experiencing the freedom Jesus offers are chains no less constricting than the bonds that brought black bodies from Africa to work on plantations on the continent I call my (earthly) home. For many people who look like and have the privilege that I do, that which captivates us keeps us from knowing the freedom we have to fully love, serve, and learn from our brother and sisters of color. This must change. It is beginning to change in me, and I am grateful. But we must not only ask what it is we need to be saved from, but just what it is we need to be saved for. Moreover, we need to fully embrace the experience of being saved. It’s hard for a privileged person of European descent like myself, but I need to imagine how it must feel to have literal chains removed from my ankles, wrists, and neck. As I imagine those bonds being loosed, I do well to remember that this freedom comes at a price, but I do not have to pay it. As Rod again said, “In Philippians 2:7…Paul describes Jesus as taking on the condition of a slave. It is much more realistic, isn’t it, to see how humankind oppresses Jesus than to see Jesus as serving up salvation to us as we decide whether we want it or not.” Jesus became a slave for us so that we could know freedom. Isn’t it indeed wrong-headed then to see him “serving up salvation to us as we decide whether we want it or not?”
We want it, don’t we?!
Having been set free, we follow the example of our Lord and choose to be slaves of and for Christ, for unlike that of those earthly impostor-“lords” that would enslave us if they could, Jesus’ yoke is easy, and his burden is light, and in him we will find rest for our souls. Mother Pollard knew something about both the legacy of slavery and finding rest in Jesus. Though Rosa Parks is much better known when one thinks of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Mother Pollard played no less an important role. As this site notes:
Mother Pollard was part of the African-American community in Montgomery, Alabama, during the start of the historic 1950s bus boycotts. Despite her advanced years, she refused to take the bus and was adamant that she would walk to see change happen, making the statement, “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.” Pollard was also a valued source of love and inspiration for Martin Luther King Jr.
We’re saved from cycles of captivity, and saved for the work of the “family business” of reconciliation that God calls us to. Having been indeed set free, our souls find rest not just in “Paul’s slavish shoes,” but in Jesus’. Our “feets” may get tired, but I for one wouldn’t miss a step along the way. Like William Wilberforce, we’ve got work to do, after all.