When the Christian Right gets excited about a film and urges folks to see it, the hair on the back of my neck rises, usually because the whole story is not being told.
Though the film is about William Wilberforce, who instigated the abolition of the British slave trade, many viewers will focus on its theme song and its author/composer, John Newton, a former slave trader. This hymn has become an anthem for our nation. It was included in the hymnals of Civil War soldiers. During the 1960's it was sung during civil rights protests. It was the most performed song in the memorial services occuring after 9/11.
It's a song about grace, that divine gift of unconditional love and acceptance, one that we wholeheartedly claim for ourselves but have difficulty sharing with others. Notice that the lyrics are written in the first person singular:
"Amazing grace/how sweet the sound/that saved a wretch like me/I once was lost/but now am found/Was blind but now I see".
The only inclusive verse is the last one, which was added from another hymn in 1790, eleven years after Newton penned his faith:
"When we've been there 10,000 years/bright shining as the sun/We've no less days to sing God's praise/then when we first begun".
A few years back I was writing a sermon based on the flood narrative in Genesis when I came upon another hymn of Newton's, "The Hiding Place". One verse in particular illuminated this man's faith and the faith of the Church at the time of King George III:
"You have only to repose/On my wisdom, love, and care/Where my wrath consumes my foes/Mercy shall my children spare/While they perish in the flood/You that bear my holy mark/Sprinkled with atoning blood/Shall be safe within the ark."
The ark was the Church, that hiding place for those who bear God's holy mark, i.e., baptism and the blood of Christ from the cross. Grace was for those who realized their sinful ways and turned; those who did not turn faced God's wrath. The theology of grace had not yet progessed to its inclusive, universal vision, at least, not in England.
Those who read this blog who are Unitarian Universalists know far more about this than I do, but Universalist thought in Christian theology dates back as far as St. Gregory of Nyssa in the 4th century. Universalism emerged in the American colonies as a denomination in 1793. Universalism rejects the notion of eternal damnation; instead it declares the existence of an all-loving God, who welcomes the whole of creation into redemptive relationship.
Grace isn't only about me or you; it's about us, all of us on this earth in need of forgiveness and right relationship with one another and with the Mystery that created all that there is. It's about community: inclusive, ever-widening, extravagant community.
The movie's website also lists a mission called The Amazing Change Campaign, which seeks to end slavery everywhere in the world. While ending child slavery and debt slavery is very much a justice issue that needs to be dealt with, there is another slavery that we see every day and it's called poverty; its slaves are the working poor of our country. If we're going to end slavery in this world, let's includes all the slaves, including each of us and the ways we are chained to the powers that be in this world. Free others, and free yourself in the process.
The Church is not a hiding place and neither is God. God and the Church may be our refuge for a time, but eventually we are called out into the world to share the love and redemption we have received so that all may know the freedom of grace.