Point of View
Amazing grace . . . and open eyes
by Irv Brendlinger
"What cultural blindness might I wake up to in 20 years?"
The powerful film Amazing Grace has made people aware that John Newton wrote the hymn Amazing Grace and that he was the "converted slave trader," become pastor. He is colorful, even more than the film portrays. Rough. Tender. Committed. Faithful. Poetic. Relational. But especially, enigmatic.
Rough? Yes. He grew up on the sea (his dad was a sea captain), joined the navy in his late teens, rejected authority and went AWOL, was caught, but was such a problem that his commander discharged him to the captain of a slave ship. He later became a slave himself for 18 months. Eventually, he served as first mate on a slaver and then led three slaving voyages as captain. He handled the rough side of life with aplomb.
But he was also tender, faithful, and relational. Even in his "sinful" period in Africa his childhood sweetheart, Mary Catlett, remained in his heart, and he never broke trust with her. Separated by years and continents, he returned to find and marry her. Their love was rich and romantic until death. His tender letters to Mary are preserved and worth reading.
Add to that, he was "committed." While pastoring in London he had an aunt in an insane asylum, St.Mary of Bethlehem. She could have no visitors, so every day he walked to a place where he could look high up to a window where she was waiting. It was his consistent ministry of encouragement.
Newton was spiritually sensitive. Amazing Grace was only one of his many hymns. Another is How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds in a Believer’s Ear. After coming to faith in Christ, his journals clearly reflect this sensitivity: "I never knew sweeter or more frequent hours of divine communion" and "I have wandered through the woods, reflecting on the singular goodness of the Lord on me."
But what is so enigmatic about him? Just this: Newton did not leave the slave trade because of his conversion. In fact, he became a slave trader after his conversion to Christ, and he left slaving not for reasons of conscience, but illness. The enigma intensifies. The above journal entries were written on slaving voyages and the hymn How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds was probably written on a slave ship with slaves stowed in the hold. He believed his slaving job was "the appointment Providence had marked out" for him. That, he reasoned, was why his life had been spared through slave insurrections and storms at sea. He did not write against the slave trade until 34 years after he'd left it, and he never wrote against slavery itself.
I share Newton’s journey not to demean him, but to learn.What do I learn from Newton? That it is so natural to be blinded by our culture, even as Christians who love God.What do I learn about myself? That I am no different from Newton; I too am blind about the ways I contribute to harming others and my world. He later lamented that he had done these horrid things with a clear conscience.
If I stop there, I'm safe; it’s Newton’s problem. But I won't stop there. I must ask what cultural blindness might I wake up to in 20 years?What blindness will the church awaken to? How can my cultural blinders be removed?What actions should I take?
This may be a good time to ponder anew the heart of God, who asks us to break the bonds of injustice, share our bread with the hungry, clothe the naked, set the oppressed free, steward the earth . . . love our neighbors.
Amazing grace doesn't stop with my acceptance of forgiveness; God’s grace is "amazing" because it can open my eyes to the injustice and destruction around me that my culture makes me unaware of.
It is amazing, eye-opening grace. It calls me to take action.
Irv Brendlinger is a professor of religion.
Read about his book on slavery, page 8.