Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!
This Monday Jacqui and I went to the sofa cinema at Fact, Liverpool, to see “12 years a slave,” a remarkable film based on the true story of Solon Northup, a free black man living in New York kidnapped into slavery in the 1840s.
Director Steve Mcqueen (not be to be confused with Steve McQueen of Great Escape fame) faithfully conveys the essence of Northup’s book, simply giving a factual account without embellishment. He tells it as it is.
You can read the book online: “My object is, to give a candid and truthful statement of facts: to repeat the story of my life, without exaggeration, leaving it for others to determine, whether even the pages of fiction present a picture of more cruel wrong or a severer bondage.”
It goes without saying that slavery is cruel wrong, a severe bondage. It was Aristotle, no less, who defined slaves as ‘living tools.’ But it was just as embedded in the culture of the American South as in ancient Greece. Sitting just off once-prosperous Bold Street I was only too conscious that Liverpool too found its prosperity from trading in slaves.
Such oppression seems to be part of our human condition, even today. Accepting the Bafta best film award, Mcqueen said: “There are 21 million people in slavery now as we sit here.”
But the message of the Gospel is clear. My BRF reading this morning from Luke 4 features Jesus giving his mission statement to the synagogue in Nazareth:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
It seems blindingly obvious to us that the oppression wrought by slavery is wrong but Mcqueen’s film draws out the disturbing ways the Bible is used by the God-fearing people of Louisiana to justify slavery. One slave owner actually reads the words of Jesus to his slaves to justify their severe beatings.
Amazingly John Newton, the hymn writer, continued his slave trading following his conversion, making three final journeys before forced to retire. He retired not because he realized that such slave trading was incompatible with his Christian faith but because of a severe stroke. He even continued to invest his savings in slaving operations.
And just as amazingly it was a further 34 years after this retirement that Newton broke a long silence on the subject with a forceful pamphlet. “It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.” He then devoted his energies to the abolition of slavery.
Sometimes, such is the hardness of our hearts, that the Holy Spirit takes time to renew our minds. At Steve McQueen was seeking to escape in one bound on his Triumph TR, real-life POW’s were trying to escape from Colditz through cultivating dry rot in the castle rafters. They were thinking long term.
So while the New Testament never actually condemns slavery, even encouraging slaves to serve their masters, the apostle Paul was writing to Philemon about his runaway slave, Onesimus (or in English, ‘Useful”). “(Useful) is no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.” (v16).
The challenge for Philemon was to think of his slave as a brother in the Lord. This represented a huge shift in his way of thinking and a profound challenge to the abomination of slavery. It is as if Paul is infecting the institution of slavery with the spiritual equivalent of dry rot.
And for us, we need to be alert to the Holy Spirit at work in our lives, even in those huge blind spots in how we see life, how we fail to see what for later generations of Christians is blindingly obvious.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.