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"Throw Their Dirty, Filthy Ships Out of the Water!"

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This article cross-posted from Wallwritings


"Throw Their Dirty, Filthy Ships Out of the Water!"

In the 2006 movie, Amazing Grace, John Newton shouts these words at William Wilberforce, a member of Parliament who was the leader of  a 19th century fight to  force the British government to bar British ships and ports from participating in the slave trade.

The "dirty, filthy ships" to which Newton refers are slave ships which sailed from England to Africa and then to the New World.

Newton (Albert Finney) delivers his demand to his younger friend Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) at a time when the younger man was faltering in his struggle against pro-slavery members of  Parliament

This conflict is captured in precise and dramatic detail in the film, as Wilberforce and his allies in the Parliament, and from anti-slavery groups, visit slave ships and meet with former slaves.

John Newton had been the owner and captain of one of those ships. Following a major storm in the Atlantic that almost sank his ship, Newton repented of what he knew was a great sin, the mistreatment of fellow human beings.

Newton returned to England to become what he later termed, "an old preacher".  He also wrote hymns, the most famous of which was Amazing Grace, which contains the line, "I once was lost but now I am found, was blind, but now I see".

Newton had known Wilberforce for many years, constantly encouraging him to continue his long abolitionist struggle, first to bar all slave ships from English ports and then to eliminate slavery throughout the United Kingdom.

At the time pro-slavery members of Parliament argued that the slave shipping trade brought economic benefit to England. Some even maintained that slaves were content with their lot; others argued slaves were sub-human.

Amazing Grace, directed by Michael Apted, traces the friendship of Wilberforce and Newton. It also examines Wilberforce's growth as a political leader, and not so incidentally, as a friend of William Pitt, his friend who became Prime Minister at the age of 24.

Pitt was a cautious politician. He was also a supporter of Wilberforce's idealism. Another important historical figure who is not portrayed in the film, is John Wesley

When I revisited the film this week, less than a week before the United Methodist Conference opens, I was struck by a historical parallel, and most especially, I was moved by Newton's violent outburst to Wilberforce.

I found myself thinking, we are well past time to "throw this dirty, filthy Occupation out of United Methodist waters."

Of course, historical parallels are never exact. But it is not unusual for us to see moments from the past resonating with moments of the present.

The current Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is never reluctant to link the Holocaust as a moment in time which constantly threatens to reappear whenever a political action fails to go to his liking.

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James Wall is currently a Contributing Editor of The Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, Illinois. From 1972 through 1999, he was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine. Many sources have influenced Jim's writings over (more...)
 

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