My wife and I went to see Amazing Grace
last night. It was with a bit of trepidation that was certainly not lessened by the obvious presence of at least 2 youth groups and 3 distinct small groups that had also chosen that showing of the movie. In fact, had I visited the movie's website and seen all of the church resources before going to the theater, it's doubtful we would have seen it at all, writing it off as another "Christian" movie long on sincerity and short on interest.
Of course, this movie is no blood-soaked crucifixion movie, nor is it a triumphalistic celebration of the demise of non-Christians the way that current Christian apocalyptic tends to be. Amazing Grace
is the story of William Wilberforce's fight to end England's slave trade.
Wilberforce was a Christian, even to the point of being one of his day's "evangelicals," though that word had a different meaning than it does today. He is one of only two characters in the film that are portrayed as having any sort of conflict or even doubt; the Clapham Society, Prime Minister Pitt and those forces arrayed against them are all shown as dedicated and unwavering in their devotion to their cause - which in Pitt's case, seemed to be a bit more about becoming Prime Minister than anything else, though he did lend crucial support to Wilberforce.
The other character that shows deep conflict is that of John Newton, the former slaver who wrote many hymns, the most famous of which provided this movie's title. We first meet him when Wilberforce goes to his church to seek his advice whether a career in politics or the clergy is best for Wilberforce to pursue. Newton is mopping his church's floor. He is barefoot and clothed in rags. As by this time Newton was one of Britian's foremost preachers, his clothing and activity are entirely optional for him; he could have been bewigged and dressed in fine robes.
Newton, like all others, exhorts Wilberforce to do God's work within politics. He will not talk, nor will he allow Wilberforce to speak, about any details of his life as a slaver. They do discuss Newton's 20,000 ghosts, the men, women and children that he took from Africa for the slave trade. Newton had repented his sins and become a much-loved preacher and pastor. By this point he had written many hymns, Amazing Grace
being only the most well-known. But he is still consumed with his guilt, the stain of his evil deeds not yet erased by his preaching, his hymn-writing, his devotion to God and the Church. Not even dressing in rags and mopping his own church's floor is enough to free him from the man he was and the things he did.
This is right, I think, because at this point Newton had not yet truly faced what he had done. He had repented, to be sure - that is, he ceased what he had been doing and changed his direction completely. He had devoted his life to the work of God. But he had not truly confessed. Too quickly he pushed his sins as a slaver aside, too quickly he tried to forget them. Newton knew that his story, coupled with his standing as a clergyman, would help to popularize the abolitionist movement and reduce the public's opinion of the slave trade and those who profitted from it, but to truly face his past was, for him, too difficult. As is usually the case, his self-inflicted punishments did nothing to absolve him of his guilt.
Newton's redemption comes at the end of this story, after he is blind and feeble, when he finally writes down his story and encourages Wilberforce to use it to sway the public and Parliament alike to see slavery as the evil it is. Newton had confessed that he had sinned; this book was his confession of his sins.
The misunderstanding of this distintion plagues Chrsistians to this day. If you ever find yourself at a kneeler's bench at the end of a church service and you profess a desire to be "saved," you will probably be prompted to pray The Sinner's Prayer
, something that is not set in stone but is fairly uniform across most traditions. The basic form is "I have sinned, I'm sorry, please forgive me." At the end of that prayer, people will want to hug you, some will be crying, and you will be welcomed as a new brother or sister.
But like Newton, you will only have confessed that you have sinned. And you will be told to expect that all your sins will be gone, forgotten by God and, it is hoped, forgotten by you soon enough. Like Newton, this will prove difficult for you. And like Newton and so many people currently attempting to "be Christian" and those who have given up, the tension between the idea that our sins simply melt away and the reality that all too often they stick around will prove to be spiritually and psychologically damaging.
Redemption, whether it is through a belief in the Christian God or, like the young man I met at the Zen Buddhist temple on the northern outskirts of Seoul, through the teachings of Buddha, or through breaking free from an oppresive belief system, is a messy affair. It is costly. That's why true redemption is so rare, why we would rather be able to shove aside the evil that we do and forget it, why we refuse to let the implications of our redemption truly change our lives.Amazing Grace
was, because of this, difficult to watch. It pricked us in places we want to ignore. It reminded my wife and I that we have sought to suppress the ethical ramifications of our redemption, our faith. But we have seen it, and I think there will be some significant and painful changes that we are going to make. I don't want to, but I suddenly find myself without the defenses I need to continue putting it off. As Thomas Clarkson was made to say in the movie, "bollocks.