‘Amazing Grace’ gets political
Have you heard critics lash out, charging preachers with turning their pulpits into political rostrums? Sometimes such criticism carries weight. Using a prophetic voice as a cover may function as a preacher’s foil to further a pet political agenda.Those adamantly opposed to mixing Christian faith with political issues, if honest, really are irked because the preacher’s pulpit rhetoric doesn’t align with their personal political biases. When a preacher does echo their political views, then the sermons are all right. In fact, the preacher receives compliments for not blunting Christianity’s ethical edge. He is hailed for cutting into what’s worldly with Christ’s two-edged sword of truth.The movie Amazing Grace traces how faith in Christ motivated British parliamentarian William Wilberforce (1759-1833) to persevere over 45 years against slave trade before the British banned it. He shows how Christianity does a world of good when faith is not divorced from politics. “For God so loved the world,” (not merely a person’s heart) Wilberforce read in his Bible (John 3:16). God’s expansive vision to save the world fueled Wilberforce’s fight against slavery.Wilberforce fought against a coalition of Christians and business tycoons who believed slavery was part of God’s design for the created order. Defenders of slavery held the best of the biblical argument. Patriarchs like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob owned slaves. Slavery seemed a given in biblical times. Armed with proof texts, slavery’s defenders fired off an arsenal of biblical passages in which slavery isn’t even questioned. Besides, they argued, Jesus never directly spoke against slavery. Didn’t the Apostle Paul assume slavery would continue as the Gospel advanced? He invited the slave Onesimus to return to his master Philemon without demanding freedom.Besides grappling with Christians who opposed freeing slaves, Wilberforce fought against lucrative slave-traders. A pro-slavery House of Commons member argued, “Abolition would instantly annihilate a trade, which annually employs upwards of 5,500 sailors, upwards of 160 ships, and whose exports amount to 800,000 sterling; and would undoubtedly bring the West India trade to decay…”With a vocal hesitation magnifying the effect of his dramatic pause, he pointed to the gallery. There his slave-trading constituency packed the aisles. The speaker shouted, “These are my masters.”Whereupon, another Parliament member endorsed slavery, drawing a gruesome comparison: the slave trade “was not an amiable trade,” he confessed, “but neither was the trade of a butcher … and yet a mutton chop was, nevertheless, a very good thing.” Slavery was lucrative. And the Bible didn’t conclusively condemn the trade. Plus, good ends justify bad means. Don’t similar arguments justifying slavery pop up among Christians who oppose global warming? They content science can’t definitively prove, with many climatic variables in play, a direct correlation to the atmosphere heating up. Moreover, standards that lessen pollution from fossil fuels would cripple Big Oil companies. Sometimes we must reduce pollution standards to stymie job loss.The movie Amazing Grace underplays Wilberforce’s prime motivation for battling slavery. The story line portrays him as an ardent moral reformer. But the movie downplays what’s advertised in the title. Grace amazingly caught hold of Wilberforce. God serendipitous, cleansing power-grace-embraced his heart. Grace inspired him to change the world by emancipating slaves.The movie’s director Michael Apted brushed over this change of heart. He felt becoming too religious wouldn’t sell tickets. Apted admitted to the evangelical Christianity Today magazine how he downplayed Wilberforce’s religious convictions impelling him to fight slavery. That would sound too “preachy,” Apted lamely argued.”God works in His mysterious ways, His wonders to perform,” the venerable hymn reminds us. God’s mysterious spirit prodded Wilberforce towards former slave trader turned preacher John Newton for spiritual guidance.Newton, who wrote the hymn Amazing Grace possessed the cunning ambition of a Caesar, he admitted after his conversion. When a harrowing storm howled at sea, the Holy Spirit blew into Newton’s heart. The slave master blurted out in fear mixed with deep remorse, “Lord have mercy! Lord, have mercy on us!” How ironic: the merciless slave trader pleading for divine mercy.”Wilberforce contacted Newton who preached how God’s grace frees captives from slavery. Newton didn’t advise Wilberforce to stick to soul winning. He didn’t define the Gospel as only an exercise in evangelism. He didn’t prattle pious malarkey about the world being so evil that Christians should isolate faith from politics. Quite the contrary, Newton urged his Christian friend to fling his religious energies headlong into the body politic. Play a major part on the political stage. Newton challenged Wilberforce not to abandon political office. He declared, “The Lord has raised you up to the good of His church and for the good of the nation.”Those who retreat from faith informing politics worship a god too small. The biblical God created all of life, so every inch of life must be renewed, politics too. In the 19th century the Lord’s refining fire raged against child labor, filthy prisons, squalid poorhouses, illiteracy and lack of health codes affecting the poor. Wilberforce shows us how faith and politics can be mixed. Then amazing grace is unleashed. Doc: wilberforceThe Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the non-profit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries, enhancing Christian worship through lively storytelling and dramatic presentations. Van Ens’s book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.