Newton the Slave Trader
The theme for this week’s service is “Amazing Grace,” the hymn written by transformed slave trader, John Newton. His story is hopeful and uplifting, reminding us of the power and potential of grace. After this week’s election results, I want to believe in grace, but it has become more difficult. I will talk about that, but first I want to share Newton’s story.
Newton got a job on a ship that, among other things, traded in human beings. At first, he didn’t think about the misery of the people packed into the ship’s hold, some of whom died on the journey. He joined the other crew members in taunting and beating the captives. He cared only about making money, drinking, having fun.
Then one day a storm at sea changed all that. Terrified of dying, he remembered the Christian faith in which he’d been raised and, for the first time since his childhood, he prayed. Though battered and weakened, the ship survived, as did Newton. When the ship docked and he stepped onto dry land, he started to think about his life, what he’d done, and what his purpose was. He thought about the human beings in the hold of the ship, and he felt a pang of remorse. The change in him wasn’t significant, but he began to realize that what he’d been doing might be wrong. Perhaps more important at that moment was that he began to make prayer a regular part of this life.
Eventually, he captained his own slave ship. Wanting to be a “good” slaver, he gave the human cargo more space than was customary so they could move around, and he fed them well. He was proud that none of his slaves ever died on the voyage. Yet over time, he recognized this wasn’t enough. During one trip, he looked at the men, women, and children chained together down below, saw their misery, and realized that his small favors meant almost nothing, and he felt deeply ashamed.
At that moment, he knew he couldn’t continue as a slaver. He ordered his men to turn the boat around, sailed to Africa, and freed the people he’d meant to sell. After that, he gave up slave trading and became an abolitionist. He credited God with opening his eyes and softening his heart. To celebrate his transformation, he wrote “Amazing Grace.”
Moments of Mourning
In my work as a chaplain, I have heard stories of instantaneous transformation, but most journeys are gradual, like Newton’s. Regardless of how it enters our life, grace can open our hearts and minds and encourage us to do serve the good. Last month, I believed that easily. Though belief is harder now, I do believe it still today.
Of course, not everyone is touched by transformative grace, and with this election, it seems that those who share Newton’s original blind disregard for the sanctity and dignity of human life feel emboldened. Days after the election, I feel shocked, empty, appalled.
Assuming the electoral college doesn’t “faithlessly” vote for Hillary, and I don’t expect them to, my country just voted into the presidency a man who spreads hate and aggression like jam on toast. I wake in the night and can’t get back to sleep. Sadness fills my gut; at times I am anxious. Over the last two days, I have read multiple analyses of the election, articles about how to live in an autocratic regime, and listened to a video about dealing with bullies. Suddenly, our lives have changed; our country seems so much more dangerous. I feel afraid.
Fear, Peril, and the Loss of a Dream
Not that I sit in that fear all the time. As a white, cisgendered person, I can get away with forgetting. I can focus at work, pet my cat, read a funny book, and enjoy a peaceful morning walk that reminds me that no matter what comes down over the next four years, the mountain still stands to the east, and the clouds still turn scarlet with the sunrise, and the geese still feed on insects on the golf course. Life isn’t over.
Yet I grieve.
Part of my grief is anticipatory. I fear the deaths, large and small, that will come from this. I don’t want to go back to a time when health care was reserved for those who could afford it, nor do I want to be reminded of the days when women couldn’t get abortions or even contraceptives, when sexual violence and racial attacks were acceptable among the mainstream. Already, taunting and hateful attacks have become bolder, and people are justifying their ugliness by shouting Trump’s name.
Along with my anticipatory grief and my fear, I am mourning the loss of a dream. In spite of the violence, name-calling, and angry entitlement, I thought most people were kind, believed in fairness, were compassionate, and loved their neighbor, at least a little bit. Now it seems my country is filled with people of anger and hatred who long for revenge. We have voted for white, male entitlement, for destruction of the environment, and for violent retribution for all who dare question the rich and powerful. This is my country; these are my people. About this, I despair.
Where Is God in Crazy Times?
Yet this is not the whole story. Hillary actually got more votes than Trump, and a significant majority of people under 35 voted for her, giving me hope in the future. Many of those who did vote for Trump did so in spite of his vitriol. It’s clear that Hillary is not warm and fuzzy, strong women are not respected, and there’s a major class divide that liberal intellectuals don’t understand. A core of voters saw Hillary as being just another establishment intellectual who didn’t care about their economic struggles. As a chaplain, I spoke with people who “would never hurt a fly” and who talk about God’s love, yet voted for a man who victimizes others and brags about it. It’s a crazy time.
In crazy times, we need healing. You and I. We need to comfort and console one another. The rest of the country need healing, too. How do we help people heal their hurts so they can become their true selves? I am convinced, you see, that no matter who we are, our true self is sacred, compassionate, accepting. Even Donald Trump is no more than a wounded soul, tormented, confused, and capable of finding his true goodness and transforming just as John Newton did. If God could work wonders on Newton, why can’t he do it on Trump, too?
I’m not holding my breath.
The Class Divide
In asking this question, though, I realize I am being elitist and paternalistic (even if I am a woman). The people who feel cheated of their livelihood by world trade agreements and waves of immigrants, who are tired of hearing liberals deride their evangelical views, who believe that if you work hard and follow the rules you should be rewarded, are angry. Who am I to suggest they need healing?
What they need are jobs that pay well and homes they can afford. If that means sending everyone who isn’t white “back where they came from” – which is ironic because where do we send Native Americans? – then they’re okay with that. They’re standing by their people, and their people are not everyone in the world. Their people are friends, family, and neighbors. For them, healing isn’t the issue. Imploring people to love more doesn’t put meat on the table and cars in the garage and computers on every desk. At least, it doesn’t seem to.
They’re right. When we try to make the entire world our neighbor, we don’t hang out with the neighbors who live next door. When we’re struggling to survive, when our way of life is threatened because strangers are crowding into our villages, why would we welcome everyone? I get that. Yet we’re all people with fears and loves and longings. We all deserve decent jobs and lives and families. This battle between the classes and the races and the religions is getting ugly, and I’m feeling scared.
We Still Have Love
Because of my fear, I’ve thought of moving to Germany where I can get citizenship because my German-Jewish father fled the Nazi regime with his parents and sister when he was fourteen. There’s another irony: the daughter of a holocaust survivor running away from the very country where he found safety.
But I’m not going anywhere. My country needs me, as it needs you and anyone else who is willing to stand up for fairness, justice, freedom, and love. In the face of hatred, we must stay calm and compassionate. We cannot become the oppressors. Instead, we must use our creativity, our ingenuity, and our voices to spread hope, and community, and love.
Love really is more powerful than hate. Love is more powerful than the hurt, fear, anger, righteousness, weariness, and distrust felt by Trump supporters. Maybe right now I just need to listen and try to understand. What do “they” want? Is there any way to bridge this divide?
Standing with the Vulnerable
As we try to find a common language through love, we also need to strengthen our love so we can stand with those who are victimized. We will need our love to say “no” to walls and beatings and threats. Most people will not be violent. Yet it takes so many of us working for so many years to build – to build cathedrals, to build monuments, to build neighborhoods, to build businesses, to build trust. It takes but a few people a few moments to shatter them. Especially if we stand by and are silent. We can no longer be silent.
So what do we do? Here are some possibilities:
Learn how to support someone who is being harassed. Wear a safety pin to show your willingness to stand by the marginalized. Read articles like this one from the Huffington Post that list tips and techniques for hanging onto our democracy. Consider who the Trump voters are and what they want. “Stop shaming those Trump supporters,” as Rabbi Michael Lerner says. If you are white or straight, offer support to transgender people and people of color, but Leslie Mac warns us we might not be wanted right now, so don’t take it personally.
In the end, though, it all comes down to love and grace.
The Power of Amazing Grace
Grace transforms hearts when it seems there is no possibility of change. For decades, I have searched for some healing, some invitation, some answer to the emptiness of the broken soul of a narcissist or sociopath. We now understand there’s something wrong with the brains of people who can’t empathize with others. We’re starting to understand the specific wounds that shape propensities into a willingness or desire to harm others. Why people like Newton change, however, and others don’t, we don’t know. That’s where grace comes in.
The “Amazing Grace” story tells of the power of God’s grace. John Newton’s transformation was slow, and he had to be willing to look, to wonder, and finally to empathize with the lives of those dark-skinned creatures he one day saw as human beings, yet the entire process started because he opened himself to a higher power.
I do believe in grace. Whether you call it chance, or fate, or divine intervention, when something scares us enough or shatters our hearts enough that we seek sustenance in something greater than ourselves, transformation can begin. This, however, is not something we can control.
Never Meant to Survive
We can, however, control how much we love. I’m not talking about saying nice things and smiling and praying for people, though that’s okay. When I say love, I’m talking about listening, holding, protecting, sheltering, and standing up for peace and justice. I’m talking about determination, honesty, challenge, and a compassion so deep it creates oneness. Love gives us the courage to stand up to violence. Love reminds us, as Audre Lorde wrote in “A Litany for Survival,” that “we were never meant to survive.” All of us die, and if we die to stop another holocaust, our death will be worthwhile.
Since we are not meant to live forever, “it is better to speak,” writes Lorde, “remembering/ we were never meant to survive.”
Of course, people do survive. If we do our part, democracy will also survive. This will take healing, and only love heals. Truly and deeply heals.
A Story of Grace
While working as a chaplain on a residential addiction unit, I met with a young, white man who had been given an African American roommate. At first, he wanted me to advocate for him so he could change rooms. He gave me all kinds of reasons except the real one, that he didn’t like black people. Through this process, I saw tender and open, creating enough safe space that he could admit the truth, first to himself, and then to me. This was not easy. In doing so, he had to face his shame. He had to look at how his parents had betrayed him by teaching him to hate blacks, to blame them for the family’s struggles, to believe in the supremacy of white people, and how they themselves had been betrayed by a system that has winners and losers and that pits the losers against one another.
The young man decided to stay roommates with this black man. Over the next few weeks, he learned to appreciate and like this person for who he was beneath his skin color. The experience transformed him, hopefully for the rest of his life.
If I had, at any time in this young man’s narrative, judged him or his family, he would have shut down. If I had pointed out his fault or lectured him on racism or even suggested he read some helpful book, he would have resisted. Because I loved him and honored the dignity of his soul, he was able to heal some of the hurts from his childhood and open himself to a new way of being. There is a time for “helpful” suggestions. Advice isn’t always detrimental. Mostly, though, we try to “help” too soon. If we focus on love, we rarely go wrong.
The Arc Still Bends Toward Justice
In spite of this, I am still afraid. I wonder what will happen to this country I love, to the people I love. In the midst of this turmoil, I find hope in stories of grace such as John Newton’s and the young, white man I had the opportunity to sit with. Something works on our lives – whether God, fate, chance, other people – and I believe it does have an arc that bends toward beauty, wholeness, peace, and justice.
Of course I know that hatred and violence never end. Our struggle to bring healing and beloved community to our country and our world will never be complete. Yet, love and beauty never end, either. Over the centuries, we have become more kind and accepting, and though fearful, angry, reactionary individuals may shatter what we create, will tear down what we build, this is only momentary. We will build again. In fact, we will never cease building. We have ideas, dreams, plans, and we have love. When we come together and work together for world peace, recovery, true and compassionate joy, we will succeed. And, as a people, we will survive.
With Love and Grace, We Will Survive
We may need to rest. At times, we may grieve. Let us come together, hold one another, listen to the sadness, the disillusionment, the fear we feel. And remember that we have one another. Not all of us survive as individuals, and not all our hopes are realized, yet as a people of love and faith, who believe in justice, kindness, and taking care of one another – in taking care of everyone – we have survived for millennia, and we will survive this moment in our history, as well.
As individuals, we were never meant to survive. We may not live to see the “Promised Land” Martin Luther King spoke of. Yet each day the sun touches the clouds like fingers of joy, and each morning we wake up anew, and though people die, others are born, and the grace of this world is amazing.
In faith and fondness,
Photo Credit: “God’s Grace” by Rennet Stowe, uploaded by russavia, licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.