(Sabbath Blog #9)
Amazing Grace is the story of William Wilberforce, a member of the British Parliament during the late 18th and early 19th centuries who fought a long battle to outlaw British involvement in the slave trade. The film recounts the struggle that he undertook, along with other abolitionists, to put an end to that horrendous practice.
The story told is a very moving one. I came away from the movie with a sense of the ethical impact that one committed person can make (and with the feeling that I customarily have after seeing such a story that most of us aren’t making nearly the impact that we could). The film paints a portrait of Wilberforce as being virtually single-minded in his passionate efforts to bring an end to the slave trade. I have learned from other sources that Wilberforce actually had very broad concerns all along the ethical spectrum; he was very interested in improving the lot of the downtrodden in England. Still, a movie can only deal with a slice of a person’s life so the focus on his abolitionist activity is understandable and proper. We can go to books for the rest.
Three specific thoughts have accompanied me since I viewed Amazing Grace.
First, service to others is service to God. Wilberforce is depicted as engaging in a real struggle over whether he should remain in Parliament or retreat to a cloistered life of reflection. Should he serve humanity or should he serve God? He decides that he can serve God by serving humanity and so he stays in Parliament and eventually wins his battle against the slave trade. Sometimes some Christians have a similar struggle. No doubt some are called to a solitary life. Most of us, though, are called to live in the world and to bring our Christian faith to bear on the lives of people and on the ills of the world. The challenge is to fuse our private life of faith with our public life of service. It can be done and when it is done great things can happen.
Second, the struggle between what is right and what is expedient never ends. I suppose that there were some people in Wilberforce’s day who did not think of the African slaves as being “as human” as they thought themselves or those like them to be. But in the debates in Parliament as depicted in the movie, the arguments against abolishing the slave trade were primarily economic in nature. “We can’t run the plantations without slaves; if we get out of the slave trade, the French will just step in and prosper at our expense.” “The economy of the Empire will collapse without slaves.” So went the arguments. In too many circumstances, our thinking about what is right from a Christian perspective and what is right from a people perspective (which usually constitute the same perspective) is clouded by what we think is best for us from an economic perspective. The Old Testament prophets and Jesus himself certainly offer some pertinent words in that area.
On a side note, I was struck by a statement made in the movie about what motivates people’s attitudes and actions. At one point in the story, England was at war with France. Someone said, in a discussion about people’s attitudes toward the slave trade, that when the war was over, the people would rediscover their compassion. In other words, people are motivated by self-preservation and by fear as well as by economic considerations. Sometimes they are all tied up together. Perhaps when it comes to the way that we Americans think about and take action toward immigrants and toward people of other faiths, when the war is over, we will find our compassion again.
Third, heroes of the faith are human heroes. I’m sure that Wilberforce had many more flaws and problems than the movie depicts. Nevertheless, he is presented as a very human figure. He has severe health problems. His marriage brings him much solace and encouragement. He struggles with depression over the difficulties he has in enacting his anti-slavery legislation. He has conflicts with foes and with friends. In short, he is flawed but faithful. That’s about the most any of us can expect from ourselves.
Amazing Grace renders a valuable service in raising William Wilberforce to a higher place in the public’s consciousness. In so doing, the film also makes us think about the power of the Gospel and of people who are committed to Christ to effect change in a world that always needs it. Perhaps, upon learning about the way William Wilberforce lived, we will go and do likewise.
Amazing Grace is directed by Michael Apted and written by Steven Knight. It stars Ioan Gruffudd, Romola Garai, and Albert Finney. It is presently in theatrical release.