Friday, 21 May 2010

Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace tells the story of William Wilberforce and his battle to abolish slavery within the British Empire. The title comes from the Hymn written by John Newton who was at one time the captain of a slave ship until his conversion to Christ. Born in Kingston upon Hull, Yorkshire, Wilberforce studied at Cambridge with William Pitt, who would go on to become Prime Minister of England, graduating with a BA in 1781. He began to consider a political career while still at university, and during the winter of 1779–80 he and Pitt frequently watched House of Commons debates from the gallery. In 1784 he became the independent Member of Parliament for Yorkshire.

The following year he became an evangelical Christian, resulting in major changes to his outlook and a lifelong concern for reform. Until then he enjoyed a hedonistic lifestyle of cards, gambling and late night drinking. In 1787, he came into contact with Thomas Clarkson and a group of anti-slave-trade activists, including Granville Sharp, Hannah More and Charles Middleton. The first scene I have chosen portrays that meeting and their desire for Wilberforce to be the voice of the movement in Parliament.

1. Movie Scene Time: 24.39 – 27.39
The Call to Act

Wilberforce was a committed Christian. He felt a strong call to serve God but he also held a deep longing to see social reform within the UK. The scene shows Wilberforce confronted with the reality of how slaves were transported on the slave ships. The realization came that he could do both.

There is an unspoken belief held by many Christians that the peak of Christian achievement is to end up in full time ministry. Nothing could be further from the truth. The key is to find your calling and fulfill it with all the grace that God gives. Joseph saved a nation. His prophetic gift expressed itself within the political sphere of Egypt, not Israel. And he is not alone. Daniel would go on to serve three kings and two empires. Like Joseph his prophetic gift operated in the arena of State Politics. He is even quoted by Jesus when it comes to understanding the unfolding of end time events.

It is vital that we give value to the job and role where God has placed us. Even if we sense that this is not our final place in life, we do well to serve as though it were. Joseph gave himself to serving both Potiphar and the prison warden and was promoted to the chief position in both arenas. His gift kept breaking through in every circumstance of life until eventually, after many trials; he was ready to step into his destiny of saving nations, Egypt and Israel in particular.

Wilberforce understood this. He saw his role in politics as shaping a nation’s conscience in the same way God had shaped his. He did so through tireless presentations of bills, coherent arguments and collaboration with many supporters.

2. Movie Scene Time: 52.15 – 54.15
Galvanising Support

Vision is never as clear as when it can be seen, smelled, touched and heard. This next scene shows one of Wilberforce’s political allies who is on a ship entertaining many of his supporters. They think they are out for a pleasant tour of the Thames. Wilberforce uses the opportunity to let them experience the smell of death coming from the slave ship. Like Nehemiah who went to Jerusalem and surveyed the City at night to see for himself the awful destruction that had taken place, Wilberforce exposed people to the harsh reality of slavery.

He was not afraid to offend the genteel sensibilities in the cause of gaining support. Most were cut to the heart. And this is the power of vision, once it is seen, grasped and understood. It compels us and draws us to act according to conscience. However the fight that Wilberforce took on was massive. At that time 80% of the wealth of the Nation was connected in some form or another to slavery. It made economic sense to continue with the practice. What was the alternative?

A grass roots movement emerged that began to sell sugar from ‘free’ plantations, similar to ‘free trade’ coffee today. Many stopped using sugar altogether. Pressure was mounting. Year after year Wilberforce was defeated in Parliament through the financial scaremongering tactics of his opponents. Further the America’s had broken away at this time and the French Revolution was under way. The slogan of Freedom, Equality and Brotherhood did nothing to endear the British to abolish slavery. Such talk became equal to sedition, (open revolt against government).

This was a million miles from Wilberforce’s thinking and practice. On top of this the British then went to war with Napoleon. Slavery was pushed to the back burner. The next scene shows how Wilberforce and his friends got around this problem.

3. Movie Scene Time: 1.30.25 – 1.33.20
Petitioning the Prime Minister

This is probably one of my favourite scenes in the movie. Having failed for years to have an antislavery bill passed in Parliament Wilberforce, on the advice of a clever lawyer put’s forward a bill allowing privateers to board any ship flying the American flag. Privateers were like licensed pirates. The British were at war with the French and as the America’s had recently broken away from the British Empire the French were often flying the American flag which gave them protection from being attacked. America was seen as neutral in the war.

Wilberforce wanted to present a bill that on the face of it helped the war effort but stopping the French from getting away with this loophole that prevented them from being attacked. It looked an innocent bill. However many slave traders also flew the American flag to avoid being attacked by the French. They were playing the same game. Under maritime law a ship flying the American flag could not claim to be French and by the same token could not claim to be British. Thus privateers could not only attack French vessels, they could attack British ones too if they flew the American flag.

This left the slave traders vulnerable to attack and in effect killed their transport system. It was a stroke of genius. When Jesus sent out His disciples He warned them of the dangers to come and gave them some advice: “Behold I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” Matt 10.16 Imagine that. They are about to go out and Jesus says in effect, “You are the sheep and I’m sending you into the middle of a pack of wolves”. The only thing that wolves and sheep have in common is lunch. They are the ones on the menu. Wolves eat sheep! The temptation in such a scenario is to either behave like a wolf. Fight fire with fire; or to hide and live in fear. Neither reaction is a Kingdom response. Jesus has given us real authority and we need to use it.

The second part of the verse perfectly illustrates what Wilberforce did. He was as wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove. Doves are not predators like Eagles or Hawks. They are not aggressive. A dove was the symbol in scripture for the Holy Spirit at the Baptism of Jesus. In nature we are to be like them; gentle with people, even with those who oppose us, 2Tim 2.24-26. But serpents! They’re different. In scripture the tempter in the Garden of Eden is portrayed as a serpent. This creature was more subtle and cunning than any other in the garden.

Their nature is deadly, but there is something about them Jesus wants us to emulate – their wisdom. Sometimes we cannot achieve victory by dealing with a problem head on. Applying more force and pressure doesn’t always work. People can become entrenched and hardened in their opinions. Jesus used wisdom all the time. People tried to catch Him out but He always had a clever answer. Often He exposed the hypocrisy and selfish motives behind the questions in the process.

Think of when the Pharisees asked Jesus where He got His authority from to do the things He did. He answered a question with a question, Matt 21.23-27. “I also will ask you one thing, which if you tell Me I likewise will tell you by what authority I do these things: The baptism of John, where was it from? From heaven or from men?” If they were truthful and acknowledged it came from God then why didn’t they submit to it? If they lied and said it was from men they would lose credit with all the people, for everyone acknowledged John as a Prophet sent from God. Either way it was a lose - lose outcome for them.

They refused to answer Jesus saying “We do not know”. Notice Jesus response, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things”. It’s genius. It’s witty. It’s perceptive. Wisdom is like this. And Jesus says that’s how we need to be. It seems to me we’ve been good at focusing on being harmless as doves but we need to grow much more in wisdom. Wilberforce did this and he got what he wanted!

4. Movie Scene Time: 1.42.50 – 1.45.00
Victory and Honour at Last

This last scene shows the final victory in Parliament where slavery is abolished. It’s a powerful scene. Not just because of the political victory, but because finally even his opponents are compelled to stand and honour the courage and determination of Wilberforce. It points forward to a day when we will all stand before the judgement seat of Christ to give an answer for the things we have done “in the body.....whether good or bad”, 2Cor 5.10.

Our life is not simply a collection of days and events. It is that, but it’s more. It is an opportunity to make a difference in a world that God loves and gave His Son to redeem. We have the chance to live out that victory in every area of life where defeat and hopelessness reigns. Wilberforce didn’t just do politics. His faith gave him the stamina and courage to take on a big battle. Like David who fought Goliath in the Old Testament, he was outraged that God’s love for humanity for being mocked through the slave trade. He took it on and won. He changed history. He changed the world.

Now here’s the point. When he was in it, he didn’t feel special. He didn’t feel courageous. He had no guarantee of the outcome. He had no real understanding of the price he would pay. But today we stand back and applaud him. You too can make a difference. Learn a lesson from Wilberforce. Give yourself to a battle worth giving your life for. Don’t aim for a comfortable life, aim for a meaningful one, a purposeful one. Who knows, maybe one day you’ll receive Heaven’s applause for what you did in His Name? Enjoy watching the movie some time.