Friday, March 16, 2007

Amazing Grace?

We just saw the film "Amazing Grace" directed by Michael Apted. It is about the campaign against the slave trade in 19th century Britain, led by the famous abolitionist William Wilberforse, who was responsible for steering anti-slave trade legislation through the British parliament. The title is a reference to the hymn "Amazing Grace" and the film also recounts John Newton's inspiration for writing this hymn during that time.

My wife and I were split on the "impact" of this film. She thought it was boring and tedious. I, having chosen it, (my turn) liked it for a number of reasons. It is a period piece about "life" back in the late 1700's and the stark differences between the "classes" in England at the time. We both enjoyed the scenes from "Bath" in western England were rich people (MP's) at the time "took the waters". We had a day there as tourists and "took the tea" not the "waters". The House of Commons, even then, was run by the wealthier, "landed" merchants who were getting and staying rich off the "slave trade" out of Africa (Sierra Leone) and the new plantation owners in America. It is a time in history that fascinates me and I'm studying the Art History Period right now (Baroque to Roccoco) Extreme embellishment, richness for the wealthy (merchant) patrons was what was mostly saved and called "masterpieces".

The protagonists in the "true" story were "William Wiberforse", played by Ioan Gruffudd of Capt. Hornblower (TV Series) fame and "John Newton", played by Albert Finney now quite old...remember him in "Tom Jones" and the "eating orgy"? Then there was the "token" steadfast woman, his life support who kept William at the daunting task when his health was failing along with his resolve. Her name was "Barbara Spooner" played by Romola Garai. He also had the "help"(?) of an addiction to "ludlum" an opiate until the birth of his first child. (They don't get into the "drug trade" at the time with China.

Anyway, it was very thought provoking to me to consider some of the historical issues at that time. Abolitionist were very unpopular in England and the M.P.'s in the majority came up with some very creative and naive reasons to continue "slaving"...mostly they had to do with the economy of Britian at the time...not moral issues at all. Year after year William and his group of "Abs", mainly ministers, would propose the "bill" to the parliament and year after year it was voted down. Each year he was able to get more and more support for it. He did this with suprise tours of "slave ships" docked in the harbor to show the appauling conditions that the slaves had to endure for three weeks and more in passage. Life, at that time, was so squalid for the common man anyway that it didn't change many a mind. He got the support of the new Prime Minister, William Pitt, but then politics got in the way, and a "War with France" was brewing. A local preacher, John Newton, had a "history of slaving" that he was forced into in his youth. He had a "miraculous vision" on board ship and converted to a form of Calvinism (popular protestant) at the time. He persuaded William to keep up the fight and he also wrote the lyrics to the hymn "Amazing Grace" because he felt that that was what saved him from his life of slave trading. He eventually goes blind but is able to be present in parliament when William's Abolitionist Bill is passed (over 200 to 16). It ends with a rousing rendition of "Amazing Grace" played by the traditional bagpipes in front of Westminister Abby.(where Wilberforse is now buried).

What is "amazing" and shocking to me is that, what "won the day" was not overriding "morality" or conscience, but "the merchant class pocketbook" again. In order to get the initial bill through the House they had to "lie" and slip a "quiet bill through" on some innocent rules of "trade". This was suggested by a "lawyer" who was just returning from the New World" (Jamaica, Haiti) where he was "gathering evidence". What he notice on the return trip to England was that the "neutral American ships" flying the "Stars and Stripes" were not "boarded and searched" by the "Privateers" from England and France. So the slave ships were striking their "home colors" and falsely raising our "colors" whenever spotted. So the Abolitionist simply proposed that that practice be stopped by the Royal Navy. Soon the "neutral slavers" were not getting through. They were stopped and their "human cargo" was stolen by the "privateers and French". English merchant money was lost and they got the attention of their representative in the House.

"Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav'd a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see."
I have never "bought" this "wretch" belief that is still prevolent. Conversion and reformation from "one state of mind/opinion" to another, yes. John Newton, ironically, ended up eventually blind after that fateful "vision" that showed him his "wretchedness". Many still enslave...minds.
"Thro' many dangers, toils and snare,
I have already come;
'Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home."
The contrast in belief back then, and even now is "Law vs. Grace". There is even a masterpiece woodcut print called "The Allegorie of Law and Grace by Lucas Cranach the Elder, of the common belief back in the High Renaissance. This came from the Reformation vs. the Counter-Reformation battles in Europe. The catholic church preached that everyone was "under law"...i.e. sin, hell or at least purgatory. The Lutheran and Calvinists preached that everyone was "under grace"...and need only to believe, repent and personally "talk to God" (no priest needed) This reminds me of a time that I taught at Chaparral School with a teacher name Chuck Noffsinger and our boss was definitely "an under law guy". Chuck was so happy when we got a new principal that he commented that he thought he had gone to "teacher heaven" and was "under grace". He was a staunch conversionist (had a Bible on his desk) and sometimes preached in class, and at teacher meetings too. He was a great art teacher and taught my sons "cartooning and Xmas Windows" painting. Minds and hearts can still be grace.
"Shall I be wafted through the skies,
On flowery beds of ease,
Where others strive to win the prize,
And sail through bloody seas"
"When we've been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We've no less days to sing God's praise
Than when we'd first begun."
See what I mean? These verses, over the years, have been added by the likes of Harriet Beecher Stowe in "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and preserved by Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie who mixed it with a hymn "Am I a Soldier of the Cross?" Enslavement continues? Bob!


At 7:55 AM, Blogger BOB! Your Life Preserver said...

"Amazing Greed" might be more appropriate for a title.

"When we've been there ten thousand years..." Where is "there"? Could it be a "state of consciousness", an "awareness", "another reality", "an astral plane", "an alternative existence"? where there is no "greed"? Bob!

At 9:46 AM, Blogger BOB! Your Life Preserver said...

I also forgot to mention that the slave trade at that time was primarily for the sugar plantations in the Carribbean. Protestors (abolitionists) were not putting sugar in their tea in England. I think I read somewhere that the "downfall" of civilizations as they are coincide with their increased use of sugar...cane, root etc. Bob!

At 12:57 PM, Blogger BOB! Your Life Preserver said...

Here's another verse...
When much has been giv'n,
Then much requir'd,
'Tis good to remind oneself,
My life has been so full
Of love and gracious things,
I would not want to trade...
with Kings.

At 7:23 AM, Blogger BOB! Your Life Preserver said...

Quantum Possibilities of Joy! Another example of "Amazing Grace"...Little Xavier James baby boy...born to Clark and Vi 3/24/07 C + V = X
Namesake, Saint Francis Xavier, Missionary to China, how appropriate, Founder of the Jesuits.
Derivation: "Bright" Spanish/Port. I am thrilled! Bob!

At 6:20 PM, Blogger BOB! Your Life Preserver said...

We seen little "X" and he is very cute. Black hair, black eyes, all his little toes and fingers and good, ruddy skin color. C ./. VI = XVI Bob!


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