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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Amazing Grace (the Movie)

Last night I watched the movie Amazing Grace.  (It's been out for two years, but it takes me a while to get around to these things.  In fact, for me two years is unusually prompt.)  It is the story of English politician and Evangelical William Wilberforce, who fought a long and ultimately successful battle to abolish the slave trade (and ultimately slavery itself) in the British Empire and to improve the moral character of British society in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Do you have movies that you once wanted to see and think you still ought to see, but you're reluctant to see them because for reasons you can't explain you're afraid you'll be disappointed when you do?  That's what Amazing Grace was for me.  Fortunately, I was far from disappointed.  It exceeded my expectations.

It is sharp as your basic British period piece with sumptuous costumes and clever historical details (like the active kitchen in a Georgian English manor house).  It also displays some very sensitive and compelling cinematography in the numerous night shots and in Wilberforce's dream sequences, not to mention the outdoor autumn scenes and vigorous debates in the House of Commons.

But what I enjoyed most was the surprising attention to the complicated political dynamics surrounding abolition.  In fact, that's really what this is: not as much a feel-good inspirational flick (though Wilberforce is undoubtedly inspiring) as a story of political intrigue.  The fascination is not just the character of William Wilberforce and his allies or even the moral gravity of their crusade, but the careful maneuvering they employ to achieve their goal through all the twists and turns they must navigate, including betrayal, mercurial public opinion, and war with France.

Here are some random thoughts and questions that are still floating around in my head a day later.

1. Wilberforce is portrayed politically as a firm liberal who recoils from going all the way to a revolution.  And that's true to a point.  But the actual man was as conservative as he was liberal.  He not only championed the abolition of the slave trade, the prevention of cruelty to animals, and the cessation of hostilities against the rebellious Americans.  In real life he also staunchly supported the social class structure (notwithstanding his great philanthropy) and sought to make vices in libertine 18th-century society like adultery and Sabbath-breaking illegal—an effort that was generally unsuccessful, though his personal example probably did make an impact at the cusp of the Victorian era.  He was an independent, not beholden to any political party, and he really didn't cleanly fit any mold.  His example confirms my personal suspicion (no Scripture to back this up) that no political party applies Christian truth 100 per cent, and if we agree fully and comfortably with any party, we are probably seriously deluded.  No one person does either—not even Wilberforce.  Too often, I think we measure a political proposal or moral issue by guilt- or innocence-by-association: "I trust (or don't trust) this party on x, so naturally I agree (or don't agree) with them on y."  I think that's a big mistake.  I don't know about you, but I fear my grandkids or great-grandkids looking back at me when I'm dead and saying, "As a Christian, how could he have been for (or against) that?" because I just went along with the partisan crowd.

2. Wilberforce had an on-again/off-again (but mostly on) friendship with William Pitt the Younger, Prime Minister of Britain.  I find it interesting how the generically, nominally religious Pitt did not hesitate to exploit his friend's spiritual convictions with respect to slavery to convince Wilberforce to support Pitt's political ambitions.  And yet they remained friends and (most of the time) allies.  Wilberforce could build a coalition of diverse confederates (even mutually hostile ones, like Pitt and Charles Fox) with a variety of motivations who nevertheless shared the same goal.  He could do so without apologizing for his own motivations, and yet his generosity of spirit didn't alienate others.  Would that all of us Christians emulated this in all areas, including the political sphere.

3. I wonder if slave-trader-turned-clergyman/hymnwriter John Newton was as eccentric and reclusive in real life as he was in the movie (mopping the floor of the church in bare feet and what looks like Bill Belichick's cut-off sweatshirt).  I doubt it—doesn't seem particularly Anglican to me.


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