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Christmas 2007: Amazing Grace

Christmas 2007: Amazing Grace


It might come as a suprise to non-history majors that American slavery was a legacy of our nation's years as a colonial outpost of the British Empire.

As the inspiring historic film "Amazing Grace" details, the slave trade was a highly lucrative enterprise for the British Empire. Africans were captured, transported and sold for free labor (after their initial "cost" was paid) in the British colonies and elsewhere. As Steven Spielberg's "Amistad" so wrenchingly showed -- and "Amazing Grace" discusses -- many of the men, women and children transported in the most horrendous of circumstances died in route and were sometimes even thrown overboard alive. It is estimated that perhaps half the "cargo" died while being "shipped" to their point of sale.

And then when they arrived in the British West Indies or America, they were often mercilessly treated, punished or killed at the whim of the owner. Human life was treated as property, after all. It was, as "Amazing Grace" reveals by focusing on the British parliamentary battle over the slave trade, about "business."

One man was at the center of the British abolitionist movement -- although others stood with him -- a British MP named William Wilberforce.

During an era of upheaval in England -- the American and French Revolutions -- Wilberforce led a Quixotic effort to end British trafficking in slaves. But he is crushed for many years by the all too familiar reality that more than 300 Members of Parliament were "in the pocket" -- as one political figure in the film notes -- of the various individuals and trading companies who profited from trafficking in human lives.

In short, Wilberforce was up against what is akin today to the combined power of the tobacco lobby, the defense industry, the credit card companies, and the NRA. There was a fortune to be made in selling people, and for years Wilberforce and a band of truly Christian clerics labored to get Parliament to outlaw the enormous British industry that profited from slavery.

In "Amazing Grace," we see the appalling role that financial gain plays on public policy. And it is not just the personal enrichment of politicians; it is more importantly the perception that a nation's "glory" depends upon an industry -- in this case slavery and its economic impact within a significant part of the British Empire.

As one supporter of the English slave trade declares in Parliament, "This great ship of state must not be sunk by a wave of good intentions."

How applicable that is to the perspective of so many Neo-Cons and even Democratic leaders who fear that the potential loss of control over oil in the Middle East will lead to the downfall of the American Empire -- and our comfortable way of life. And so the war continues in Iraq, public discussion of it growing fainter by the day.

But the Christmas message to be derived from the film "Amazing Grace" lies a bit deeper and a bit more personal -- but equally relevant to America on December 25, 2007.

It is this: at a point in his young manhood, Wilberforce considered abandoning his political goals to pursue a religious life, perhaps becoming a minister. He grapples with the decision about whether to be a man of action doing the work of the Lord through advocacy and politics or to pursue God as a man of faith divorced of the daily tug and pull of a public life.

To the benefit of the world -- and to tens of thousands of lives that were saved from death and slavery -- Wilberforce chose to continue to struggle to abolish the most inhumane of industries: one that made its money off of the ownership of other lives.

It took him -- and his supporters -- 20 years, but in the end they prevailed, and long before the Civil War in the United States put an end to the abhorrent practice of slavery, England outlawed the slave trade in 1807.

And that brings us to Christmas Day 2007, when we have so many political creatures in America boasting that they are men of Christ, as if it were enough to swear allegiance to the man and abide so little by his words and message of peace and embracing of all those who crossed his path.

Christ was a figure of inclusion, a religious/historical figure who celebrated the spark of divinity that lies within every human.

Those who so piously call themselves Christians and act so contempuous of Christ's message are charlatans, who betray all that is good and Godly (or spritual) that is inherent in life.

William Wilberforce chose a life of action to heal the world of its sins.

The coded language and self-righteous pronouncement of the hucksters who claim a personal knowledge of God, but do so little to sanctify the glory of the divine creation, participate in a betrayal of Christ, not an affirmation. They smugly defend self-comfort, bigotry and empire-building instead of engaging in the hard work of improving our nation and the world.

William Wilberforce reminds us that one person can indeed make a difference, can indeed survive the bleakest of setbacks, and in the end accomplish a feat of "Amazing Grace."

That is an inspiration for people of all faith -- all believers in the spiritual goodness of men and women -- of the joy of this great gift of life on this Christmas Day of 2007.


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